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Grailing Magazine Adds a New Featured Column: 150 Novels...

Grailing Magazine is excited to launch a new feature in collaboration with its Poet-in-Residence, Ben Niles. The feature is titled 150 Novels to Read in a Lifetime and is an annotated list of great books selected by Ben that readers ought not to miss. The list will be serialized in issues of Grailing, with five titles appearing per issue.

Below is an introduction to the list by our Poet-in-Residence, Ben Niles, as well as a preview of the full list:


150 Novels to Read in a Lifetime

A List Selected by Ben Niles

Behold! The List you’ve been searching for. Like so many bibliophiles before you, you’ve journeyed—nay, quested—in pursuit of that elusive, definitive list of the great novels to read in a lifetime. Or perhaps you’ve merely been awaiting some tweedy literary dolt brazen enough to employ the word ‘definitive’ about his list of books, which can (at best) be nothing more than a subjective collection, so that you can flex your intellectual superiority and tear his paltry opinions to bits.

If the latter is true, Dear Reader, allow me first to admit that my list is, of course, subjective, but I trust that you—who in your wisdom have deigned to read this far—are savvy enough to catch an ironic use of ‘definitive’ when you see one. Yet I hasten to assert: as subjective as this list inevitably is, I will defend confidently the greatness of every one of the 150 novels included. That is the truth, about with which I do not mess…

I shall go even further and proclaim that while it may not and (we agree) cannot be a definitive list, I believe that it is really quite a good list, well thought-through, with meritorious selections, a provocative blend of expected canonical titles and unexpected or perhaps even unknown-to-you ones, lovingly curated for your—and my—bookish pleasure.

Therefore, on to the selection criteria!

  • First: they had to be novels. Could you classify one or two as a novella or memoir? You could, but if genre hairs must be split, I can still defend their inclusion on this list. (You’ll have to read the entries to see whether you agree!) Are some of them fantasies, mysteries, or children’s literature? Certainly, but that doesn’t render them not novels. Do some of the titles contain multiple books? Yes, there are seven titles which incapsulate more than one book; but they’re either single narrative arcs divided some number of ways, or they’re trilogies with such strong bonds of theme and content that it seemed fitting to include them as trilogies instead of extracting one component book for inclusion on the list. Which leads me to my next criterion:

  • Only one selection per author. So, before you berate me for the absence of this or that, just know that in choosing “this,” I left off “that,” or vice versa. There are undoubtedly great novels which are consequently not on the list, but a great deal of the enjoyment (and a not insignificant amount of the agony) of curating this list came from having to select one and only one novel for a given writer. Here is where the aforementioned subjectivity comes resoundingly into play, but I don’t shy from it! After all, what would a list of great novels be without the requisite outrage, debate, and pontification it engenders? Fans of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austen, Fitzgerald, Woolf, Faulkner, Roth, Nabokov, Morrison, Murakami (and so many others): we may simply disagree. Or—as Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd did in their parody rom-com They Came Together—we might just take solace in that, no way, we both like “fiction books”?!

  • Fifty novels each, from three timespans. Evidently, I’m a glutton for punishment, so I’ve given you another element to dispute! But if the single-novel-per-author rule was (in part) an effort to maximize the number of voices represented on the list, the 50x3 rule was a similar attempt at a relatively even representation of novels across the history of the genre. And if I’m honest, it’s also a way of differentiating this list from the many 100-book lists out there. Plus, when I began musing about creating my own great novels list, I felt that 100 was just too few, but 200 seemed like a lot. Thus, fifty novels on this list were published before 1935, there are fifty from 1936 to 1979, and the third fifty are from 1980 to the present. An arbitrary framework, but not without its historical and literary merits, and I think it yielded rather positive results if I do say so myself. And I do.

Now that you know my selection criteria, it bears emphasizing that my selection is not a ranked list. I’ve intentionally referred to these books as great novels, not ‘The Top 150’ or ‘The 150 Best.’ My one-novel-per-author rule pretty much precludes this list from resembling a ‘Best Novels of All Time’ list, but again: I’m OK with that, and I hope you will be, too.

All that remains is for me to thank the editor at Grailing Press for the opportunity to foist my literary opinions on the world, and I do so (both the thanking and the foisting) with the utmost hand-to-heart gratitude and wonder. I just love books, so what a joy it is to be in contemplation and conversation about these 150 Novels to Read in a Lifetime.

The Full List

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, 1899

1984, George Orwell, 1949

In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman, 2014

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, 1996

Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987

Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar, 1963

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera, 1984

Room, Emma Donoghue, 2010

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami, 1994

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, 1958

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, 1868

Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson, 2003

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson, 1980

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz, 2007

Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier, 1913

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stephenson, 1886

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, 1995

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne, 1759

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, 1986

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon, 2000

Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal, 1976

Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas, 2000

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, 1846

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965

The Secret History, Donna Tartt, 1992

The Trial, Franz Kafka, 1925

Molloy, Samuel Beckett, 1951

The Color Purple, Alice Walker, 1982

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen, 2001

If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino, 1979

The Awakening, Kate Chopin, 1899

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, 1861

The Power of One, Bryce Courtenay, 1989

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, 1969

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, 2016

Lord of the Flies, William Golding, 1954

The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño, 1998

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, 1963

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr, 2014

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1865

On the Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel, 2014

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951

The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1774

Ulysses, James Joyce, 1922

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967

Atonement, Ian McEwan, 2001

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, 1979

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stow, 1852

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson, 2013

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, 1877

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurtson, 1937

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy, 2022

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann, 1924

Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler, 1939

HHhH, Laurent Binet, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque, 1929

The Stranger, Albert Camus, 1942

City of God, E.L. Doctorow, 2000

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, 1927

Native Son, Richard Wright, 1940

Grendel, John Gardner, 1971

A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov, 1840

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner, 1930

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski, 2000

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, 1847

The Night Trilogy, Elie Wiesel, 1962

Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson, 1988

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra, 2013

The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil, 1930

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, 1851

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton, 1920

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie, 1981

A Passage to India, E.M. Forster, 1924

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960

The Quiet American, Graham Greene, 1955

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, 2003

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, 1847

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster, 1985

Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald, 2001

The Red and the Black, Stendhal, 1830

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov, 1962

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, 1980

Passing, Nella Larsen, 1929

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880

A Separate Peace, John Knowles, 1959

Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin, 1956

The Interrogative Mood, Padgett Powell, 2009

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, 1605

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, 1929

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy, 1891

Under the Net, Iris Murdoch, 1954

Hannah Versus the Tree, Leland de la Durantaye, 2018

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry, 1947

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg, 2015

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez, 1967

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908

Middlemarch, George Eliot, 1871

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850

Água Viva, Clarice Lispector, 1973

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles, 2016

A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell, 1951

Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964

The Human Stain, Philip Roth, 2000

Candide, Voltaire, 1759

The Giver, Lois Lowry, 1993

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis, 1954

Roots, Alex Haley, 1974

Three Trapped Tigers, G. Cabrera Infante, 1965

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, 1945

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, 2013

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848

The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James, 1881

At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien, 1939

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing, 1962

Middlesex, Geoffrey Eugenides, 2002

The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald, 1990

The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence, 1915

A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, 1957

Jacques the Fatalist, Denis Diderot, 1785

White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1985

Barabbas, Par Lagerkvist, 1950

36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 2010

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré, 1974

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, 2016

Speedboat, Renata Adler, 1976

A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul, 1961

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, 1926

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, 1856

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, 2010

The Recognitions, William Gaddis, 1955

Tom Jones, Henry Fielding, 1749

The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon, 1965

In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust, 1913

Photo credit: Engin Akyurt


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