The Guardian have just finished their long-running series of the 100 Greatest Novels written in English, and they give the full list here. It’s a fairly bog-standard list, giving rise to some characteristic Guardianist mutterings in the comments section (and a reply article on the website) about the preponderance of Dead White Males on the list. I’ve read about two-thirds of the list. But there I’m including a number that I started, but never finished. Unfinished readings perhaps haven’t gotten enough critical attention: when one considers it, it’s quite possible that we find out more about a person by the books they’ve failed to finish than the books they love: love for a book can be too easily influenced by extraneous factors – the prestige attaching to certain titles and so on – but if you failed to finish a book you’ve gone to the trouble of picking up, that implies a strength of feeling, a real reaction to the material of the book, a complete volte face from wishing-to-read to not-wishing-to-read. This, undoubtedly, is worth a moment’s consideration.
So, for the benefit of my future biographers, the books in Robert McCrum’s list I’ve started but not (yet) finished, are:
2. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
6. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
11. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil
23. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
28. George Gissing, New Grub Street
34. Rudyard Kipling, Kim
36. Henry James, The Golden Bowl
Defoe – I only read this for the first time quite recently, downloading to Kindle for a long journey. I haven’t picked it up since (the novel [metaphorically], not the Kindle), but I do plan to finish it.
Disraeli – I should have read this in full for purposes of my thesis, perhaps, but as yet I haven’t. Though it has some interesting elements and worthwhile socio-political reflections, it is also frequently banal and very melodramatic. An interesting book, but I wouldn’t say a great one.
Gissing – This is another recent one, and is actually rather good. Nevertheless, it fell by the wayside after only 80 or so pages, to be picked up and finished when I can link its reading to some research, and thus create that extra motivation.
Kipling – I just can’t get into Kipling at all. His style somehow repels and confuses me. I’ve made a couple of efforts at Kim, in theory an interesting work, much discussed by Edward Said, et al., but haven’t finished it yet.
James – I enjoy much of early James, but really late James like The Golden Bowl is tough on the old coconut. Pages of internal focalization on some minutiae of conscience or social interaction. Possibly a great novel, but one you really need to be in the mood for, and to devote plenty of attention to. I can’t help recalling H.G. Wells’ famous (or perhaps infamous) statement on James from Boon, a few years later: ““It [any novel by James] is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string” [Quoted from here]. I can’t read late James without thinking of that passage now, possibly a testament to my own philistinism.
Sterne – I read this years ago, and hated it. Being an admirer of much postmodernist-type humour (e.g. Flann O’Brien), I had heard of this as a precursor thereto and expected to like it, but everything I could glean about Sterne as implied author from the book made me dislike him and it.
Twain – another reading from years ago, about which I can remember little, except the experience of boredom. Perhaps I should give it another try, and almost certainly will, some day.
Of the other 60 or so I’ve read, there are quite a few that I barely remember, that I skimmed in my bibliovorous and undiscriminating teenage years. Sometimes, in those days, I read just to finish, and took in few enough details (if it was a book I didn’t like). Still, reading canonically, “the best which has been thought and said“, is not without rewards, and there are a lot of books on McCrum’s list that I remember quite vividly. And yet, it is sometimes those books one doesn’t finish – where one wonders if there was something there one didn’t “get”; something that was there, but you missed it – that are the most haunting.