October 13, 2011

Inquiring Minds Want to Know--Your Current Top-Ten Greatest Works of Literature?

A couple of times a year I make a list in my journal.  I ask myself the following question--
"If I had to list my top-ten greatest works of literature of all time right now, what would they be?"
Obviously, this list morphs and changes over time as I continue to discover and read books that are new to me.  Interestingly enough though, there are a couple of stalwart hangers-on that have continued to occupy spots on my list.  So, what's on my list at this particular moment?  Well, here 'tis--
The Iliad, by Homer
The Oresteia, by Aeschylus
Beowulf, by Anonymous
Complete Poems, John Keats
Villette, by Charlotte Bronte
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Complete Poems, Emily Dickinson
The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
Okay, there's my list.  I'll even share a little 'blurb' about each book telling you why it made my list, and why I hope you'll pick it up and give it a go sometime yourself.

The Iliad--More than three-thousand years old, these sixteen-thousand lines of poetry lyrically tell the greatest story ever told; and, at the same time, it is also quite possibly the greatest anti-war testament to be found in the canon of the world's greatest literature.  Spell-binding and compelling from start-to-finish, this epic poem by the itinerant bard, Homer, is a 'must-read' for any serious reader.  I highly recommend the translations of Robert Fagles (1990), Robert Fitzgerald (1974), and Richmond Lattimore (1951).  I am reading a translation by Stanley Lombardo (1997) that completely lends itself to the oral tradition of Homer, as Lombardo has created an interpretation that is meant to be recited aloud and listened to.  I have Stephen Mitchell's brand-new translation sitting on the shelf waiting for me too.  Stay tuned! 

The Oresteia--This trilogy of tragic plays by Aeschylus was first performed over 2,500 years ago in an outdoor amphitheater near Athens.  While it is something bordering on near-miraculous that it has survived nearly three millenia--the only surviving trilogy from antiquity--what is of even more import is what these plays say and what they document and may have set in motion for all of civilization.  These plays recount the grim and dark tragedy of the ancient Greek House of Atreus, and the shift from the "Code of Blood Vendetta, or Vengeance" to the "Rule of Law," introducing the new concept of a trial by jury and pronouncement of judgment and justice.  This is nothing short of monumental, and simply must be experienced.  I highly recommend the translations of The Oresteia by Robert Fagles (1977), Ted Hughes (1999), and Alan Shapiro and Peter Burian (2003), and while I've not yet read it, I hear that the translation by Peter Meineck (1997) is superb as well.

Beowulf--This was incredible!  Beowulf is an epic poem of nearly 3,200 lines that was first written down in old Anglo-Saxon--the 'Mother-Tongue' of English--about 1,300 years ago.  I have only read the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney's, translation (2000) and it is spare, sparse, and gritty, and is presented side-by-side with Anglo-Saxon original.  The plot of this elegiac poem was absolutely epic.  The horror of Grendel and his Dam was palpable; and the heroism of Beowulf and his spear-fellows timeless.  Finally, the ability to carefully study Heaney's translation, alliteration, and interpretation of the poem and then to be able to compare it to the old Anglo-Saxon bordered on surrealistic.

Complete Poems of John Keats--In my opinion, Keats was the "Bright Star" among all of the poets of the Ages.  I weep when I think of what the world lost when John Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 26 on February 23, 1821, in Rome.  This poetic giant left humanity with a treasure of the likes of Hyperion, The Eve of St. Agnes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ode to Psyche, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Lamia, Endymion, and The Fall of Hyperion, and a significant number of other breathtakingly beautiful poems .  It somehow comforts me to imagine Keats, even now, scribbling away in poetic fervor, in the "western halls of gold" with Apollo, his voice joined with that of the nine Muses, and "We listen here on earth:/The dying tones that fill the air,/And charm the ear of evening fair."  Read Keats, and prepare to be left breathless, but, oh, ever so alive!

Villette--My short letter to Miss Charlotte Bronte upon finishing my first reading of her profoundly powerful last novel, Villette:
'This novel, this Villette, like an arrow fletched fair, flew true, oh so true, and pierced your beating heart; and from that mortal wound poured the secrets of your soul, your inner-most being; laid bare for all to see.  The incalculable loss of your older sisters, then Branwell, your dearest Emily, and finally quiet little Anne.  This towering testament to loneliness, to sorrow, swept me, your Reader, relentlessly through the unimagined torrent of your human emotions—your grief, your fears, your reserved passion, your quiet grace, steadfast loyalty, and your resolute strength and faith.

I felt guilty as I read, Miss Charlotte, looking over my shoulder at every pause; afraid that you should somehow find me picking the lock of your secret diary; spellbound as I turned the pages, one after the other, reading your most intimate, personal, and painful thoughts and the passionate feelings that poured forth onto the page. Intensely captivated by the dialog between your Passion and your Reason, the conversations between your Imagination and your Matter; but I read on. Until it simply became too much; I averted my eyes, and I wept.'
With each re-read, I find that this novel still affects me on a personal and an emotional level like no other work of fiction I've encountered to date.  Read Villette.

Middlemarch--At first blush, one has this sense of simply being immersed in a rather quiet and pastoral story, but there's really very much more going on here as one turns the pages.It is a story of rural England during the period of great reforms in politics, religion, agriculture, manufacturing, medicine, and even transportation.  Mostly though, it is the story of human beings, and what it means to be human.

This is a stately, sedate, sophisticated, and complexly elegant novel.  It really does demand the reader's full dedication and attention as it is read too, much like I found when I read her last novel Daniel Deronda.  Boy, was it ever worth the extra effort though.  When I finished reading this novel, for the first time  earlier this fall, I realized that I had arrived at a point in my reading and comprehension that I finally understood what Virginia Woolf meant as she described Middlemarch as "...one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."

Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson--My description of Dickinson and her work that I used in an earlier blog post (here) is still pretty much spot-on.  Emily Dickinson, the 'Belle of Amherst,' may have been quiet and even painfully shy, but there was a nuclear reactor's worth of power contained within this woman's genius that was able, through her brilliant use of a few simple joined and arranged words, to create a body of work of nearly 1,800 poems that perfectly pulsate and throb with the essence of Life.  As a companion to Dickinson's The Complete Poems, I highly recommend Helen Vendler's Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (2010), in which she showcases Dickinson's "...startling imagination and the ingenuity of her linguistic invention."  All I can say is that Dickinson's poetry has resonated and stayed with me my entire life!

The Return of the Native--As many of you know, I love the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy, and one of my very favorite Hardy novels is The Return of the Native.  The novel contains more than a superficial nod to the great choric scenes of the Greek tragedies, as well as the gatherings of commoners like many of Shakespeare's dramas.  The novel's primary characters are locked together in a tale of passion, drama, pathos, and tragedy where, in typical Hardyan fashion, only Fate, Chance, and Irony exert any control whatsoever.  Like a moth is drawn to a flame, the reader is inexorably drawn into the tale, and recognizes with growing horror that full release can only be attained through reaching and experiencing the novel's shocking climax.  The lyrical descriptions of the environment, the role of the humans in it, and the interactions between the characters quite reminds me of the great modern American novelist, Cormac McCarthy (the next author on my list!).  The Return of the Native is Hardy's Naturalism at its finest; and becomes an almost poetic homage to the interaction of the human species with one another as well as with the Earth Mother herself.

Blood Meridian--This ain't an easy book to read.  This is an uber-violent novel that paints a picture of the west like something done by Hieronymus Bosch.  I think Harold Bloom got it exactly right when he said,
"The violence is the book. The Judge [Holden] is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby-Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake."
All I can tell you is that I have read this novel several times, and each time I find myself somewhat ensorcelled, and in an almost evil or grimly terrifying sort of way, as I turn the pages.  It may be the bildungsroman of 'The Kid' and his adventures, but there is absolutely nothing nostalgic or romantic about the American West that McCarthy paints in this novel.  Somehow though, I think this novel is incredibly important, and only Cormac McCarthy could have written it.

Cold Mountain--With this novel I have come full circle with my list and return to Homer, if you will.  I completely agree with the widely held opinion that Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain is the American Odyssey. This is an extraordinarily beautifully written novel that tells the story of Inman, a Confederate soldier, who is physically and psychologically worn out from the horrific combat of the American Civil War, and undertakes a trek back to his home in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina.  Frazier's ability to connect the reader with Inman, the people he encounters, and the environment through which he travels is amazing, and it is accomplished through some of the most poetic and lyrical prose I've read in a long, long time.  Simply put, this is just a gorgeous novel to read, and it fully deserved the National Book Award for Fiction that it received in 1997.

Well, there it is.  My current list of my top-ten favorite works of literature, and why I chose them.  Have you read any, or all, of these books?  If so, what did you think of them?  Also, the bibliophile (and 'list-maker') in me is very interested in your top-ten list.  I'd love for you to leave me a comment with the list of your top-ten favorite great books.


  1. Great post. I can't wait to read some of the works on your list. Especially the Greek works.

    Keats, Dickinson, Cold Mountain... I cannot wait. I've tried Keats and Dickinson here and there, but not yet the complete works.

    I absolutely agree with you, on Villette. It was like reading her diary. So exquisitely sad.

    My personal top ten, so far? (I'm not scouting for comments! Only sharing.) :-)

    Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

    Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets by William Shakespeare

    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    Atonement by Ian McEwan

    A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

    Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

    Villette by Charlotte Bronte

    Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray - (currently reading!)

    It's a list in progress. I haven't read much yet, so I'm sure it will evolve. :-)

    Leaves of Grass needs to be on my list too. But I've only read the first half, so far.

    I love this idea.

  2. Jillian, without comment or judgment let me say that your list of favorite great books is simply superb! I can tell you that several of them have been on previous lists of mine, and quite likely will reappear in the future (e.g., Shakespeare's Sonnets, any or all of Austen's novels, etc.). Believe it or not, I have yet to sit down and undertake a scholarly read of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." That I simply must remedy soon. I have dipped into it, and read sections higgledy-pigly. I do think it a hugely important part of the American canon.

    Thank you so much for your lovely comment, and for sharing your thoughts on the books important to you. Have a wonderful weekend, Jillian! Cheers! Chris

  3. I have never taken to Cold Mountain for some reason. Great list!

  4. Cela, I can relate to that, for sure. For example, I read Frazier's follow-up novel, "Thirteen Moons" and it was definitely a 'meh' kind of read for me. It just didn't click. I picked up his third novel the other day in Costco, kind of looked at it, and then set it back down again. I hope he'll write something, for me anyway, that equals "Cold Mountain." Have a great weekend, and I'll drop by for a visit tonight and see what you're up to on your blog. Cheers! Chris

  5. While I don't have a top ten list of "Great Literature" ... mostly because I haven't made much progress reading "Great Literature" ... I appreciate your notes about your top ten list. When I feel the urge to expand my literary horizons, I will use your list as a guide for my next great read. :)

    I can import my favorite fantasy reads, those I re-read every couple of years:

    The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien
    The Chronicles of Narnia by Lewis
    Mordant's Need by Donaldson
    The Saga of Recluce by Modesitt
    and finally my latest favorite (which I haven't had a chance to re-read but definitely plan to):
    The Wars of Light and Shadow by Wurts

  6. Jon, the great things about books and reading, is that the terms "great" and "favorite" are completely subjective and quite personal. In other words, it really only matters what has been a really good reading experience for yourself. As I have grown older (an hopefully more mature ;-), I have come to realize that my taste in books and reading is always different than that of other folks, and that there's no right or wrong in that. This is precisely what makes blogging about books so much fun! I get to tell all of you what's important to me, and I get to hear from all of you what's important to you! It is a win-win, for sure, and I typically get turned on to some fine new books to read at the same time. Have a great weekend, and thanks for stopping by! Cheers! Chris

  7. ...and a P.S., Jon--

    "The Lord of the Rings" is nothing short of epic! My father read the trilogy aloud to us as children, it was really one of the formative book-related experiences in my life, and I will forever hold Tolkien and his books near-and-dear in my heart! Cheers! Chris

  8. I cannot believe that, aside from the Keats, I haven't read any of these! Of course, based on the works' reputations and the authors, I'm sure you're onto something. I do own most of these, and The Orestia is actually on my 'soon' pile...

    @Jillian - I have a hard time with Vanity Fair. It was definitely ground breaking and important for its time, which is the point, but I really DID NOT like it. I would definitely, definitely put Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

    My list (off the top of my head, so allow me some leeway here!) would look something like this:

    Tolstoy - War and Peace
    Maugham - Of Human Bondage
    Hugo - Les Miserables
    Melville - The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
    Carroll - The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland
    Fitzgerald - Tender is the Night
    Steinbeck - The Grapes of Wrath
    Twain - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    Orwell - 1984
    Wilde - The Picture of Dorian Gray

  9. Sterling list of books, Adam! That's what makes these kinds of lists so interesting to me, each of us has a different, and equally valid, perspective. I thought long and hard about including "Les Mis" on my list this time (it has been there before, and likely will be there again); especially as I am currently reading the new Julie Rose translation. I think Tolstoy's "War and Peace" is another that probably would (could...should?) make most top-ten lists. Thanks for stopping by, Adam, and leaving the comment. Cheers! Chris

  10. If I had to give you mine right now, I'd say...

    Homer - The Odyssey

    Pierre Choderlos de Laclos - Dangerous Liaisons

    Alexandre Dumas - The Count Of Monte Cristo

    Joseph Conrad - Heart Of Darkness

    F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby

    Truman Capote - In Cold Blood

    Philip K. Dick - Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

    Haruki Murakami - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles

    Dennis Lehane - Mystic River

    Anthony Neil Smith - Choke On Your Lies

  11. Great list, Ben! I've read them all, with the exception of the Smith and Murakami. I can see why these are faves of yours. Thanks for the visit and your comment. Cheers! Chris

  12. I'm glad to see Villette on this list. I feel as though it is really under-appreciated.

  13. "Mostly though, it is the story of human beings, and what it means to be human."

    I really like that thought about Middlemarch, and I most certainly agree.

    Your comments really make me want to read some of the other titles on your list - the only other one that I've read is The Return of the Native. I'm going to plan on reading that after or at some point during my study of the Greek myths. Speaking of . . . I went to a charity book sale last night and guess what I found?!?! A wonderful two volume box set of Graves' "The Greek Myths" published by the Folio Society! I literally gasped when I saw it. Of course, it came home with me. :)

    Thanks for this list and your comments.
    I'm now also eager for Keats and Dickenson.
    Ah, so many books . . . .

  14. Nicki, thanks for the lovely comments! I am so excited for you over finding the Folio Society two-volume set of Graves' "Greek Myths"! Enjoy! I was able to find that same set on Amazon, and just received it in the mail last week. It is gorgeous, with all of the wood-block prints illustrating it. Wonderful to hear from you, my friend! Cheers! Chris

  15. What an amazing list! The only one I've read is Cold Mountain (the one book my in-laws agree on after 50+ years of marriage), but have a bookmark in Middlemarch as I type. Ancient Greeks have always intimidated me. Must read Vilette and more Hardy.

    Off the top of my head, my list would include:
    Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
    East of Eden - John Steinbeck
    The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner
    The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
    Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
    The Cairo Trilogy - Naguib Mahfouz
    Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

    I need to think about this some more... it deserves a whole post!

  16. This is an awesome post. My list would definitely include:

    Faust by Goethe
    Lolita by Nabokov
    War and Peace by Tolstoy

    I know if I really try to make a list of 10 I'll think too much about it and it will take forever, but I know those three would absolutely be on there.

    It's fun to see other people's lists too!

  17. I've read Middlemarch three times and I'm pretty sure that would make my number one spot, if not number two.

    Other than that I've only read Beowulf off your list. I was so-so on that one.

    I like what you've done here, listing your top ten "current" greatest works of literature. I"m going to have to ponder my own.

  18. Brenna, thanks for your visit and comment. I have only read Middlemarch once, but I look forward to rereading it again and developing a long-term relationship with it like you have. I also look forward to seeing what your "current" top-ten list looks like at some point. Cheers!

  19. I haven't read most of those, but I am suprised about Cold Mountain being in your top 10. I loved it, but I don't think it would even pop into my head when I was thinking about what my top 10 would be. Maybe its because im not american and american people would appreciate more than elsewhere?

  20. Oh and I meant to say I enjoyed reading your explanations for why each made it to your list. I will definitely need to think about it before I hazard a top 10, but I think Jane Eyre would be on it.

  21. Well, that's it: I'm reading Villette this month. I have never got through it, and it is NOT that I disliked it in any way, but because for various reasons I kept getting interrupted. I won't be interrupted this time.

  22. @O--

    Awesome! I am so glad that you will be taking up Villette again, you shan't be disappointed, I promise! It is an exquisitely beautiful, and painfully emotional novel to read, but ever so worthwhile. Please, please do let me know your impressions upon finishing it. Cheers! Chris