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The 100 best novels, in 1898

November 13, 2013

Here’s a list of the 100 best novels ever written, as chosen by Clement K. Shorter in 1898. Tyler Cowen sent his readers there to be amazed at how many we’d never even heard of. It’s true and amazing in that Ozymandias way that a lot of them are completely obscure to me. About 70 of the 100 titles came out in a period of 50 years, and Shorter limited himself to one book per author, which makes it less surprising some have faded.

It’s also interesting to see how many things on the list have held their spot in the canon. The three Russian novels listed are the three most likely to be taught in a college survey course. Most of the French and American ones I’ve either read or heard a lot about. And the books and authors that I know primarily because they were important to nineteenth-century Russian writers are all there: Gil Blas, Tobias Smollett, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth. All except Tristram Shandy, that is.

I’m actually in the middle of 2% of Shorter’s picks right now: Ruth and Trollope’s Barchester Towers. Leskov and Pisemskii didn’t make the cut, though.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2013 12:28 pm

    That’s funny, I’m in the middle of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), also important to nineteenth-century Russian writers, especially Dostoevsky, for whom it was childhood bedtime reading (!). Let me take this opportunity to plug Muireann Maguire’s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature, which anyone interested in Russian literature and its connections to the Gothic should read.

  2. November 16, 2013 8:37 am

    Update: I have given up on The Mysteries of Udolpho, at least for the time being. Having read many chapters of scenery description and moralizing, I have only just reached the foothills of an actual plot, and have decided life is too short. Maybe if I get the flu sometime and am in the mood for a very leisurely read I’ll get back to it.

  3. between4walls permalink
    November 16, 2013 9:17 pm

    #12, The Vicar of Wakefield, was inexplicably the sole full book that my father read in school in India. Everything else was out of a reader. I have no clue why this was special enough to make an exception.

    33. The Betrothed, is considered The Great Italian Novel, so that’s another one that’s held its place.

    The compiler of the list was apparently quite the Turgenev fan; when discussing why he made the list one-per-author, he wrote, “It would be easy, it is true, to cut the knot by naming some twenty-six novels by Scott, some sixty by Balzac and Dumas, and a dozen by Turgenief, and thus providing the hundred in an instant. The delightful editions of Balzac and Dumas that we owe to Mr. Dent and the edition of Turgenief that comes from Mr. Heinemann, would satisfy all conditions with regard to translations.”

  4. between4walls permalink
    November 16, 2013 9:20 pm

    Re: Trollope, have you read his Palliser/Parliamentary series? There are bits of Phineas Redux that reliably sends (good) shivers down my spine, which is unusual for Trollope, and “The Prime Minister” is quite psychologically interesting.

  5. November 18, 2013 10:09 am

    I haven’t – I’m actually reading Trollope for the first time. I’ll put the titles you mention on my list too, as I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading more of him.

    Thanks for that quote from the compiler! I wouldn’t be surprised if someone today wanted to list multiple novels by Balzac or Turgenev, but I didn’t expect to see Scott and Dumas in the same company.

  6. November 18, 2013 10:21 am

    That’s funny, I just downloaded The Warden from Project Gutenberg for my Kindle in preparation for the next time I need to switch books for my bedtime reading to my wife. (We’ve just started A Dance to the Music of Time, so it’ll be a while, but it’s good to be prepared.) I enjoyed BBC adaptation “The Pallisers” back in the ’70s, and I’ve always wanted to read Trollope.

  7. between4walls permalink
    November 20, 2013 12:57 pm

    Scott is massively underrated these days, though. More interesting than Balzac, in my limited experience. And absolutely brilliant with pacing.

    The Trollope/Pallisers reading order I would recommend is:
    1. Phineas Finn
    2. Phineas Redux (which needs the background from the first Phineas book)
    followed by the Eustace Diamonds if you like the mystery elements or the Prime Minister if you like the political elements. Can You Forgive Her? and The Duke’s Children I don’t like as much as the others, but ymmv.

  8. November 20, 2013 1:10 pm

    I tried reading Ivanhoe but found it clunky and tedious; perhaps I’ll give Scott another chance one day (maybe The Heart of Midlothian? I’m a sucker for city novels).

  9. between4walls permalink
    November 24, 2013 11:45 am

    I’ve only read Ivanhoe and Waverley (enough to discern that Scott is very fond of the Useless Protagonist trope and that the awesome girl of a different religion always gets away). Ivanhoe in particular I found extremely funny (deliberately so) and very well paced with clever use of point of view. Though he is completely unable to differentiate between Slavic and Anglo-Saxon gods. Waverley is rather less good on pacing as it was his first.

    Next up for me is Old Mortality, and I have a hankering to read his very weird Crusades novel someday. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Midlothian, but it doesn’t sound like my thing personally.

    So are Russian Scott-imitators more fun than Scott? Who do you recommend?

  10. November 24, 2013 11:55 am

    Zagoskin’s 1829 Yuri Miloslavsky (translated as The Young Muscovite, or The Poles in Russia) is quite enjoyable.

  11. between4walls permalink
    November 24, 2013 5:34 pm

    Thanks! Going on my reading list.

  12. December 10, 2013 8:35 pm

    I’ve seen worse lists. The snub of Moby-Dick for the 1851 choice of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is historically interesting. The Flaubert choice is unusual. And no Lautréamont? Tsk, tsk, I guess he was waiting for the surrealists to discover him in the next century.

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