The Books Around Me

At a recent wine club gathering (look at me being social!), the conversation turned to books we’ve read, ones we should have read and the “classics” that have disappointed. For instance, I can’t figure out why Wuthering Heights, Portnoy’s Complaint, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or The French Lieutenant’s Woman are absolute musts, though I have sneaking suspicion that Meryl Streep has something to do with at least one of them. Innovation could be a culprit with Lady Chatterley’s Lover—it was certainly shocking subject matter for the time. I think the novelty of style has a lot to do with Portnoy’s Complaint, as it was probably quite unique when it was written. While critics at the time found it to be one of the funniest works of American fiction, with the passage of time and much duplication of style, it lost something for me. And yes, I realize that if I like Californication, I should enjoy one of its literary predecessors. All I can say is that watching the antics allows for the touching and human elements to shine through and bring balance to the absurdly lewd tone in a way that isn’t always possible for me to experience as a reader. Now while I think my opinions are obviously correct, I do recognize that others may find my favorites somewhat less than inspiring, as well (fools).

What many of us did admit was that when faced with the choice between picking up one of the unread, older classics and pop literature (or chick lit, in my case) that we tended toward the latter. It left me wondering why that is the case. Is the ease of language the reason? Are the topics of modern novels more relatable? It isn’t the happy ending—pop literature has its share of tragedy. What makes reading The Thing About Jane Spring (which I think is quite subversive, actually) less valued to the BBC than Jane Eyre (which I actually love)? I used to think it was the test of time, but as you can see from the list below, Harry Potter novels haven’t been around for very long. Is it commercial success? There is no denying that an entire generation of kids (and, admit it, adults) have embraced them, and anything that brings people back to reading should be applauded (unless they involve sparkly vampires, and then I’m just too old to get it). What makes a novel a classic?

When the BBC began the debate on the top 100 books that everyone should read (, they claimed that most had only read six of the top 100. I’m happy to say that from the sampling of the room, we had far surpassed that (go team), but there are still many I have not yet tackled. Conquering the list became a goal of mine two years ago, and with this year off, I’ve rededicated myself to exploring the “must reads.” Last night I grabbed Brave New World. Aldous Huxley, you have been warned.

This is the most recent version of the list that I could find. I don’t give myself points for films I’ve seen if I haven’t also read the book (for instance, I’ve seen Dracula countless times, but never read the novel). Unlike the BBC, I give half points: I’ve read much of Shakespeare’s work, but not every piece (and I thought it was interesting that Hamlet received a solo mention at the end). Full disclosure: I have only read 52 of these to date (and still can’t believe they didn’t choose On the Beach for Shute instead). How did you score?

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen 
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien 
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling 
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee 
6 The Bible 
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte 
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell 
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman 
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens 
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott 
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy 
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller 
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare 
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier 
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien 
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger 
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger 
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot  
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell 
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald 
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens 
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy 
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams 
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck 
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll 
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame 
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy 
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens 
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis 
34 Emma – Jane Austen 
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen 
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis 
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden 
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne 
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell 
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown 
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving 
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins 
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery 
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy 
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood 
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding 
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel 
52 Dune – Frank Herbert 
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen 
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens 
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley 
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon 
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck 
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov 
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt 
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold 
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas 
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac 
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy 
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding 
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville 
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens 
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker 
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett 
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce 
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath 
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray 
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens 
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker  
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro 
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert 
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White 
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom 
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad 
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery 
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams 
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas 
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare 
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl 
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo 


If you don’t like this list, try: This list is from Penguin Classics, and while you will see many books overlapping, it does give you a slightly different take. I have much more work to do with this list—I’ve only read 40.

While I’m not certain that I will manage all of the novels I have missed before the year is over (I could be swept off my feet by a handsome stranger any time now), I’m willing to give it a shot.


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