I’m always looking for good books, and especially for “Great Books,” which I treasure both because I have conventional tastes and because being familiar with them is like knowing the landmarks in a city where I’m trying to make my way.
Here are some lists of the most prominent landmarks in literary fiction; the books on these lists—particularly the books on the first two—have given me some of the happiest hours of my life.
Harold Bloom, although a controversial figure because of his stand against the politicization of literary criticism, must be the most credible critic since Dr. Johnson. I imagine he’s assimilated a larger portion of world literature than any other living human being—it’s widely reported that he’s able to read a page of text in seconds and retain what he’s read with an almost photographic level of recall; if anyone’s “read everything,” it’s him. (Bloom also has a special place in my heart because once, in a masochistic mood, I had the audacity to send him a sample of my work—he didn’t offer an opinion of the work, but he was otherwise nice to me, even though I must have been just one of the many gadflies a person of his prominence has to swat away each day.)
The link above goes to a list of the books which, in his opinion, constitute the western canon. He sorts the list into four eras; the contents of the first three are uncontroversial. More interesting is the fourth era, which he calls the “chaotic age”—this comprises the literary landmarks of the last century, about which the critical consensus is not entirely settled. It’s easy to identify the classics of previous centuries, but it’s daunting to search among the millions of books from the last hundred years for the ones that are most worth reading. This list is a valuable guide.
My father bought this book for me when I was in college; it’s the single most useful resource anyone has ever given me—I still refer to it when I’m looking for something to read. Almost 400 literary writers are represented, each with a one-page bio, a list of major works, and a photo. A great springboard, and you can buy it for $0.40. (It’s also a good supplement to Bloom’s list, because it showcases a number of writers from the East.)
Two literary critics at Time Magazine list what they believe are the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923, when the magazine was founded.
A similar list, but compiled by poll, and not confined to the English language.
A critics’ list side-by-side with the results of a(n obviously thrown) reader poll.
And, for what it’s worth, here are my top ten favorite books (in no particular order):
Borges: Collected Fictions
War and Peace (Tolstoy)
In Search of Lost Time (Proust)
Dickinson: Collected Poems
To the Lighthouse (Woolf)
Mason & Dixon (Pynchon)
Malone Dies (Beckett)
Pale Fire (Nabokov)
Shakespeare: collected works
I hope my colleagues in WiT, and anyone else who happens by, will comment with lists of their favorites.