Random Thoughts Inspired by Time’s List of 100 Great Novels

The list can be found here:

  • You know, I’ve spent the better part of the last decade reading and studying 20th century lit, and I’ve still only read 27 of the best 100 books. Where did I go wrong?
  • I’ve probably read 30 or 40 novels by Bellow, Malamud, Atwood, Cather, Cheever, Kerouac, Baldwin, Greene, Wallace, Ford, Vonnegut, Updike, Didion, and Burroughs, but none of the books I’ve read made the list.
  • In some cases, they seem to have chosen a book just to make mention of a great author who isn’t known for novels. I mean, Cheever is clearly one of the greatest American short story writers of the 20th century, but I’ve never heard Falconer described as a masterpiece. Same with the Didion and Wilder.
  • The Color Purple is NOT here, which makes me very, very glad.
  • I’m guessing that during their first discussions of this list over at Time, Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo set aside ten slots for genre writing — historical romance, hardboiled detective, Cold War spy novel, teen lit, science fiction, graphic novel, etc. I don’t know how I feel about this, except that maybe I would like to rename the list, “The 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present, Including Several Novels That Are the Pretty Good as Far as Genre Writing Goes, But, I Mean, Come On, They Ain’t Faulkner.”
  • And speaking of graphic novels, I thought we were all in agreement that Maus was the first in the canon.
  • Even with only one book on the list, I still think Steinbeck is overrated.
  • Chinua Achebe is the only African writer who has produced a top 100 English-language novel? Interesting. I’m sure Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, and Tsitsi Dangarembga will be disappointed to hear that.
  • By my count, Bellow, Philip Roth, Faulkner, Pynchon, Waugh, Greene, Nabokov, and Woolf are the authors who got two books on the list. I’ve never read Waugh, but have no complaints with the rest. Faulkner maybe should have gotten three (As I Lay Dying). We can nix On the Road to make room. And I say replace the Wallace novel with another DeLillo (Underworld or Libra).
  • My favorite book on the list is probably American Pastoral.
  • I really need to pick up a Zadie Smith novel to find out what all the fuss is about.
  • I, Claudius is a book?
  • Because so many of her novels are set at the turn-of-the-century on the plains of the American midwest, I lived for years under the mistaken impression that Willa Cather wrote novels like Little House on the Prairie. And then I read one, and I was, like, damn, Cather can write.
  • Ragtime isn’t nearly as good as The Book of Daniel.
  • Everyone assures me I would love Neuromancer, but I tried to read it once, and reading sci-fi — even great, high-minded, literary sci-fi — makes me want to close my hand in a car door.
  • The book on the list that I feel most guilty for never having read (and I haven’t read a lot of “important” novels) is The Recognitions. If I ever do get an interview for a tenured position, I guarantee someone on the hiring committee will discover I haven’t read it and, in doing so, will also discover I am a pathetic fraud. (I assume this is every young academic’s nightmare, yes?)
  • Who is Elizabeth Bowen?
  • Who is Henry Green?
  • Is Tropic of Cancer good? Or is it just, um, famous? See also: All the King’s Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and anything written by a Beat.