50 Best Books

I’ve been considering this all week; it’s a list of the fifty novels I think I could most warmly recommend as some of my all-time best books. As the category of ‘books I’ve most enjoyed’ comprised just too many, I’ve tried to isolate here the books that have made me think, and that have remained longest with me as startling, provocative and yet also entertaining works of literature. They are not all straightforwardly pleasing, indeed some could be considered an acquired taste, but each one achieves something special and makes its own contribution to the rich world of storytelling. I left to one side all the delightful writers whose work I’ve sought out because I want to be in the world they create, but who don’t particularly exercise the mind, like William Maxwell and Anita Brookner, I’ve left out all my favourite comfort novelists, like Nancy Mitford and E. F. Benson, and I’ve had to abandon a lot of famous and renowned writers because the books I’ve read by them that I clearly recall were probably not their best work (Iris Murdoch, and Lawrence Durrell spring to mind). I also had to leave to one side some extremely good and clever writers because they only produced short stories, like Borges and Kleist. Once I started to put the list together, the one thing it really made me feel was insufficiently well-read. There are no Russian authors at all, and the Spanish-speaking world is similarly unrepresented (I loved Roberto Bolano but only read his short stories, and was very intrigued by Javier Marías, but felt All Souls was probably bettered by some of his other books). And let’s not even begin on Eastern literature – it’s just a big, black hole.

At the moment I have left the list higgledy-piggledy, like a jumble sale of books, as it appealed to me that way. But if bloggers were interested, I could revisit it from time to time to give brief synopses of the novels in more coherent groupings. If anyone has suggestions to add for more novels, I’d be glad to hear them as I’m hoping to add to the list over time and eventually reach 100.

Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes

The Outsider – Albert Camus

Letter to my Father – Frantz Kafka

The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum – Heinrich Boll

Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

Elective Affinities – Goethe

Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos

Effi Briest – Theodore Fontane

Le Horla – Guy de Maupassant

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – Rilke

The Age of Reason – Jean-Paul Sartre

Cheri – Colette

Swann’s Way – Proust

Molloy – Samuel Beckett

W or the Memory of Childhood – Georges Perec

The Erl-King – Michel Tournier

Rosie Carpe – Marie Ndiaye

The Princesse of Cleves – Madame de Lafayette

Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey

Chatterton – Peter Ackroyd

The Human Stain – Philip Roth

The Chymical Wedding – Lyndsay Clarke

The Group – Mary McCarthy

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

Human Voices – Penelope Fitzgerald

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

The Accidental Tourist – Anne Tyler

A Thousand Acres – Jane Smiley

Thinks – David Lodge

The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Middlemarch – George Eliot

The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles

The Years – Virginia Woolf

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

The History Man – Malcolm Bradbury

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

Everything Passes – Gabriel Josipovici

The Black Book – Orhan Pamuk

The Golden Notebooks – Doris Lessing

The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham

The Lover – Marguerite Duras

Honeymoon – Patrick Modiano

Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade – Assia Djebar

The Wild Asses’ Skin – Honoré de Balzac

Sexing The Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

The Mustache – Emmanuel Carrère

The Orchard – Drusilla Modjeska

The Comforters – Muriel Spark

How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff

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29 thoughts on “50 Best Books

  1. This is quite the list. In fact, I think I’m going to copy it onto a word file for easy access whenever I want to look at it for ideas and inspiration. I like lists that have some familiar names as well as unfamiliar ones, so I can get a sense of where the list maker is coming from (although I know something about that already!). And I think it’s a great idea to write some posts based on what you have here. I’d love to hear more about Beckett and P. Fitzgerald and Woolf. I haven’t yet read The Years, and I’m curious about it.

  2. Oh my, what a great selection, litlove! I’ve only read three on your list — the Carey, Tyler and Atwood titles. I’d be interested to read much more, though…

  3. I guess I’d ask, first, how David Lodge got on that list. Joking aside, perhaps you might consider:

    _J R_, William Gaddis
    _Red and the Black_, Stendhal
    _Lost Illusions_ or _Cousin Bette_, Balzac
    _The Cabinet of Antiquities_, Yuri Dombrowsky
    _Things in the Night_, Mati Unt
    _The Rings of Saturn_, W.G. Sebald
    _Moravagine_, Blaise Cendrars
    _Something Happened_, Joseph Heller
    _A Glastonbury Romance_ or _Maiden Castle_, John Cowper Powys
    _The Bachelors_, Henry de Montherlant
    _Death on the Installment Plan_, L.F. Celine
    _The Gulag Archipelago_, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
    _Camera_, Jean-Philippe Toussaint
    _Exercises in Style_, Raymond Queneau
    _The Confidence-Man_, Herman Melville
    _The Discovery of Heaven_ or _The Assault_, Harry Mulisch
    __Black Spring_, Henry Miller

    You’ve got an impressive list, and I’ll copy some titles (not Atwood, though, just not possible) over to my files.

  4. What a good idea. Far better than all these 100 novels you ought to have read or a list put together by a panel of ‘experts’, etc. Plenty holes in my reading, but that’s good. Nice to see some of my likes too, of course. Think I preferred ‘Small World’ to ‘Thinks’, but it’s more of an entertainment and you’re probably right in thinking, ‘Thinks’ makes you think more.

  5. Thanks a bunch for this list, litlove. Of these, I have only read two (Siddhartha, and The Name of the Rose) and loved them, so this post is a veritable fount of good recommendations. I’m going slowly through Swann’s Way and I love it; methinks Proust can only be read one way – slowly :) .

  6. When I read you thought you were “insufficiently well–read” I thought oh, no, if you are feeling insufficient, I’m surely going to be a mess, but happily I see I have actually read a few of the same titles (and concur they are truly excellent). Strangely I have been thinking about the sorts of books I read and had considered going out looking for a list of ‘recommended–very good literature’list and voila–here you have posted one! I will now print it out. And I tried to read the Princesse of Cleves last year, but I ended up setting it aside. Perhaps I just didn’t persevere enough. I am guessing you read it in French, and maybe the English translation I had was clunky? In any case I would love it if you posted on it (or any of the others for that matter).

  7. Very interesting list to draw on and to come back to. Have read only a handful of these. I also wondered about the Americans (Roth is there though) but maybe the literature of Fitzgerald, Faulkner or James resonates less across the Atlantic? Also suprised at that “insufficiently well-read” label!

  8. Blustocking – you have a list? A list of your top books? I hadn’t found that and should check it out. Charlotte – The Chateau is always there in my heart! I didn’t include it, though, as it didn’t quite tick the box of being a book to make you think. I’d love to know what your top ten or twenty books are – it’s almost a sickness, the way I love to add to my tbr pile! ;) Anne – I’d love to see your top books list, too! Hugs! Dorothy – I thought the to-be-read list you’d added to your blog at the beginning of the year was just splendid, so I’m delighted to have been able in some small way to return the favour! I loved The Years as I felt it was Woolf at her most accessible. I found it a beautiful book (and would love to know what you think of it if you ever read it). Kimbofo – I would love to read your list of top books. I think our reading experiences have been very different, but whenever I read your reviews I end up wanting to read the books concerned! JB – David Lodge is there because I like him. Thank you for the fantastic suggestions – I’ve read most of the French, although the Celine I know is Voyage au bout de la nuit, and I don’t think I own that particular Toussaint – but you enjoyed all the works of his you read, right? I would very much like to read the Sebald, and I’m most intrigued by John Cowper Powys; they could definitely be added into this first half of the year. Bookboxed – I very much enjoyed Small World, too, and you have my reasoning quite right. These books here just represent my taste, which won’t suit everyone, but at least I didn’t feel there were books I was ‘obliged’ to add or authors I had to cover to be suitably erudite! It’s a great freedom of blogging. Emily – yup, I’m British, but I get a teeny bit of extra credit for branching out onto the Continent and over the Atlantic, right? ;) Polaris – you are so right. Proust’s seven volumes are called In Search Of Lost Time for a good reason! But it’s very much part of his philosophy that the vast amount of time we ‘waste’ socialising, falling in love and reading, is not in fact time lost but the very fabric of being. I’d love to see your list of best books too! Danielle – the Princess of Cleves has a very offputting start. There’s a lengthy chapter that goes into the lineage of the family (I think), anyway, it’s a cast list of dozens of people, most of whom are irrelevant. After that, things pick up a lot! But you do have to get into that book, so I’m not surprised if you set it aside. I would love to see your ‘best of’ list, although I can only fear the damage it would do to my TBR piles! :)

  9. Pete – sorry, your comment came in while I was replying to the others. I considered Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and The Aspern Papers and Washington Square both by James, but none of them really ticked my box of being thought-provoking novels. All three tell good stories, and take you interesting places, but I was looking for books that posed questions of a broader nature. Faulkner I have never read, and most probably never will. For some reason he doesn’t appeal. I also notice that I have a personal preference for the kind of Continental novel that has a psychological-philosophical basis. When I’ve been looking for French novels in translation on the amazon.com site, I’ve been interested to note how little this appeals to the American mentality (there are many complaints of implausibility or eccentricity or of being plain ‘weird’). So there could also be cultural differences embedded in the reading experience.

  10. Hello Litlove, this was a treat to read just as I come back from holiday. Some wonderful titles here and many I have not read – so that means I will be doing much the same as Dorothy and keeping a hold of your list for future inspiration if my TBR piles ever run dry or if I want to try something new.

  11. Oooh. I’ve only read 17 of these. I have no idea what novels I want to read this year. Just no idea. Had no idea since before Christmas. Been reading only non fiction for the past month. So this gets printed out right away and will surely lead me to something that appeals. By the way the ones I have read include The Orchard, which I bought after your wrote about it. I absolutely loved it. Very different. Very disconcerting. But very accessible and moving.

  12. What a fun list and a great idea! How about adding some Calvino? I’d also love to know what you thought of Mishima and Murakami. And you definitely need to read some Sebald sometime. I think you would really like him.

  13. A very rich source of ideas! Thanks.

    How about ‘To The Lightbouse’ as one for the 100? (It would have made my 50, but then I have far, far fewer books to choose from!)

  14. Wonderful list, and I’m going to copy it for future reference, too! I’m happy that I’ve read a bunch of these, and agree with you on the ones I’ve read. Especially Middlemarch, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Golden Notebook, Flaubert’s Parrot, The Remains of the Day, The House of Mirth, A Thousand Acres, The Human Stain. These are all favorites of mine, too. So of course I’m now off to figure out how to borrow a copy of Meg Rosoff’s book, as I’m trying to keep to my New Year’s resolution about not buying new books–at least through January, so I don’t seem a complete flake :)

  15. I have read 21 of those on your list, so am feeling quite smug with myself. But there are definitely others on there that I will make a note of! The Josipovici, Madame de Lafayette and The Orchard for starters…

  16. Fabulous list. Thank you! I can see I need to get reading. Meanwhile, don’t know if you’ve tried and failed, which is fair enough, and I would never urge anyone to read something she didn’t like, but if you want to add some Russians, I’d suggest starting with Crime and Punishment (I actually failed miserably the first time I tried it, but when, for some inexplicable reason — pure cussedness, I think, because so many people talked about it, and I didn’t want it to defeat me — I decided to try again, it blew me away!).

  17. Verbivore – did you really say, ‘if my tbr piles ever run dry’….? Is that the same as when hell freezes over? ;) Still, it’s lovely to have you back with us, and it’s always nice to inspect other people’s lists, isn’t it? I’d love to see your best books. Jean – I am so very glad you enjoyed The Orchard. I just loved that book myself. I think it’s nice to be plan-free and open to anything, it’s just I can’t stop myself from making plans (even if I don’t always follow them). If you read any particularly good non-fiction, will you let me know? I’m interested in reading widely in that field at the moment. Stefanie – those are such great suggestions, thank you! I want to get hold of the Murakami book, What I Think About When I Am Running, or whatever it is. And this year, must be the year of Calvino! Lokesh – I do love To The Lighthouse and was stuck deciding which Woolf to include. I noticed another blogger discussing Orlando recently, and I would very much like to read that, too. Gentle Reader – you are doing so well with your resolutions! My idea to buy just one book a week from a bookstore rather multiplied… oh dear! ;) I think the Meg Rosoff is a wonderful choice – the most dramatic and heart-gripping book I’d read in an age when I read it. I’d love to hear how you get on, if you manage to mooch it! Musings – 21 is very impressive! I think people’s reading is so particular that any one person’s list will contain a whole load of books many others haven’t even heard of. If you ever wanted to do a best books list, I, for one, would love to see it. Emily – for you I will not dismiss Faulkner. Perhaps I’ll try Light in August, as I haven’t heard of that one. Emily – thank you for that wonderful suggestion. I have The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov sitting in the pile by my bed, so will probably begin there, but everyone ought to tackle one Dostoevsky novel in their lives, right? When that time comes I’ll search out Crime and Punishment in your honour. :)

  18. What a great term that is! Devilish hard to recommend for, but ah, sweet satisfaction when you do connect the right book. I’ll look out for a mention of what you’re reading one of these days.

  19. I’d recommend a contemporary Russian, Victor Pelevin, also, probably The Clay Machine Gun. Not too many people have thoughts like the following:

    “Watching the hot sunlight falling on the tablecloth covered with sticky blotches & crumbs, Andrei was struck by the thought of what a genuine tragedy it was for millions of light rays to set out on their journey from the surface of the sun, go hurtling through the infinite void of space & pierce the kilometres thick sky of Earth, only to be extinguished in the revolting remains of yesterday’s soup. Maybe these yellow arrows slanting in through the window were conscious, hoped for something better- and realised their hope was groundless, giving them all the necessary ingredients for suffering.”
    From ‘The Yellow Arrow’

  20. Gosh, so many books I have never read and a fair few I have never even heard of! It will be a valuable resource next I need inspiration for a new read, although that will be some time off given the height of my ‘books to read’ pile.

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