The novel, as a genre, is fairly young. It’s great-grandfather, the play, is older by thirty-six centuries. (The Greeks and Egyptians were staging plays as early as 2,000 B.C.) Not until the sixteenth century did the novel—a long prose narrative focusing on characters—take its present form.
Despite its late arrival, the novel has an extraordinary history. The best novelists have shaped their societies. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin stoked a civil war. Charles Dickens helped alleviate child-labor abuses. George Eliot helped lift women above second-class citizenry.
Prophets of doom have recently complained that the reading public is disappearing. But those reports are greatly exaggerated. Novels are selling today at a very healthy clip (revenues increased 8.8 percent between 2008 and 2010*) and show no signs of diminishing.
Novels are popular and powerful. But their power to readers is not found in their popularity or their social effects. Novels pluck us up from the “real” world and plunge us into a more real world—a concentrated reality, where every shrug, heartbeat, and footfall portend the fate of nations and individuals. Great novels shuttle us into another consciousness without losing our own. As C.S. Lewis said, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.”
Enough chatter. On with the list.
10. Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham (1915). Following the lame Phillip Carey through the pages of Bondage is a lesson in empathy. He is stifled, thwarted, ignored, and rejected. His frustrations are your own, which explains why you will cheer his every effort. A classic bildungsroman.
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922). A few years before publication, Fitzgerald announced his hope to write “something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” His hopes were fulfilled. Readers adore Gatsby. The elegiac novel about the Jazz Age has generated more critical writing than any other work of American fiction and has inspired several movie adaptations including the forthcoming release with Leonardo DiCaprio.
8. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Mann set his novel in a Swiss sanatorium in 1914. The infirmary serves as a microcosm for Europe’s terminal psychosis. A high-point in the modernist movement in literature.
7. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859). After eighteen years in the Bastille, Doctor Manette is reunited with his daughter, Lucie, in England. Meanwhile, Lucie is being courted by a French aristocrat, Charles Darnay, and a turbulent English lawyer, Sydney Carton. All characters are eventually dragged toward the bloodstained streets of Paris during the Reign of Terror. An unforgettable story begun by an unforgettable opening line.
6. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1869). This book has everything: a thrilling plot (Napoleon’s war on Russia), vibrant characters (Pierre and Natasha), a sprawling vista (the Russian front), and some of the best drawn action scenes in the history of fiction (the fox-hunt is particularly riveting). War and Peace has become, for many, a synonym for the great novel.
5. Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871-1872). Its themes include the status of women, the spirit of marriage, the nature of religion, the trials of political reform, the hope of education. A masterwork of English fiction and probably the English novel of the nineteenth century.
4. Madame Bovary, Gustav Flaubert (1857). Flaubert was a relentless stylist. His prose is clear as glass, sturdy as stone, and delicate as crystal. The ever-craving Emma is among the greatest characters drawn by a novelist; the inspiration for her was found nearby. Flaubert used himself as the model, famously saying, “Madame Bovary c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”).
3. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866). From page one, Raskolikov crawls inside your brain and helps you rationally justify a murder. She’s only a pawnbroker, you think. The world, you think, would be better off without her. Killing her would qualify you as a übermensch, you think. The book chills to the soul until the light shines in. Critics prefer Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, but I prefer Punishment’s tense neurosis. A triumph of psychological insight.
2. Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes (1605, 1630). Don Quixote is widely considered the first modern novel because of its playfulness and literary invention. It’s fertility and power is still unparalleled. What other novel can claim to have generated its own adjective: quixotic? Despite many gray hairs (Quixote is 400 years old), modern novelists still find it inspiring. William Faulkner once said, “I read [Quixote] every year, as some do the Bible.”
1. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1875-1877). The sensual Anna is trapped inside a glum marriage until being spotted by the dashing Count Vronsky. Anna’s affair is contrasted with the searching and spiritual Levin who has fallen for Kitty. The two couples navigate the drawing rooms of Russian high society searching for fulfillment. Anna is unparalleled for its grandeur and insight; you finish the book proud to be human and eager to be a better one.
These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?
Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like others who studied the classics—folks like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone…
*Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, 2010.