How do you know which books you should read? This is the question that I pondered the other day as I searched for some new summer reads for my holiday. In this search I stumbled across an article in The Guardian entitled “The 100 greatest novels of all time”. (You can read the list here) Great! I thought, there must be some I’ve read on here. On the list, the novels range from Clarissa by Samuel Richardson to Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Hmmm. I’ve never heard of the first one and the only Tom Jones I know is the Welsh hairy bloke that women throw knickers at when he sings on stage – but somehow, I don’t think this list quite refers to this version.
Anyway, as my heart sank, it got me to thinking about these 100 greatest novels. I mean, what really does make a novel great? Does the fact that we can’t quite understand it make it great? Should it be a high-brow classic to be great or will a fast beach read count? Is it the theme it tackles? The way it is written? It’s complex characters or plot? I think different novels mean different things to different people – what works for one doesn’t always work for another (step forward Fifty Shades of Grey…)
So, in this quest for greatness I’ve decided to compile my own short list of best books, a top ten, if you will. Take a look and see what you think. For me, the books below are ones that I haven’t been able to put down and that have stayed in my head long after I’ve finished them – and that, to me, makes a novel great. Are these the kind of books you view as great? Or are the novels in the top 100 article more your thing? And what makes a novel great for you? Let the count down begin…
My top ten books (in no real order, sort of):
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee – An all-time classic whose themes are still so relevant today.
- Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen – Beautiful story and insightful account of old age
- My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle, Marcel Pagnol – not strictly a novel, but an all time favourite of mine. It’s an account of Pagnol’s childhood in Provence, France – atmospheric, magical. You can almost hear the cicadas.
- Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt – so well written, it was a book that stayed with me for a long time afterwards.
- Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller – sharp, dark, cracking plot, amazing characterisation.
- 1984, George Orwell – has to be on the list. ingenious, a book way, way ahead of it’s time and one that still influences society today. Big Brother and Room 101, anyone..?
- Keeping up with Magda, Isla Dewer – on the list because it’s a book I re-read when I need some calm and imagine I am by the sea. Cracking characters, great writer.
- Tell no one, Harlan Coben – The master of a thriller, this is his best book, bar none. Fast, intelligent – and the film’s just as good (french with subtitles)
- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte – ahead of it’s time, Bronte devised a novel full of humour, sharp cultural observation and poignancy. It surprised me how much I loved this book.
- The History Boys, Alan Bennett – alright, so it’s a play, but I have the book of it. The script of the play reads so, so well in book format – I couldn’t put it down. Relevant themes, rounded characters, lashings of wit – highly recommend.
What makes a book great for you? Do you have your own top ten? Or do you prefer to let your preferences change as you go along?
**Look out for Wednesday Wafflings where I post my latest entry of my Diary of a Hopeful Author**