Every few years, in a bid to boost readership and set book critics frothing like rabid dogs, a magazine or Website will publish a list of the "greatest novels of all time." The books on these lists rarely change, although individual authors sometimes rise or fall a few rankings. The controversy comes when the editor writing the list decides, in the name of argument, to substitute one widely acknowledged masterpiece for a novel of arguably less literary merit. Swap Melville's Moby Dick for Peter Benchley's Jaws, for example, and the literati will start sharpening their pitchforks for a march on the magazine's offices.
Actually, those intellectuals' default response involves writing highly irate letters to the publication, which only encourages the latter to do the exact same thing next year. Meanwhile, such controversy obscures the main point: lists are arbitrary. No formula can rank James Joyce over Vladimir Nabokov, or Edith Wharton over Jane Austen. The intellectual knows it's most important to try and read all those great novels sitting on culture's eye-level shelf. Here's an extremely incomplete list of those must-read texts:
Putting This Theory Into Practice
Ulysses, by James Joyce: This doorstop of a modernist tome always seems to top those "greatest English-language novel of all time" lists. Certainly the book is a catalog of masterful writing technique, with enough puns and allusions and metaphors to keep graduate students picking through pages for the rest of their lives. (It's also a grinding effort to read, and purchasing an annotated version is essential.)
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov: Study it for Nabokov's peerless use of language.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus: Absurd, funny and bitter. Will make you want to sit in a French café and smoke cigarettes and opine to very frightened tourists about the futility of existence.
Democracy, by Joan Didion: The sort of book that makes other authors cry in frustration, the writing's so perfect.
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Ax murderer suffers moral anguish, confesses, and finds himself imprisoned in Siberia: not exactly beach reading, but arguably one of the finer accounts of a soul in torment.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez: A century in the life of the Buendia family, its key moments shaped by strange and supernatural events. (Márquez is considered one of the foremost practitioners of magic realism, a subgenre that meshes the fantastical and the ordinary.)
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy: The luckiest of novelists publish one great, for-the-ages work in their lifetime. Tolstoy managed to produce a pair: the epic War and Peace (don't be intimidated by its size or reputation; it's an engaging read) and Anna Karenina, the story of a tumultuous affair gone wrong.
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton: Nobody pierced through a society's bullshit quite like Wharton.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Sentence for sentence, one of the heavyweights of world literature. Fitzgerald can imply more in ten words than other authors can cram into an entire book.
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison: An African-American man's bitter, funny, and occasionally surrealistic odyssey from the Deep South to Harlem. It's a pity that Ellison only published one book in his lifetime -- but if you're only going to publish one, this is the type of magnum opus you'd want out in the world.
And the Inevitable Footnote...
For these (and any other) famous novels, it's okay to acknowledge you've never read them; however, in the name of bulking up your reputation as intellectually curious, make sure to modulate that "No" with a "Not yet, but it's on the list." By deploying this technique, I've managed to avoid reading Jane Austen for years.
Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.