I think of genuinely great novels less as books and more like giant monoliths on the side of the road. They’re cultural landmarks with historical freight. As we pass them by, we measure not just them but ourselves.
For me, the North American fiction canon consists of about ten novels that have stood the test of time, half of which are written by Nobel Prize-winners. Limiting my list to books I’ve read, I choose, in chronological order, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
My list is rather white and male, and it leaves out Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which I’ve tried and failed to finish three times across three decades (too much information about whaling). It also leaves out The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lolita, Lonesome Dove, House Made of Dawn, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Catch-22, and Invisible Man, all of which would be on many people’s lists. Not to mention other novels by Faulkner, Hemingway, et al.
Isolated at home as we are, now is a good time to read or re-read some classics. I’m two-thirds of the way through The Grapes of Wrath. I’d forgotten just how radical its politics were, for its day, and how well Steinbeck describes the natural world. Turtles, rabbits, dogs, owls, sunsets, fields of peach trees – he nails them all. The book also somehow manages to be both the story of a road trip and a story about confinement – in this case the terrible confinement of poverty during The Great Depression.
During isolation I’ve also read some recent novels hailed as modern classics: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Underground Railroad, and Station Eleven. Marketing hype is commonplace nowadays and the term “modern classic” is probably an oxymoron. A book needs to stand the test of time to be a classic. Of the three novels mentioned above, I found The Underground Railroad the most compelling. It portrays quite incredible cruelty. The system of slavery that enriched white America was almost indescribably barbaric. Almost. Only, Whitehead describes it brilliantly, just as Toni Morrison had before him.
The other novels on my list for these stay-at-home days are classics-in-translation that I’ve never read: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, and Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk. The non-fiction list goes on for pages.
Take solace in books, folks. They let us live another life.