Thursday, November 14, 2013

This just in: a nineteenth-century list of the hundred best books

Clement K. Shorter,
pictured in Vanity Fair (1894)

November is the start the inevitable best-of list-making season. With the holiday season immediately ahead, lists of books, films, and other cultural markers of a year's swift passing are a way to gently nudge the recent memory of culture-just-past. At the very least, lists are a reminder of how much annual creative effort goes unheeded, even with the best of intention and a bedside already crammed with books. (As if just reading The New York Times Book Review isn't enough already, filled with reviews of books-I-really-should-get-around-to.)

The idea of list-making of course is not new, but the amount of "great books" and "essential reading" trumpeted at years' approaching end has always been overwhelming. The Times Literary Supplement, in London, upped the ante in October: a best-of list, from 1898, of 100 essential novels from one well-meaning correspondent, certainly one whose bedside stack never contained a celebrity tell-all or pop-star confessional.

A journalist and author of numerous books on the Brontë sisters named Clement K. Shorter tried his hand at compiling the 100 Best Novels for a journal called The Bookman. The ground rules were simple: the list could feature only one novel per novelist, and living authors were excluded. The Times columnist who unearthed the list, Michael Caines, makes some well-founded remarks about the inevitable vagaries of literary taste, and about our contemporary passion for championing younger -- presumably living -- authors. 

Caines also adds some long-view comment about Shorter's choices  ("would you have chosen Silas Marner over Middlemarch?") and titles of special interest. The list is worth a browse if only to see how much there is unread, just to catch up to the 20th century.

Shorter's top 25 best books of all time,1898. The full list is at the Times Literary Supplement

1. Don Quixote - 1604 – Miguel de Cervantes

2. The Holy War - 1682 – John Bunyan

3. Gil Blas - 1715 – Alain René le Sage

4. Robinson Crusoe - 1719 – Daniel Defoe

5. Gulliver’s Travels - 1726 – Jonathan Swift

6. Roderick Random - 1748 – Tobias Smollett

7. Clarissa - 1749 – Samuel Richardson

8. Tom Jones - 1749 – Henry Fielding

9. Candide - 1756 – Françoise de Voltaire

10. Rasselas - 1759 – Samuel Johnson

11. The Castle of Otranto - 1764 – Horace Walpole

12. The Vicar of Wakefield - 1766 – Oliver Goldsmith

13. The Old English Baron - 1777 – Clara Reeve

14. Evelina - 1778 – Fanny Burney

15. Vathek - 1787 – William Beckford

16. The Mysteries of Udolpho - 1794 – Ann Radcliffe

17. Caleb Williams - 1794 – William Godwin

18. The Wild Irish Girl - 1806 – Lady Morgan

19. Corinne - 1810 – Madame de Stael

20. The Scottish Chiefs - 1810 – Jane Porter

21. The Absentee - 1812 – Maria Edgeworth

22. Pride and Prejudice - 1813 – Jane Austen

23. Headlong Hall - 1816 – Thomas Love Peacock

24. Frankenstein - 1818 – Mary Shelley

25. Marriage - 1818 – Susan Ferrier

As Caines wryly notes, Shorter then bent his own rules by including 8 additional novels by living authors, “writers whose reputations are too well established for their juniors to feel towards them any sentiments other than those of reverence and regard,” in Shorter's own words. If you make the rules, you are free to break them just as well, although it is not noted whether Shorter's recommendation of the 1881 novel Mark Rutherford by W. Hale White created any rush to the booksellers. 

No comments: