Nothing (1926), Doting (1950), and Blindness (1952) by Henry Green. Green was the pen name for British industrialist Henry Vincent Yorke, whose kaleidoscopic, impressionistic novels (including cryptic plots and sentences without articles or verbs) have drawn comparisons to fellow high-modernists Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Monet. Blindness details the terror of a blind young man confined to a room by his wife. Doting (a comedy of adulterous near-misses) and Nothing (about two ex-lovers whose children are getting married) consist almost entirely of pitch-perfect dialogue.
The List of Books
We awarded points for each selection – 10 points for a first place pick, nine points for a second place pick, and so on. Then we totaled up all the points and ranked them accordingly. Here are all the books ordered by the number of points each earned. In the parentheses are the initials of the authors that selected them and the points earned. Click on their initials to see their list.
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (1951). The son of a Russian aristocrat who was assassinated for his belief in democracy, Nabokov had a preposterously privileged childhood, including teams of governesses and servants and sojourns along the Riviera. When the Bolsheviks arrived, the family was forced to flee amid a hail of bullets. Later, as a student at Cambridge, Nabokov confronted those who romanticized the politics that exiled him. Ricocheting through time, space, and subject matter as it delves whimsically into the author’s literary influences and the minutiae of family history, this is a masterpiece of literary memoir.
The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904).Great chess players used to test their skills by playing several matches at once. A similar sense of multiple levels and strategies animates James’s final completed novel. An impoverished Italian prince marries the daughter of a fabulously wealthy American art collector, who in turn marries the daughter’s best friend, who was once (unbeknownst to father and daughter) the prince’s lover. James examines one of his signature themes—the terrible vulnerability of love to betrayal—in this vertiginous, psychologically acute work.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948). This novel tells the story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity. When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis develops the foundation of a story by turns suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984). This Prix Goncourt–winning work might now be considered an early “fictional memoir.” Drawn from Duras’s life in prewar Indochina, it tells the story of the ill-fated love between a young girl and her Chinese lover. Lyrical, imagistic, and structured in cumulative short passages, Duras combines the beautiful and the terrible in this slim, compelling novel.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990). A Vietnam vet, O’Brien established himself as a chronicler of the war in nonfiction works such as If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and his National Book Award–winning novel Going After Cacciato (1978). In this, his crowning work, a character named “Tim” narrates a series of stories about himself and other young soldiers in his platoon who wrestle with the decision to go to war, walk through booby-trapped jungles, miss their loved ones, and grieve for their fallen comrades. Using simple, emotionally charged language, O’Brien explores the moral consequences and conundrums of the war through daily details, such as the things soldiers carry in their backpacks, and timeless issues, especially the scars they will always bear.
Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997). A finalist for the National Book Award, this literary page-turner is about the second half of the twentieth century in America and about two people, an artist and an executive, whose lives intertwine in New York in the fifties and again in the nineties. With cameo appearances by Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Thompson, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, it has been called a “dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.”
Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ by C. S. Lewis (1952). In this, the third book of The Chronicles of Narnia, King Caspian sets sail to the end of the world to rescue the seven lost lords of Narnia. Along with three English children—who have come to Narnia this time by stepping into a painting—and other companions such as the brave, sword-wielding mouse Reepicheep, Caspian has numerous adventures that resonate with Christian and classical mythology.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945). Waugh was one of the twentieth century’s great satirists, yet this novel, widely considered his best, is not satiric. It is, instead, an examination of Roman Catholic faith as it is used, abused, embraced, and rejected by the Flytes, an aristocratic English family visited by alcoholism, adultery, and homoeroticism.
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973). Winner of the 1973 National Book Award, Gravity's Rainbow is a postmodern epic, a work as exhaustively significant to the second half of the twentieth century as Joyce's Ulysses was to the first. Its sprawling, encyclopedic narrative and penetrating analysis of the impact of technology on society make it an intellectual tour de force.
Native Son by Richard Wright (1945). Set in Chicago in the 1930s, this novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African American twisted and trapped by penury and racism. Bigger is on his way out of poverty when he accidently murders his employer’s daughter, a white woman. In this highly charged, deeply influential novel, Wright portrays a black man squeezed by crushing circumstances who comes to understand his own identity.
Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger (1953). Salinger gave his story collection the title Nine Stories, and that simple, enumerative title is just right, for the stories can be counted off like beads on a string: “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” whose last line, “I was a good girl, wasnI?” never fails to break the reader’s heart. The pitch-perfect voices Salinger provides his characters make their dead-serious search for meaning taste like candy.
The Ambassadors by Henry James (1903). Middle-aged Lambert Strethers is sent to Paris to retrieve a young American whose wealthy parents fear he has taken up with an inappropriate woman, but Strethers sees that the young man is truly happy. Gradually, Strethers finds his flinty provincialism chipped away by Europe’s ease and freedom in this novel whose signature line reads, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”
The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988). “It is Jane Austen crossed with Chekhov and Turgenev,” observed A. S. Byatt of this witty domestic novel set in Moscow on the eve of war and revolution. In the spring of 1913, Frank Reid’s wife leaves him and their three children to return to England. Frank, who was born in Russia and runs the print shop his British father founded there, deplores change. Character, not plot, rules Fitzgerald’s fictions; with subtlety and insight she reveals him navigating his new circumstances (and hoping for his wife’s return) while dealing with a host of vividly drawn, often idiosyncratic characters.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). During a car trip, Stevens—a career butler who has existed at once on the fringes and within the bird’s nest of the British ruling class—reflects on his lifetime of service to the late Lord Darlington. Blinded by his devotion to “duty,” he cannot admit that his late master was a fascist sympathizer and cannot see that he has forfeited the possibility of leading his own life. Now in old age, Stevens faces a sense of loss without the emotional acuity to comprehend it.
A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1961). An Indian man living in Trinidad, Mr. Biswas is a tenant in some houses and an unfavored relative in others. All he wants is a home of his own. His adult son narrates this story of his monumental search for a home and all that implies. The quest becomes a metaphor for the displacements of postcolonial life in this novel that, while filled with poverty and loneliness, is also a teeming, comic epic of Hindu life in Naipaul’s native West Indies.
Airships by Barry Hannah (1978). Barry Hannah can make readers laugh about the grimmest subject while never for a second losing sight of the essential horror. In this story collection, the Mississippi writer creates a cast of scarred, hyperkinetic characters—including a Confederate soldier recalling the tragedy and glory of war to a contemporary man obsessed with his estranged wife—who are stumbling toward illumination.
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925).Clyde Griffiths wants to be more than just the son of a Midwestern preacher. Leaving home, he follows a path toward the American Dream that is littered with greed, adultery, and hypocrisy. The brass ring seems close when he wins a wealthy girl’s love, but then very far away when a factory girl he impregnated demands that he marry her. In this disquieting social novel, Clyde faces a moral dilemma that reveals the corruption of his soul and the materialistic culture that seduces him.
Answered Prayers by Truman Capote (1987). Unfinished and perhaps unfinishable at the time of Capote’s death in 1984, this roman à clef was his savage chomp at the hands that fed him—the manicured, diamond-freighted hands of Upper East Side socialites and assorted New York celebrities. Bitchiness, bile, and sexual braggadocio vie in this gossipy, literary vivisection of high society.
Total Points: 10 (DC 10)
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606). One of Shakespeare’s late Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra has a sense of fading grandeur about it, as the great warrior Antony succumbs to the exotic luxuries of Egypt and the heady sexual powers of her queen Cleopatra, thus neglecting his duties to Rome. The play has a kind of baroque richness to both plot and language as Antony and Cleopatra delight in seclusion while the Roman forces opposing them, led by the sober and ambitious Octavius Caesar, close in on the lovers. Cornered, the emperor and queen bring the play to a suicidal climax that exquisitely fuses sexual pleasure and death.
Total Points: 10 (MD 10)
Bhagavadgita (fifth century b.c.e.). An eighteen-chapter section of the Mahabharata, this “Song of God” is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna, a warrior on the battlefield, and the Supreme Lord Krishna, who appears as a charioteer. The two discuss the true self that is not destroyed in death and states of release from the human realm of suffering. As a cornerstone of Hindu faith and yogic philosophy, the Bhagavadgita has had a profound impact on philosophical and religious traditions in both the East and West.
Total Points: 10 (CD 10)
Casa Guidi Windows by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1851). The first part of this two-thousand-line poem, composed in 1847, reveals Browning’s excitement at the independence she and husband Robert found in Florence. The second part, written after Austria’s reoccupation of Tuscany, is a more reflective, yet still hopeful, meditation on the streets outside the Browning home, Casa Guidi: “This world has no perdition, if some loss.” Casa Guidi and its companion poems argue strongly for the right of women to speak on matters of politics and state, not just the moral affairs of the home.
Total Points: 10 (AT 10)
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (1999). Fifty-two years old and twice divorced, Professor David Lurie thought the affair with his student might bring passion back to his life. Instead, it costs him his job and his friends when he refuses to repent his sin. He retreats to his daughter’s farm, hoping to build on their relationship and write about Byron. But his tranquil oasis is shattered by racial violence in this uncompromising novel by the South African Nobel laureate.
Embers by Sándor Márai (1942). Henrik, a nobleman of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Konrad, a humble man with ambition, became best friends in military school. They remained inseparable, even after Henrik married Konrad’s friend. Then, one night, their relationship ruptured. Forty-one years pass until they meet again before the embers of a fading fire, where they probe their relationship and their lives.
Total Points: 10 (RW 10)
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989). In this wild, oddball novel, Lily and Art Binewski purposely create a family of freaks and geeks by procreating under the influence of experimental drugs. This genetically altered “family” travels as a circus. Dunn’s carnival of misfits is a memorable, darkly funny, and emotionally trenchant portrait of love and family on the fringe.
Total Points: 10 (JW 10)