Metalist: List of book lists

Thousands of other book lists must be out there. I was list obsessed, in recovery now. I am. For those of you who like me like lists of books, this post has it covered. It kicked around for a long time, fermenting. No further ado–the list of lists:

The Meta-List

The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction

This incredible list was compiled by Larry McCaffery largely in reaction to the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list(1999), which McCaffery saw as being out of touch with 20th century fiction. It appeared first in the September/October 1999 issue of American Book Review. The annotations are excellent and brief. Of the lists that are here, this one shaped my reading of the past 2-3 years more than any other. Click that first link.

William H, Gass’s ‘Fifty Pillars’

In A Temple of Texts, William H. Gass identifies the following fifty works as outstanding and provides brief commentary on them. Gass is, of course, a learned professor of philosophy and the author of some of the finest contemporary prose that is being written. Occasional parenthetical comments are Gass’s, quoted directly or paraphrased. Note the equal weighting of philosophical and literary texts — a balanced reading regime.

Plato, Timaeus

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics

Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (unequalled English philosophy prose)

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

S.T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (the greatest work of literary criticism ever)

Paul Valery, Eupalinos, ou l’architecte (trans. William McCausland Stewart)

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia: Urne Buriall, or a Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk (see “The Triumph of the Ornate Style” in A History of English Prose Rhythm, by George Sainstbury)

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Virginia Woolf, Diaries

Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End (the Tietjens tetralogy; Some Do Not as well)

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

Ben Jonson, The Alchemist

James Joyce, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

Beckett, How It Is and “Ping”

Jose Lezama Lima, Paradiso

Julio Cortazar, Hopscoth

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Franz Kafka, A Country Doctor and Other Stories

Herman Broch, The Sleepwalkers and Death of Virgil

Italo Svevo, Zeno’s Conscience

Gustave Flaubert, Letters

Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet

Stendhal, The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma

Colette, Break of Day

John Donne, Poems and Sermons

Friedrich Holderlin, Hymns

Stephane Mallarme, Un coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard

Ezra Pound, Personae

William Butler Yeats, The Tower

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium

Henry James, The Golden Bowl

Henry James, Notebooks

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Gertrude Stein, Three Lives

William Gaddis, The Recognitions

John Hawkes, The Lime Twig

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters

Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

Susan Sontag’s “art prose” triad

In this interview with Michael Silverblatt, Sontag discussed her essay ‘Where the Stress Falls,’ which is about the following three books, how they in a way share certain structural and stylistic elements. I’ve read all three, and they are all fantastic and worth the read.

Glenway Wescott, The Pilgrim Hawk

Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights

Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution

I would add to this short list a few other first-person narratives written in an equally beautiful, detached, and reflective style: Walker Percy, The Moviegoer; Joseph McElroy, The Letter Left to Me.

Film-maker John Waters’s favorites

Michael Silverblatt’s interview with Waters brought up these five of his favorites, which I think he talks about in his book Role Models.

Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies

Christina Stead, The Woman Who Loved Children

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Darkness and Day

Denton Welch, In Youth Is Pleasure

Elif Batuman’s Russian favorites

In interview with Michael Silverblatt, Batuman named these Russian masterpieces the must-reads.

Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Pushkin, Eugene Ogenin

Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

Isaac Babel, Cavalry Cycle

Chekhov, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard

Gogol, Dead Souls

Goncharov, Oblomov

Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

Platonov, The Foundation Pit or Soul

Belei, Petersburg

’61 Essential Postmodern Reads’

This list compiled by the LA Times for their “pomo month” back in 2009.

‘Donald Barthelme’s Syllabus’

This one appeared in a piece by Kevin Moffet in The Believer in Oct 2003.

Joseph McElroy’s bookshelf

This list was compiled by me from essays by and interviews with American novelist Joseph McElroy referenced in various places. Some annotations.

Wikipedia’s list of book lists

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  • Gass’s list though including a high percentage of undisputed literary greats is also highly subjective and idiosyncratic, (as are all such lists). His claim that Coleridge’s Biographia is the greatest lit. crit. ever is a good example of such subjectivity. Coleridge along with many readers throughout the world at present would nominate Browne’s ‘Urn-Burial’ by far a greater work of philosophical prose than anything produced by Hobbes and his rather dehumanizing politicized agenda.

    Not sure if *unequalled is your or Gasse’s typo. ‘Definitive’ lists can only really be compiled only after decades of reading, so hats off to Gass for that, might make one myself, but thanks for copying and pasting this list to share anyway. The fact that Gass names few American authors from the past two centuries is not so very surprising.


    • Absolutely subjective, yes, but well thought-out. I haven’t read Biographia Literaria or a lot of the other classics here, but I have read parts of Urn-Burial after learning about it and its author through my readings of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I didn’t realize it until you pointed it out, but, yes, there are very few post-WWII works here: John Hawkes, William Gaddis, Julio Cortazar, Samuel Beckett, José Lezama Lima, Borges… not many. Which is probably as it should be, given how many great works were written in the long history that precedes us. In any case–merry reading to you, sir! — Jacob

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