This was written over seven years ago and may be out of date given both time and the volumes of literature Vox Day seems to go through each year. However, having seen this some years ago. I set myself a long-term goal to read all these works which I finally completed this month. What follows will be some brief commentary on each one.
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
I finished reading this over four years ago and absolutely loved it. It is truly brilliant and no praise I’ve read before or after has exaggerated War and Peace‘s greatness in literary history. I wrote some posts related to it around the time and it has even inspired further reading on this historical period to this day. This is one I’ll certainly be re-reading some day when I have the opportunity. I will likely read a different translation when I do. I also read Anna Karenina ten years ago which was also a wonderful work.
Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
This is one I’d been meaning to read since my early twenties but I’m glad I didn’t until recently. I can’t pretend to have had the same pleasure reading Eco as Vox has but while challenging, it was still a fascinating read. I found myself frequently lost in the legions of literary allusions but there is no hint of conceit in his writing as there are with some lesser writers who do the same. Eco just has tremendous ability and extensive knowledge that comes through every page. I have The Name of the Rose sitting on my shelf which covers subject matter more to my liking but I do intend to read this again one day too.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I read this book over a decade ago and I have forgotten a great many details. It is high up on my list of books to revisit and is on my shelf (by chance next to The Name of the Rose) and ready to go. I read The Brothers Karamazov the same year I also read War and Peace. What I can say (which is also true of Tolstoy), is I have rarely found novels as emotionally moving as I found both of these works by Dostoyevsky.
The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu
I began and completed The Tale of Genji early last year and wrote a lengthy post on it. I am absolutely in agreement with everything Vox has said about it. If you consider yourself highbrow when it comes to literature and you haven’t read this, then move it to the top of your list immediately. I have bought two related commentary and historical books since and intend to get another translation to read it all again.
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
I have read these twice and am just about finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring to my son after reading The Hobbit to him first. I enjoy reading to my children but I often have to be intentional about it so as not to lose the daily habit. This hasn’t been the case since I started reading these books again though as I’ve been keen to get back to reading every night for myself as much as for him. A lot has been said about these books and Tolkien so I don’t have much to add. I have noticed an increasingly irritating fashion to consider these works overrated in recent years. I reject this and believe this is born out of both professional jealousy from less talented writers as well as the desire to take and invert the good in these books. They are truly great works as the legion of (mostly) terrible imitators and continued popularity should attest. I’m not sure I’d call them the greatest literary works of the 20th century but they’re definitely up there. I’d be remiss not to remind readers that the blog’s name comes from Tolkien as well.
The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse
This is the second last book on the list that I finished about a month ago. It is the only work by a German on the list and I believe the only modern German work I have read apart from All Quiet on the Western Front. The books in this list are all unique in their way but I’d never read anything remotely like The Glass Bead Game before. It has a very odd mix of genres being a science-fiction work but also a biography of the fictional Joseph Knecht. This moves through his life as an academic at Castalia a place of elite learning. The additional poetry and short stories that accompany the main work were also very good and all could easy stand alone. The only criticism I have is what I found to be an unsatisfying and somewhat abrupt ending. It wouldn’t be in my personal top ten but I very much enjoyed reading it.
If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino
Of all the books on the list, this is the one I enjoyed least but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. If on a winter’s night a traveler took some time for me to get into and I’d say really grabbed me by the half-way mark. Like Foucault’s Pendulum (maybe an Italian thing?), I would like to pore over this one again before reaching a firm opinion. One unique aspect is the use of the second-person perspective which is not commonly done — certainly not well either. More importantly, Calvino does this very well. He also really captures the structure of each genre he traverses throughout the book.
Watership Down, Richard Adams
I read it for the first time a few years ago and once more since and it has quickly become one of my favourite novels. I have even created and taught an English program based around it. It is interesting to think how many great and enduring works were born from someone simply writing for their children. Being a story about a group of rabbits for Adam’s two little girls might put off older readers but is is far more sophisticated than a simple children’s work. When planning to teach it, I read it more closely than I would as a casual reader and drew out a great many themes that are very human and enduring. I also learned an awful lot about rabbits and have become quite fond of them. As an Australian who grew up thinking them a pest fit only to be exterminated, this is quite a turn-around.
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Yet another that I need to… revisit. I read this a good while ago (certainly before I began writing this blog), and need to read it again. I also worry my memory might have been clouded by watching the beloved BBC adaptation. This is often recommended in Catholic circles though I’m not quite sure why given the subject matter. To come to a firm opinion either way, I’d have to read it again though. One thing I will say is it is yet another work that it vividly captures a time in history and the humanity within it.
The Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse
The very last book on the list and the last I read — completing it earlier this week. Before reading this I read a few of Wodehouse’s short stories and the novel that immediately preceded this Right Ho, Jeeves. I didn’t realise this until I started reading this one when it referenced events from that novel. From the few I’ve read, they all stand on their own so you can pick up from anywhere. Wodehouse’s ability to take a contrivance such as an antique silver cow-creamer and draw a hilarious sequence of events out of it is very underappreciated. It is rare for novels to set me laughing out loud but this novel sometimes had me laughing from sentence to sentence. The ending was simply perfect and wrapped up the absurd events neatly. Yet more evidence that most paperbacks in the early 20th century are most sophisticated than most “highbrow” stuff today.
I haven’t put together my own top ten but I’d expect that five of these would probably be included if I did. There are a few observations I want to make. There are four works by English authors on the list and all of them were living around the same time. The two Italian and two Russian authors were also alive at the same time. The one Japanese author is the most divorced from all living a millennium earlier and from an entirely alien culture. I will add that Calvino does do an brilliant imitation of a modern Japanese work that I could well believe was written in Japan. The one German author wrote in the twentieth century which also makes up the time period of the majority of the works listed (7/10). That only four of ten were written in English is a low number considering the natural bias one has towards one’s own language and culture though I understand Vox can read the Italian works in the original. There are no American novels though Vox is American, but there are few that compare with most of these works.
There is no real pattern to draw out of this. Depending on your definition, the novel is a newer art form if you date it strictly from the 18th century. As Vox suggested, you could argue that The Tale of Genji is the first and some might put Homer’s Illiad forward as the first.
I would recommend all of these novels to anyone not already familiar with them. They are all good reads though (as with me), they might not all be strictly to your taste. The fact that I have (or want to) read them all again should be praise enough as I rarely read the same book twice.