Way back in January 2010 Time magazine drew up a list of “the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923—the beginning of TIME”: All-TIME 100 Novels:
The parameters: English language novels published anywhere in the world since 1923, the year that TIME Magazine began, which, before you ask, means that Ulysses (1922) doesn’t make the cut.
Richard Lacayo and Lev Grossman used this approach in drawing up the list:
Grossman and I [Lacayo] each began by drawing up inventories of our nominees. Once we traded notes, it turned out that more than 80 of our separately chosen titles matched. (Even some of the less well-known ones, like At-Swim Two Birds.) We decided then that we would more or less divide the remaining slots between us. That would allow each of us to include books that the other might not have chosen. Or might not even have read. (Ubik? What’s an Ubik?) And that would extend the list into places where mere agreement wouldn’t take it.
They end by acknowledging that there are many titles not included “that we’re still anguishing over.”
I never did anything with this list when it first came out, but I come across references to it often enough that I thought it time to do the math.
This is the key to my list:
Books I’ve read: 45
Books that are on my classics reading list: 3
A – B
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
I read this in college in a course on the contemporary novel.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
This is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it as either a junior or senior high school. It was the book that made me realize how all the pieces of a well-crafted novel fall together.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
I read this in graduate school.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Like just about every other American kid, I read this in high school.
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
I read this when my daughter was young. It’s more of her generation than mine, but I wanted to be able to talk about it with her.
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
Atonement by Ian McEwan
I read this with a book group when the paperback edition came out.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
I can’t believe I still haven’t gotten to this one.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
I’ve read this one twice: It’s that good. (The first time was for a book group; the second time was on my own.)
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
I read this one for my in-person classics book group.
C – D
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth
Catch–22 by Joseph Heller
I read this on my own early in my college years.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
I’ve read this several times, most recently about a year ago for my in-person classics book group.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
One of my book groups read this not long after it came out.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
This one’s on my personal to-be-read list.
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
I can’t remember if we read this in high school or if I just think we did because I’ve heard of it so much.
A Death in the Family by James Agee
The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
Deliverance by James Dickey
I read this one after seeing the movie.
Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone
F – G
Falconer by John Cheever
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
I read this one on my own soon after college.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
I read this in college.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read this in college, again in graduate school, and again a few years ago before the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio was released.
H – I
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
The Heart is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
I read this one several years ago in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of American literature.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
Herzog by Saul Bellow
I read this one in a course on contemporary literature in college.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
I read this after seeing the PBS version starring Derek Jacobi.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I read this in a college course.
L – N
Light in August by William Faulkner
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I’ve read this twice, once in a college course and again later on my own.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
We also read this one in high school.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein
I devoured this one on my own soon after graduating from college.
Loving by Henry Green
Although I haven’t read this, it looks like one I would enjoy.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
I read this one in college in a course on the history of the novel. I reread it on my own many years later.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Money by Martin Amis
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
This one is on my TBR list.
Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
Native Son by Richard Wright
I read this in an introductory literature course in college.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
I read this one quite a few years ago when I decided that I should become at least a little familiar with current science fiction. I was delightfully surprised by how much I enjoyed it as a modern quest story.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I read this one not long after it came out.
1984 by George Orwell
Again, this is one that I read, probably along with every other American kid, in high school.
O – R
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
I read this one on my own when I was filling in the gaps in my reading of American classics.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
I read this one on my own while in college during the 1960s.
The Painted Bird Jerzy Kosiński
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
I read this one while on a Nabokov reading kick between my junior and senior years of college.
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
I read this one in college.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Another one that I read while in college in the 1960s.
Possession by A.S. Byatt
I’ve read this one twice, on my own both times.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
I’ve read this one at least three times, the latest time within the last year or so for my in-person classics book group.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
This one I read soon after publication. A friend gave me a hardcover copy for Christmas.
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
This one is waiting on my TBR shelf.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
I read this one recently for the online Classics Club.
S – T
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Here’s yet another classic that I read on my own during college in the 1960s.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
I also read this one during my mid-life attempt to introduce myself to contemporary science fiction. I liked this one, but I liked The Diamond AGe even more.
The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
I read this once in college and once again much later.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
This is one I read not long after it came out.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
I read this several years ago for a book group.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
One of my book groups read this quite a few years ago.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I don’t remember when I first read this, but I’ve reread it many times over.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
I read this in a college course.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
U – W
Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Watchmen by Alan Moore,
White Noise by Don DeLillo
I haven’t yet read this one, but it’s on my TBR shelf.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jeanne Rhys
This is the August selection for my in-person classics book group, so I’m counting it as read because I’ll be reading it in the next couple of week.
And what have I learned from doing this assessment?
First, I’ve read fewer than half (45) of these “all-time best” novels. Even if I read and add to the total the titles on my classics club reading list, I’ll still be under half (48).
Second, of the listed novels that I have read, I read most of them in my high school, college, and early adult years. Maybe I had better radar then for good books. But I suspect that the real reason is that many newer books haven’t yet had time to prove themselves as classic novels and therefore are not included in this list. (One notable exception to this speculation is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.)
Third, however I look at the situation, one thing is clear: I have A LOT more reading to do.