In 1998 The Independent published its list of one hundred "Best Books of the Century". Voting had been considerable, as was discussion both before and after. Many were outraged by the list. Here were ordinary peoples' books creeping in among those of the "educated"! Others scorned the list, pointing out that many of the books were those known to be "Set Texts" which people had read at school - the implication was that voters had remembered what they enjoyed at school, but had not read many books since.
I however, enjoyed the list. I think it has a fascinating variety. "Literature", "Best Sellers", translated material, science fiction, not to mention a few books I'd never heard of. If some of the titles are "Set Texts" from school days, then all credit to the teachers!
I was humbled to find that I had only read about 20 of this "best" 100. My degree is in English and Mediaeval Studies, so I am perhaps better read in pre-twentieth century material. I had read none of the translated material. Therefore I challenged myself to begin reading my way through the list. It will take me some time.
Latest: I've finished! After 11 years, constantly updating this page, I finished the challenge in January 2010, two of the one hundred were abandoned, and one is essentially a reference book, which continues to receive regular use. I will continue to occasionally update the "What else?" and "What next?" sections at the end of this long, long page. I'm always interested to hear from anyone on these books, and especially if anyone else out there wants to try the challenge for themselves - I heartily recommend it!
A factor in the original decision was The Complete Idiots Guide to Managing Your Time by Jeff Davidson. He suggests using your car audio to listen to books whilst driving to and from work. It's not so much a way of finding time, but a way of resenting less, all those lost hours of your life. So I bought a car cassette player after years of silent meditative driving, then a month later my car failed its MOT and was declared a "write off". But that's another story...
Below I have reproduced the list of one hundred "Best Books of the Century". There are comments where I've read or listened to them, and a word or two on a few I've not begun yet. Then, rather arrogantly, there's my own rating on the books which others have called "best".
Yuk (14 titles)
Good, but would not have been placed by me (37 titles)
Worthy of its place in the list (24 titles)
Life enhancing. (25 titles) If you'd rather see the list sorted primarily by my ratings, click here.
What can I say? I was very happy to see it here in first place despite the controversy. I haven't read it dozens of times as some do, but I've read it a few times now. Here is a book to read, to finish, and to look forward to the time when one can read it again. Here is a book from which the characters step out and lodge themselves in mind and heart. They remain there for life. Friendship, self-sacrifice and the triumph of good over evil, find them defined here.
I listened to, rather than read this. It was the Penguin Audiobooks series read by Timothy West. I found it stunning. I couldn't wait to get back in the car to hear the next bit, and I'm sure my driving was awful. What's fascinating about it, is the demonstration of mind control. All of us begin with a confidence in the integrity of our own minds - nobody can convince me that black is white. This story shows you that, given the right circumstances, anybody can be made to believe, or do anything.
Again, I used the Penguin Audiobooks series by Timothy West. Very funny, and full of insight into its parodied subject, the Russian Revolution. What worries me is that this book is inflicted upon kids for GCSE (or at least used to be a O-level text). Without a working knowledge of the events of the Russian Revolution, it would not have been so enjoyable. It's even been made into a cartoon for younger children I believe - how silly.
I'd steered clear of this one since University, having been told how "hard" it was, and having seen others give up on it. Instead, at the time I read "To the Lighthouse" (which see below) as my example of Turn of the Century "fragmentary" novel writing. It was, I was told "the same sort of thing". No! Thank goodness for the list then, I may never have encountered Ulysses. It is hard. I am glad that I listened to it rather than read it - a lot of the "work" is done for you that way, particularly when actors voices help you to follow complex conversations, and fragmented snatches of conversation. The story, of a single day, left me feeling full of wonder at the complexity of ordinary life.
Long. Strange. Took me a while to get into it and become used to the American humour. Then it suddenly leapt out and took me by the ribs. Very funny. Delightfully blunt in some of the descriptive passages, and ultimately very moving on both a moral and emotional level.
And here I proceed to trash the greatest novel of modern American literature (apparently). The novel that proved an awakening for a generation of Americans, was a bit of a snooze for me. I read it a couple of years ago, I can remember nothing of the plot. I found no sympathy for the main character, and the dialect and colloquial speech merely irritated me. Yes, I do realise that it was a "first" to have a novel written in street language, but that for me makes it an interesting statistic rather than a good book. So, millions of Americans think it's good, I think it's bad. One of us must be wrong. Paid 20p for my copy from a charity stall. Bad investment.
Oh dear. It's going to seem like I don't like American novels, isn't it? This was inflicted upon me at school, and was the book I loathed. We all have one don't we? It seemed trite, and uneventful, or at least I wasn't interested in the events. The little girl and her father seemed too sugary. A Booker prize winner I think. Boring. Twenty years have passed since I read it, so maybe it will look different now without adolescent eyes. Perhaps I should read it again. Perhaps not.
Intellectual, complex, confusing. Too many characters (all with the same name). It took me two months to stagger through this torture. I have no doubt that people will be made to "study" this. Poor devils.
A book which I had put off reading for years. What a shame. It is marvellous. Here is a book that will help you understand what it is like to be poor. Poor to the point of starvation. Not a distant abstracted kind of poverty that happens to "other" people, but the transformation of an ordinary, respectable family. Above all, the resilient human spirit shines through, right to the last page. Moving and beautiful.
Wow! Here is an education. The language appalled me, the content appalled me, but still I was gripped from beginning to end. The mind of a drug addict is a horrific place, but it was somewhere I had not been before. And suddenly comes the glimmer of understanding. Here is the reason that people take drugs, explained. Here is illustration of the drug reducing the user to a repulsive vermin, but yet an illustration which takes you with him on an empathic level.
What I knew about China before reading this, I could probably have told you in one minute. The book opens your mind to a nation, which for much of the Twentieth Century was so sealed off, that it might as well have been another planet. Whilst straplined "Three daughters of China", the story of a grandmother, mother and daughter, I found the most fascinating figure to be that of the father, a man whose principles are everything - quite literally. (You will have to read it to fathom out that cryptic remark.)
Well, a strange one. It had a cerain lyrical beauty which I enjoyed. I did yearn however for something to HAPPEN. Something does, near the end, and frankly it's a bit of a relief. To be a little trite, I found it a bit of a "girlie" book - the interest is in the characters and not in the plot.
I remember vividly being made to study an extract of this while at school. Boys passing round a conch shell in order to control debate. Having always remembered this idea, it is strange that I've never got around to reading it. Update: This is now one I've "ticked off". Over twenty years between hearing of the book and reading it. It was smashing. Another case of "Gawd Bless the Teachers".
Awful. It is utterly beyond my comprehension that this is at number fourteen. One thing about my task, is that it has left me determined to actually read books through to the finish - and I did with this, page after interminable page. Very boring, couple of men travel around America. They are degenerate and dysfunctional. There is no plot. I read it, you don't have to.
This could have been a very "clever" literary book. It's excellence comes from the fact that the writer moves on from merely proving his cleverness. He's not just saying something about the human condition as exposed in a hypothetical New World - he loses himself in the sheer fun of the "What if?" game. What would the reactions of a normal man be like if he had to live in a world where the moral values of others were the inverse of his own? What would the cost of universal human contentment be? How would those who had achieved such a state argue that the cost was worth paying?
Here is the English idyll. England as it should be, and could be, if all were as caring to their fellows, as Badger, Ratty and (my favourite) Mole are towards their friend Mr Toad. There is chapter in which the animals meet Pan - I love the magic of it, my English Teacher Training tutor hated it. The life story of the author is fascinating, his toys were "removed" by strict parents in childhood, to "enable him to grow up".
Genius level observations of the minds of young children. Like Wind in the Willows this is a book which I can't make work with modern children. What a shame. Reserve it for the adults then. If you want to hear it at its best, the voice to hear is that of the late Willie Rushton, who, in my own childhood, read it on "Jackanory". Nobody has read it better.
And could easily creep up to two gold spinners - there was another book here which got one, but stayed in the mind so much, that after a couple of months it was promoted. Comes in a purple and pink cover, with flowers, emblazoned "The Women's Press", not the sort of thing a chap would wish to be seen reading on the train... The content however is far from soppy. Starting in tragedy, it moves through humour and grace. Written in a USA black dialect, yet the language is incredibly easy and entertaining to read. Good plot, which is revealed with just the right level of cleverness - clever, but not pretentious. Marvelous characters, to become very fond of.
Might just as well be in the number 1 spot along with The Lord of the Rings to which it is the essential prelude. A favourite quotation, from the last words of Thorin Oakenshield to Bilbo Baggins: "There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."
If you like those very slow French films in which nothing much happens (well someone must) then you may like this. A chap shoots another chap, but isn't particularly bothered about it. He gets sentenced to death, though you're not completely sure why, as he doesn't pay much attention during his trial. Chapter two is worthy of note - it's Sunday, and he sits watching the street, all day - and guess what, nothing particularly interesting happens in the street all day. The best thing to say about this book? It's short, 119 pages. You can read it in a couple of hours, and forget it even sooner.
I vividly remember my first read of this. Here is magic. Furthermore, to take another story, the Christian gospel, and rewrite it as allegory without doing so transparently is a considerable achievement. The best definition of forgiveness which I know of is here too.
Well this one had me beaten. I found it baffling. It's about totalitarianism... apparently. No doubt this is one to read about before attempting. There is an excellent Joyce Grenfell monologue in which a lady watching an opera, in a language not her own, has not read about it first - she finds herself completely perplexed. I feel a little like her with this one.
I approached this with some reluctance - vague ideas about the film, which I've never watched, led me to expect a sort of long Mills & Boon. It is long, at over 1000 pages, but every one is a delight. It is a romance, but it is a strong and credible romance, with a fascinating historical setting and tremendous complexity in the characters. It gets the "life enhancing" definition due to this characterization, and due to the clarity of the text - for all its sophistication, it is exemplary in terms of "readability".
Who can forget a line like "So long and thanks for all the fish."?
The "Booker of Bookers" was quite engrossing. Tricky in places, but very Full. Full of stories, full of characters, full of life. Some of it uplifting, much of it squalid and tragic. I found the content upsetting in places. A real sense of being transported into an Indian universe.
Comment before reading: Saw a school play production of this. I found that frightening. Not really looking forward to the book. After reading: Deeply moving, and much less depressing than I had expected. I'm left with a deep admiration of the writer, for both her ability with words, and her fine intellect - it is often hard to believe this is the mind of an adolescent. It has it's funny and touching moments. Unable to do better, I resort to quoting a critic from the back cover "this hymn to life".
Clever. Takes the idea of a futuristic invention and considers its effects in terms of basic morality. Skillful use of made up language. Violent. I could see the play in it, but am left thinking that it would be best left as that - as a stage play.
Comment before reading: Curious, when I have read a lot of Lawrence, that this, which of his is placed most highly, escaped me. After reading: Not always an easy read, and rather long. My "new edition" boasts of having restored much of the original text, making it 10% longer - I feel that the earlier editor knew what he was doing! However, it was well worth the effort. It is scholarly and full of insight. Upgraded to two gold blobs, a few years after reading - it continues to linger in the mind, and the power of the emotions in the story often come back to me.
Erkhh! I LOATHED this. It is one thing to take a story, chop it up into fragments and rearrange it (randomly?) and quite another to do it to material which was utterly soporific in the first place. Like watching paint dry (in a disjointed time frame).
It is of course, rather standard to say that a Holocaust testimony should be "compulsory reading". But having read it, I say that anyway. A general idea of what went on at Auschwitz is not enough. The beauty, and the horror of this book is in its detail. The careful and balanced report of unspeakable cruelty, and the endurance of the human spirit. It should be read with The Truce with which it is now usually sold as a single volume. The Truce details the author's journey home from the labour camp, it is fascinating in detail, and the events in it range from tragic, to uplifting, and comical. I found that it had an almost healing influence, much appreciated after the harrowing (though inspiring) earlier volume. Even the appendices in which the author responds to common questions, made marvellous reading.
It has to get the two gold spinners. It is "life enhancing". Perhaps also it is damaging, due to its appalling theme. But I have NEVER read anything else, in modern literature, where the language is used so beautifully. Were it not for the theme, I'm sure this book would have featured higher in the list. I experienced this in audio book form, the reader Jeremy Irons - brilliantly done.
From the very cover, and introduction, which boast reviews both critical and damning, this book grabs the attention. It is short, and very powerful. I enjoyed it for lots of reasons - one was the plot control - many novels use time shift for effect, this one does it masterfully.
Unrated, because it defeated me. My only defeat so far. It took me 8 months to battle through the first volume and a half of the gargantuan 6 volumes. It was an exercise in self-torture. I have abandoned it. With Proust, every minute takes an hour!
In my days at Junior school, "Real books" were not encouraged. The so called "trendy" teaching of the '60's had passed them by. Amid the reading scheme books fit to kill one's reading enthusiasm for a lifetime however was the experience, age 10, of having the teacher read to us from a book of her own choice. The brand new book was "Charlie and the Chocolate factory". I loved it, and still do. A book that showed me what books could be like.
I approached this with great enthusiasm, having read The Grapes of Wrath first. It was good, though very short. Seemed to be of not even novella length. Won the Nobel Prize. Deeply sad. One gold spinner for the moment, and I will give it the test that has worked for others reviewed here - if I'm still thinking about it in a couple of months, it gets upgraded.
This is an extraordinary book. I used the Chivers Audio Book version, read by the author. In its treatment of the theme of slavery and the post-slavery era, the story touches on unspeakable depths of human suffering and triumph. There were a few parts where the writing became so mystical that I did not understand it, but for the most part, this tale kept me fascinated and open mouthed throughout.
It has taken more than two months to plod though this. It is good in places, it is like sucking cardboard in others. The surprises at the end are excellent. Very "literary" in the worst possible sense, as no doubt were the judges who gave it a Booker prize - well you can't fail to be rather pleased with yourself, once you've managed this one. It's the chapters of very tough Tennyson style poetry that really detract from it I think. About to be released as a film, which I'm sure may be very good indeed, as it will trim down to the skillfully wrought plot.
Excruciating. Fortunately, very short, a novella. When I finished this one, I actually looked it up in the Oxford Companion to English Literature (Drabble), wondering if I'd skipped a couple of pages, and perhaps missed something important in the plot. Nope. From the extensive notes: "the multi-layered indeterminancies of the novella" - no Sir, not what I'm looking for in a good read, you can keep it. Just to add to it all, the text uses paragraphs often longer than a page, something which I found a complete agony. If you were doing a study on the importance of good paragraphing, then you might want to read this - but not for any other reason.
Funny, sad and full of insight into a certain India of a certain time. A learning experience, and the only novel I can think of which has at its core such a simple, but important theme - friendship.
Comment before reading: Crumbs. The soppy one about rabbits. Bit of a toss-up between this and Deliah Smith as to what I read last! After reading: I actually enjoyed the book very much. Very easy to read, the characters grow on you (even if your garden is plagued by the devils in real life) and the story has pace. The best parts are the bits of rabbit cosmology/folklore, and towards the latter half I found myself reading on into the night in order to see what happens. I think, not really lasting enough to deserve being in the top 100, but it's a close contender.
Clever, history of philosophy in the vehicle of a (sort of) novel. Interesting throughout, and just enough in the characters to make them endearing despite the fact that it's a text book masquerading as a story. Great twist in the plot, to echo the weird and wonderful ideas of the philosophers described in the non-fictional sections. I find however that I don't actually remember much about the individual philosophers and what they said, now that I've put the book down - but if I wanted to know, I'd now know where to look - there's actually an index at the back, and I can't think of any other novel where this is true.
A very challenging read, but I'm very glad that I persevered. It's in a mediaeval monastery see, and there's this library, which is really a maze, and there's clues to a secret room, and... Wonderful. Read it.
Very much better than One Hundred Years of Solitude which appears at number eight on the list. Some great lyrical writing here and there, but an impression that it's probably better in the original Spanish. It's supposed to be a triumphant love story I think, but the eventual triumph only just outweighs the long depression of the basic plot.
I read this, to coincide with a holiday in Cornwall - slightly embarrassing to read all the stuff about "du Maurier country" without having read any of her. Slow to begin with, the story snaps into activity half way through, with quite a surprise. The narrating character undergoes a remarkable change too. I also, perhaps more so, enjoyed "Jamaica Inn" and am surprised that that does not find it way into the hundred.
A beautiful little story. Funny, sad and touching. It seems remarkable that a novel whose author has such a name, can be so very English. He was apparently born in Japan, and came to England when he was six. An amazing grasp of the spirit of the English butler, who is the narrator. I used the Sterling audio book, and as I have said elsewhere, the reader can add tremendously - Nigel Hawthorne was perfect.
Very clever, very "literary". Not too difficult to read, despite the initial horror that would come over most normal people on finding a reference to Nietzsche in the very first line. Engaging philosophical thoughts, some well wrought settings and characters. A powerful, but terribly depressing romance. But now... Please, please, may the next book I read have a story?
Extraordinary. I am writing this within minutes of having finished it, still with a tear in the corner of my eye. I have read much about the First World War, but I have never "felt" it in the way I did with this book. Whilst a thorough level of research is evident, it does not attempt to be a consciously intellectual "literary" book, it is simply a superlatively crafted tale.
Comment before reading: Clips of the film have been a real turn off. After: Another girlie one, endless soul searching in the drawing room. I enjoyed the plot, but is was awfully drawn out. What is it "saying"? England is a horribly class ridden society. Some people are hypocritical in the extreme, and treat others cruelly, but still get loved. I know these things - the prolonged consideration of them though, I find neither edifying nor entertaining. Competently written, but I was very glad to have got to the end.
Comment before reading: Never managed to force myself to watch the TV series. After: Better than I expected. I particularly enjoyed the fluent style - the author has managed to remain easy to read without losing a quality of language. My problem with it? Lack of sympathy with the characters. Aristocratic and aloof, I find I don't like any of them - and clearly one is meant to. Worth reading. If you're someone who thinks that the Royals "bring in the tourists", and that the House of Lords is a "good thing," then you'll enjoy it even more than I did.
It has taken me an incredible eight months to finish this, reading nothing other than periodicals in that time. At 1474 pages it is longer than my copy of War and Peace and is harder going, despite being written in easier language. It doesn't quite score a "Yuk" because there was just enough to hold me and thus not to be the cause of my defeat in the 100 books project. Much like a soap opera, the characters become familiar and one gains an interest in them - well, go to bed with the same bunch of people for eight months and they would become familiar, wouldn't they? However, much like a soap opera, the characters and the events in their lives, are mostly ordinary, and every day. When, after hundreds of pages, something out of the ordinary happens, it is a most tremendous relief - but little more. A glossary of the Indian terms, clothing, foods etc. is regrettably missing. Worth a miss unless you are a Coronation Street diehard.
Definitely a good read, just somehow a little short of the "magic" which for me marks a book which should belong to the top 100. Quite a long read, and I did find that I could happily put it down for long periods. I'd recommend the book, though I won't be in an immediate rush to read the many sequels.
There is only one book, ever, which made me weep. This is it. It is exquisite. Like "Romeo and Juliet" it moves from comedy to tragedy. The comedy is side splitting. The tragedy makes you feel like you've been pole-axed. At the same time, the ending is uplifting and heroic.
An extremely clever achievement. Weird and absorbing.
Hard work. A complexity and tendency to wander into philosophical and political discourse, which adds to the challenge of reading rather than the enjoyment of it. Long. Sigh...
Wonderful. I found this a real eye opener as to what can be achieved in fantasy writing. The sheer range of the writer's imagination is astonishing, and the descriptive writing is a feast. The third volume Titus Alone is very different to the first two; a slightly more challenging read, but nonetheless absorbing.
Beautiful. Another one which is inflicted on kids at 14 or 15, but which I luckily escaped at that time. It is extraordinary, mellow, lyrical, and English. Every English person should read this, to understand, on an emotional level, the rural England that was lost at the start of the 20th Century. A true treasure.
Listened to it. Enjoyable. Particularly hot on the quality of description, from the furniture of a dinner table to the horrors of the asylum. My trouble was with the narrating character. I wanted to slap her cheeks and tell her to "pull yourself together", long before the serious trouble begins. A strong female feel to the subject matter, possibly a book much more attractive to a female readership. Tell me if I'm wrong.
Good, enjoyable story. Very enjoyable plot control, and a great study for anyone asked to write using "time shift" - Margaret Atwood manages to do it in way that enhances the story, without being contrived or confusing. Definitely one which would be immediately ruined by anyone telling you "what happens" in the plot or by seeing the film. I found the science fiction "technobabble" rather weak, and therefore something of a distraction from the storytelling.
Wonderful. You can read as much World War One history as you like, but you won't get the level of empathy with those who experienced it that you'll get by reading this one. Deeply moving and inspirational, as well as being written in beautifully clear prose, which makes the business of reading very pleasant. A real education on both the emotional and historical levels.
A truly amazing plot - in fact I can think of no other book which compares with it in this regard. The plot turns, and twists, and twists and turns, over and over again, and all of it plausibly. You follow the protagonist's paranoia, never quite knowing what is true and what's false, yet the story is eventually resolved and, mostly, explained. I found that it lacked that which is for me a key ingredient of a really enjoyable story - some characters who are actually likeable - and I found it a rather long read, best taken in small chunks due to its complexity. But it was compelling, and is particularly recommended to anyone wanting to construct tales with ingenious plots.
An excellent read. Like The Power and the Glory at number 72, it's obsessed with Roman Catholic guilt issues - nobody would ever convert to Catholicism after reading these two books. The characterisation of the protagonist Pinky is truly, darkly chilling, and the "herione" Ida Arnold is a wonderful character who you warm to greatly, and who brilliantly provides a counterbalance to to moral darkness of Pinky's world - Brighton before the war. Readers of detective fiction would enjoy Brighton Rock, as there's an element of detection in the plot - it's both literary, and very readable.
Enjoyed this very much. Essentially an explanation of the philosophies of early socialism, this explained many of its tenets with enlightening clarity. At the same time, the "lessons" are set within an engaging storyline, and moments of both tragedy and humour (though black). A book that can be considered unusual, in that it is both morally important, and entertaining. It's also staggering to see how many of the social and political evils of the early twentieth century, are still unresolved in the early twenty-first. I used the audio book version read by Tony Robinson and Stephen Twigg.
If I tell you that this is "a satirical allegory on Stalinist Russia", you'll possibly feel, as I did, that you're in for a dry time. The opposite is true. It's very funny and the most surreal - in its original sense - novel I've read. Very enjoyable. I made the mistake of accidentally buying a plain version, without introductory essay or notes, and consequently I think I probably missed the detailed meaning of most of the allegory. But reading it as a story alone is enough. The Devil comes to town and mischief abounds.
Dire. The amoral characters of the 70's 80's San Francisco setting did very little for me, and I often found myself beginning a new scene and not being able to remember who this "name" was. Lots of cultural references, such as brand names no doubt intended to be meaningful, which had no significance to me. Part of a much longer series. I won't be reading it. It left me longing to read something about England.
With The Magus this establishes the author as a true literary genius. This book could vie for acceptance as one of the best Victorian novels without being written in the Victorian period. For an understanding of Victorian society and the Victorian mind there can be no better source. And if that makes it seem dry, it isn't. The brilliant insights into the human condition are conveyed within a lively and engaging tale. Thoroughly enjoyable - and forget that you ever saw that awful, awful film!
On the list I feel because it was in the bestsellers lists when the list was produced, rather than truly being of the best that the century has produced. Very good in parts, I found it rather longer than it needed to be, in order to tell its story. Liked the stencilled watercoloury cover picture - which is a genuine observation, not an attempt to damn with faint praise. Seems well researched and informative on its main theme - the Italian occupation of the Greek islands in WWII. The ending is weak and annoying.
Enjoyable. I used the Isis Audiobook version. Often billed as an anti-war novel, it's more a novel which asks the question "What's the point?" and leaves it unanswered. But it asks in many interesting and sometimes amusing ways: "Like many Americans, she was trying to make sense of her life - from things she bought in gift shops." The sections about World War II, are apparently from real experience, and the detailed and curious descriptions of events, bear this out. A worthwhile read.
This was excellent, but it is highly literary and highly intellectual. I listened to an unabridged audio book version, and it is so tough I'm not completely sure that I would have managed the real reading task, without being locked for several months in a padded cell. Parts of it went by me completely - and I'm sure that that experience would be shared by many people without a formal academic grounding in Philosophy. But other parts were accessible, thought provoking and therefore entertaining. The basic story which acts as a vehicle (ha ha) for the philosophical stuff works cleverly and smoothly. I can imagine this being a book which some would want to read and re-read many times in order to reach its incredible depths.
This was wonderful, even though I read it in snatches, in cafes and car parks, on my mobile phone in e-book format. It catches, even generations later, and a class or two apart, what it is to be English, with all the riches that that brings, and all the potential dangers. Romantic, yet at the same time both very funny and very believable.
Very funny. The adage that "the book is better than the film" or T.V. or radio version is applicable to this title in extremis. The unabridged audio book is over nine hours; the commonly available abridged versions are two and a half hours. Where the adapted versions cherry pick the "funny bits" to achieve a slapstick result, the original has a very cleverly wrought comic suspense, in the context of a good storyline. Dixon, the protagonist is not always a likeable individual, but there's just enough there to make me feel almost on his side. Some superb pieces of word-craft, which could never translate into other media - notably the description of the thoughts going through his head as he attempts to give a public lecture while completely drunk.
Fantastic. The book kept surprising me with just how good it was, the slightly silly title and the low expectation one has of the "horror" genre being off putting. But this is much, much more then "horror". It's a cracking good story, thoroughly well told, and it's a wonderful warm, funny and moving evocation of childhood. I'm sad to have finished it. I've upgraded the initial rating from one to two gold blobs, as the story has continued to linger in my mind a year or more later
Not a bad piece, though it's hard to see how anyone ranks it as among the century's "Greatest". Lots of suffering and self examination of a Catholic priest in exotic Mexico. Probably has much more meaning to a Catholic reader I suspect. Some enjoyable descriptions. The character who is the Judas parallel is very well constructed.
Wonderful. This is what a story should be. It's a great big stonking doorstop of a book, even in the curious paperback edition which I read which had virtually no page margins. Beautiful clear writing, adventure, incredible imagination and masterfully interwoven plot - it demonstrates why Stephen King is the world's best selling living author. Having enjoyed "It" so much, I deliberately saved this one til last (the one hundredth book of my challenge) anticipating a treat - and what a treat! When not reading the book, I was looking forward to the next time that I could be alone with it. It may not qualify as a "high literary" work, because it's about storytelling with all the pretentiousness stripped out, but if you want to be thoroughly entertained and engrossed, read this book. As with "It" a great sadness hits, when the read is finally over.
Wonderful. It is not quite as bleak as one might expect before reading, from its reputation, because the descriptions of the horrors of trench warfare are punctuated with episodes of "normality" and reflection. All is observed and described with vivid lucidity. I felt I'd read quite a lot about the First World War, but there were still many factual details in this work, which were new to me - he is particularly fascinating when describing how it was that veterans could increase their chances of survival under bombardment, compared to those of the new recruits - the specific skills of the infantryman in trench warfare conditions. An engaging story, and deeply moving.
Enjoyable. I listened to the Chivers Audio Book version read by Aidan Gillen - his aptitude with the Irish dialect most useful. Not much story, but brilliant observation throughout on what it's like to be a child. Continually has you saying "Yes! I remember thinking like that." To really remember how we think as children and bring that to life in this way is quite an achievement. Some humour, some shock, as this is by modern standards a "rough" childhood, and great sadness.
Well there's the bit when Miss Trunchbull takes the little girl by the pig tails, swings her round, and launches her in the manner of an Olympic hammer thrower... Shocking stuff. ;-)
I got half way through this book, then threw it away. I don't think there is any other book which I have ever thrown away. Why such an extreme reaction? I realised that I didn't want to read any more and that there was nobody I could think of who I would ever want to read it. The book contains graphic, detailed descriptions of acts of violence, more loathsome and appalling than any I've ever read, seen, or imagined. There's considerable literary cleverness in it, but perhaps everyone has the right to self-censor at some stage. I exercised mine here, when the disgust became overwhelming. I am, and no doubt always will be, baffled as to why others have rated such a book as "great".
Seedy and sordid. It's better really than "yuk" but I can't call it "good" doesn't fit such a fest of grime. It's well written, and I read it very quickly, as the style has a certain compulsion, but it's content - the "dark side of the American Dream" seen through one endless drugs binge. There are a vast number of 1970s American cultural references which meant nothing to me, and which did not induce me to care enough about to look them up on the Web. It's not as vile as American Psycho but I am no doubt too simplistic or too innocent to be able to enjoy something which is so wholly focussed on evil and self destruction. Fashionably clever no doubt, but no, this can never be called one of the hundred greatest books of the century - how silly! Unusually for a grown up novel, it's illustrated (though lightly), by cartoonist Ralph Steadman. The surreal cartoons (of people as seen through the eyes of someone under the influence of a cocktail of psychedelic drugs) are excellent.
This was a very enjoyable read, fascinating in places, incomprehensible in others - I've yet to hear any other "normal" person who's read it, say otherwise. My favourite two sentences are: "The uncertainty principle also predicts that there will be similar virtual pairs of matter particles, such as electrons or quarks. In this case however, one member of the pair will be a particle and the other an antiparticle (the antiparticles of light and gravity are the same as the particles)." But don't let that put you off ;-) My problem with it being on the list, is the general problem with non-fiction. I enjoyed reading it, but no more than the book on Nelson I read previously, or the book on prehistoric pottery which I read immediately before that. And I'm not convinced that just because it deals with amazing cosmological theories about the beginning and end of time/space (time and space are the same thing you see, because they're bent... or something) that it's actually a "great"er book than one written about Nelson, or prehistoric pottery, or butterflies or unusual uses for knicker elastic. Hawking skilfully explains how physics might begin to challenge ideas about God, but there's nothing here really that's ever going to change anyone's daily life. If the 100 Best Books are the ones I'd take with me for a lifetime on a desert island, I'm sure that most of them would have to be great stories. I'm pleased I read this, but I'll be leaving it on the ship.
Well, see my comments on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". First read to me at the same place by the same person. Teachers eh! Gawd bless 'em.
Famous for the wrong reasons. A good little read. A notch above "Beach reading" I suppose. Not really worthy of the "best hundred" though.
Smashing. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Where some of the other books on the list are "literary" to the extent of making a read through seem like work, this one romps along. The blub claims he's a modern Dickens, and that's a fair comparison. Good story, farce, tragedy and commentary on modern (1980's New York) life all in there, without losing the element of entertaining story telling. Skip the unnecessary "high brow" introduction.
Comment before reading: No? Seriously? After reading: Well, I wasn't going to read it cover to cover, but I browsed it, and decided to give it a fair test by trying to cook two things from it. You can see the results here. It is going to be a very useful tome, and I'd expect it to stay on the shelves for a lifetime. Compared however to the Dairy Cookbook which I won from the local newspaper about 20 years ago (only thing I've ever won ;-( I find myself saying "Yes, this is at least as good as my Old Faithful". She's good on most topics, includes multiple tips, but the layout is not as good as it should be. Get used, for example to the fact that the introductions to sections e.g. QUICHES AND OPEN TARTS are in a smaller, plainer font than the recipes e.g. Quiche pastry which follow. That makes them look like footnotes to the previous recipes rather than the start of a new section. I found that very confusing until I eventually decoded the typesetter's riddle. I also invested in the "Complete Illustrated Cookery Course, A new edition for the 1990's" edition, and was am very miffed to find that it is not completely illustrated. A clever ambiguous word con. The most important thing for a hapless cook like Yours Truly, is to have a picture of what it's supposed to look like at the end. It's huge and certainly comprehensive, but my final criticism is with regard to healthy eating. Delia, certainly at the time of writing was rather dismissive of such concerns, and uses phrases such as "to satisfy the demands of the health lobby" as one might now with feigned apology say "in order to be politically correct". The book, first published in the 1980s feels therefore very dated in it's disregard for concerns such as attempting to reduce meat, sugar, salt, and (crucially for middle aged men) saturated fat in our diets.
I found my copy of An Evil Cradling in a box under the table village fete. It cost me 50p. This perhaps goes to show how much the events of the hostage taking situation in Lebanon in the late 1980s have begun to be forgotten. It was a truly illuminating read, full of fascinating detail and in a narrative style which does not intrude. Human endurance in the face of gross inhumanity, is chronicled here, with moments of both humour and horror. "A triumph of the human spirit" is a clichéd phrase, but I can find no better to describe this account. There is also much here about the mind set of the young Islamic extremist - fascinating to consider in the light of subsequent world political events.
Told with colour and obsession. Moving study of inner turmoil and social repression.
This was fascinating. As a true account, there's something rather odd about it, like a chunk from the middle of someone's diary with no introduction or conclusion. But invaluable as an insight into the 1930's and into poverty and the issues (still) surrounding it. Well worth reading.
Good stuff. Short and sweet, but clearly "important" in that you can see many of the key themes of later written science fiction in their genesis here. I'm not sure it can really be one of the best hundred books though. I think its position here merely reflects its iconic status and the almost total absence of science fiction elsewhere on the list. And that must surely be the result of "literary" prejudice against it - rather potty considering how much science fiction is sold, and how well loved it is. Entertaining story, and especially worth reading alongside the short stories of Isaac Asimov.
Good in places, very funny in places, weird throughout, and utterly "literary" but in such a way that it ultimately became a bit of a slog to finish. Individual scenes and surreal events are often brilliant, but somehow the story never really seems to go anywhere, and the ending is rather unsatisfying. Probably about three times as long as it really needs to be.
An interesting read, short in length and informative. Not exactly entertainment, but then it's not supposed to be. It is interesting to compare it to If This is a Man Primo Levi. The comparison is almost impossible to make without reducing Ivan Denisovich. Perhaps such exercises are best left to the foolish.
I was sure this would get two silver blobs, then towards the end, I realised it was going to get a gold blob. Then, twelve hours after putting it down, after yet another compelling all night session with it, I understand that it is going to be one which stays with me forever. The prejudice with me, was I think, overcoming a notion that great books equal great literature, which presumes fiction. Here is autobiography, but, if not stranger, is truly greater than most fiction. It is long, but written in a very clear and plain style, to such an extent that people who "don't get on with books", would manage well. One is left with an impression of compassion, heroism and genius, in a story told by its subject with his humility intact. It is truly awe inspiring.
The only science book on the whole list I think, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It certainly deserves its acclaim for clarity of writing - it makes some highly academic scientific concepts very accessible to the reader from a non-scientific background. Why not a gold bong then for "Worthy of being on the list"?... Well, the bongs are a personal assessment, and at the end of the day, I can live without a scientific understanding of the genetic mechanisms of Darwinism... but I could never live without stories.
One which illustrates I suppose, the shortcomings of the list. Here I guess because it was well known. Much better than the plot-less film, but still remains a good concept let down by average plot and language.
A bit of a drag. Four long books, the first is a rather dull romance with seedy characters, the second is much better and very, very clever as a literary device, retelling the first story from a different character's point of view - or rather from a different, and much fuller knowledge of events, so that the narrator of the first story is revealed to have been completely duped. The third book more of the same, but by the end of the fourth book I'd had enough of the cleverness, and was yearning for a ripping yarn with entertaining or likeable characters.
Fabulous. Informative and deeply moving while at the same time being a proper storyteller's tale. An uplifting and hopeful story (brilliantly constructed as layer around a stunning tragedy) about South Africa, set in the period immediately before the Apartheid laws. The sort of book to read and then press onto others, as it does not seem to be one which many people have come across. This list is badly skewed by the best seller lists of the 1990s, and this book is from the middle of the century. It deserves promotion.
Disappointing. OK, it's probably a bit better than "Yuk" due to a fair few clever gags, but not worth two silver blobs, and a mystery to understand why people voted for it as one of the "Best Books of the C20th". Evidently it was in the best sellers list when the survey was taken. It has some witty parts, and no doubt speaks to its generation. But I found the gratuitous use of bad language and the general amorality of it to be depressing, and I disliked the self pitying protagonist intensely. "Serial monogamy", infidelity, and depression at arriving in one's mid-thirties, and being unfulfilled. No doubt there are plenty people like this, but are they interesting enough to warrant a novel about their navel gazing? No.
It has its funny moments, and many poignant sad moments. Foul language throughout, which is there if course to be "realistic" but which made the reading experience unpleasant. Hard to decide whether or not the ending is redemptive, or merely depressing.
Delightfully silly, and great, daft fun with language. My favourite part is when the Queen (yes, _The_ Queen) wakes up to find Sophie sitting on her bedroom window sill.
A real long slog. Hyper "literary" and lots of multi-lingual bits seemingly designed to frustrate. Somehow however I made it through the first half, and the storyline became a little more interesting when the protagonist found himself stranded in wartime Germany. There are some excellent character descriptions, and some very sordid unpleasant parts. I am pleased that I stuck with it till the end - I'd not predicted the final clever plot twist.
Deserves to be considered as one of the great books of the C20th. It succeeds both as great fiction, and as great non-fiction, because it brings alive one of the most astonishing and baffling series of events of world history. The extraordinary power and excesses of the first Roman Emperors, are brilliantly dramatised. The story is both long and very pacy. Edge of the seat stuff, a lot of the time.
This is great in parts, but falls down in the "adult" scenes, which come over as embarrassing rather than sensual. The essential plot, that of the rehabilitation of a horse and a girl, is very engaging. The "romantic" sub-plot acts to detract rather than enhance.
Please do e-mail me (click picture) to tell me that I've trashed your all time favourite, or advise me what to read next. Why not join me in reading your way through the hundred? Here's a plain list without my comments, suitable for printing (use the BACK button on your browser to get back here).
This section begun as I am exactly halfway through reading the hundred. I find that I'm rejecting just under half the books as only worthy of silver spinners - those which would not be on my personal list. So the questions begs to be asked: What would I replace them with? I'll note here some possibilities...
It concerns me that the early part of the century is under represented. Too many of the books are those of our own generation? Are they really so much better? I find that H. G. Wells The Time Machine is 1895, so it does not qualify on publication date grounds, but since it is so ahead of its time, I'd slip it in and hope no one noticed. And with it, I'd include his Tono Bungay 1909, funny, prophetic, and much under read.
Too easily dismissed as light comedy would be the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend. I wouldn't know which of them to miss out though, and consider them all as one story. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 is a delight, and those whom, like me had their adolescence in the 1970's will find remarkable affinities. The Cappuccino Years ends the story (for the moment?) in a deeply moving way, which, like so many of the books which I have acclaimed above, lingers in the memory.
And Fantasy/Science Fiction, again under represented in the list, due to the fact that it is always confined to a "category" is best represented for me by Julian May's The Many Coloured Land series and its sequels, still being produced every few years. The narrating character lives for several hundred years - a dangerous idea for a writer - yet she develops and sustains him brilliantly. Complex, skillfully wrought and gripping stories.
Of course the Harry Potter books by J.K.Rowling, missed the list, presumably because they were not known when the survey was done in 1997/8. They would surely have featured, probably highly. We read them aloud as a family, are true addicts, and no doubt will be among those sad people you'll see on the news queuing outside bookshops when the next volume is published. We similarly enjoyed the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. The first book Northern Lights again, should have been eligible for the list.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton was a great favourite of my childhood and should surely feature.
How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban (Illustrated by Quentin Blake) is a joy, which deserves to be more widely known. It is my absolute favourite for reading aloud to children, and works wonderfully well with large groups of children. And equally brilliant, the sniggeringly funny sequel A Near Thing for Captain Najork.
One problem with setting myself a reading list, is that while I'm plodding through, other "should reads" keep popping up. I'm jotting them here, for that day when I finally finish the 100:
Uncle Tom's Cabin (written 1850's?) and A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt are both books I've read "of" rather a lot recently.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula le Guinn, classic fantasy (trilogy and 15 years belatedly expanded to a quartet) which I read as a youth and feel the urge to revisit. I read recently of how influential it has been to the genre.
The Colditz Story Major P.R.Reid, after the film, and recent documentaries, I should look at the famous text.
The Raffles books. Stories about the gentleman jewel thief, always fancied the idea of the books after seeing the TV series in.. the 70's, 80's(?)
The Invisible Man by H.G.Wells has somehow escaped me.
The poems of John Claire (Clare?)
I've read the complete Sherlock Holmes cannon, but would like to try the tales written by Conan Doyle aspirants, among them I gather, are stories about the Consulting Detective by Stephen King, Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis.
Casino Royale by Ian Flemming, to see what the real James Bond is like.
The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, of whose life I keep reading.
Rumpole of the Bailey series by John Mortimer, having much enjoyed the television series.
The following have all been kindly recommended to me by people responding to this page:
Ben Elton Blast From The Past and High Society
Ira Levin This Perfect Day and The Boys from Brazil.
The Aubrey-Maturin by Patrick O'Brien
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
The Dr Syn stories by Russell Thorndike, were always talked of on my childhood holidays to Romney Marsh. Amazingly, for a series of stories once very popular (there was a film too), they are now out of print.
The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra
Jack Sheppard by William Harris Ainsworth
War in Heaven by Charles Williams - and also to have another go at his difficult Arthurian poems, this time with the aid of the guide to them written by C. S. Lewis.
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