Thursday, February 27, 2014

Best Books of the 20th Century

Update 2017, April:
I've talked about the filter of time through which all books must pass. In that sense, I am now rearranging some of these books. Ones like Hemingway, I'm afraid, will slip off. Of course, I hope to keep adding as I find the greats, but this is as it stands.

This post will be constantly updated, but I'm going to list the best (to be defined here as books that seem to have lasting import and which have depth, ie speak to a large portion of humanity and the fragility within us all.. as told by me) books, IMHO, of the previous century (yes, it's an arbitrary time period to choose, but I'll use it for now. Probably best to think of human time in epochs, with major changes involved... not for now, however). I won't rank them, though I'll try and give at least a few reasons for them, and keep the ones closest to my mind up top. As usual (and if my taste in books over the past decade are any indication) I will change and drop certain books whenever needed. I'll try to keep those that have dropped out, for whatever reason, at the bottom with that in mind. And you're more than welcome to add your own two cents.

Another addition (May 2017): The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Not sure how to describe the voice here. It's mesmerizing. Not to be missed, for certain.

Latest addition: (Feb 2017): Glad to be able to add this book by Calvino: If On a Winter's Night a Traveler.  This is seriously a great book and not because I'm a writer who is stretching his wings and trying new things, especially with multiple narratives and stories within stories (which this book does ad infinitum) and pseudo essays and the like. Definitely one that's worth it, and one that, as the idea of storytelling changes, will stand the test of time.

New (Mar 2017) addition:

Kolyma Tales are some haunting and beautiful tales about life in the Gulags. That they're so sparse only seems to add to their weight. A must read for anyone who wants to look at the human soul when crushed over time. No diamonds are created. Yes there are dark works, but they are well worth it.

New (Nov 2016) addition:

Abyssinian Chronicles:

This book has seriously recharged me as both a reader and a writer. Stretching over the whole of a century, the book manages to both look at the global aspects of the events in this small country, as well as the humans. I'm not sure there is an equivalent book. Definitely one of the best of the century.

Invisible Man:
When I first read this book in high school I'm not sure I completely appreciated it. I read it a second time and was absolutely taken by this riveting read. The MC's tale of woe is a beautiful but haunting story about an African American man who moves from the South to New York. Simply great, as I've said. As a writer there is a heavy use of symbolism adds another layer to appreciate, yet this book has a twisted tale which I couldn't help but love.

Here we have a book of shorts. Not usually a fan of shorts; rarely a fan of collections. But this is one that I read all the way through and enjoyed on almost every single level. I still go back just to parse what has been written. It is said that Borges writes bland characters. I disagree. If he is guilty of one thing that is writing characters who represent too much in us and others. No, these stories are a delight and a source of many of my ideas.

Petals of Blood
A tale from East Africa. Kenya to be exact. Here Ngugi manages to tell the tale of independence and the people who lost as a result of lies told. Beautiful and haunting. Reading this allowed me to see how one interweaves hope and social narratives.

The Secret Agent.
Probably my favorite book by Conrad. This book, read by me towards the end of my time in the military helped bring to focus the daily life and the downright silliness of a state's fight to be good. Or at least appear that way. Some people say that they don't need fiction, that only non fiction could ever suffice. This was the first fiction book I read after dedicating myself to non fiction for almost half a decade. Never again. A story like this highlights too much to ever want to stick to non fiction.

Slaughterhouse Five

What an amazing book. Vonnegut survived the Dresden bombing, and what he had to see afterwards haunted him forever. This book, written as scifi, though it's seems to defy classification. Written in a wry voice and with a humor that only Vonnegut can bring to such a horrific topic. Here is a book that will stick to your brains.

The Leopard
A story about a Sicilian aristocratic family coming to grips with a changing time. Nothing horrific happens. The world just slowly changes around them, and there's nothing they can do...

A Universal History of Iniquity
More Borges. This one is brilliant simply (though in a different way than Ficciones) through the direction in which he points his writer's camera. All over the world and back. Iniquity is indeed amongst us.

100 Years of Solitude
Watch Marquez take a family and follow them through from their start to the finish. In this book he has history as we know it. A beautiful if not haunting story with as many rises and falls as most nations go through.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

This sci fi book, spreading its wings across thousands of years was written for a time when MAD was in play. But even today it comes across as relevant. If not for MAD, then at least for the cycle that humanity sometimes seems doomed to fall into.

Beloved by Morrison. Yes, it's as good as people say. Fact is, I'm going to read it again. High praise for any book, IMO.

Things Fall Apart
  About Western Africa as European forces move in. Watch things fall apart as old traditions crumble, and so do the people who adhere to them. Sad, tragic, but very worthwhile.
Update (April2014): I did not know anything about it, but apparently this is part of a trilogy. I'm reading the second one: No Longer at Ease. It is a great book. A snapshot of life in Nigeria several generations after Things Fall Apart. Indeed, one can see Achebe hitting his stride with this one. So check it out. 
Arrow of God is the third in the trilogy. I have not read it, but will recommend it when I can.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Easily the best novel from the Cold War. A short but haunting story. The great thing about this book is that it doesn't follow a conventional storyline, and both sides are shown as good or bad, with a sprinkling of humanity.

Update (10Apr2014) I've added a handful of books here. Some I've just read, some that I feel were missing from the list.


That this book still lingers in today's zeitgeist speaks of its power. It's a powerful book full of the dangers of not only totalitarianism, but of allowing too much power into the hands of intelligence apparatuses for the sake of safety. It also helps frame propaganda that occurs in many nations today.

Weep Not Child
Another Ngugi book. This one can be considered the prequel to Petals of Blood. Short, but haunting and beautiful. It speaks to the struggles of a peoples under colonialism and it does a damn fine job of tracing all the desires and fights.

The Conscript
This book, written by an Eritrean writer in the first half of the century is extremely short (even more so than most novellas). But it still, in that time, manages to give the whole of a little known story about the author's people under colonialism and fighting a war for another.

The Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Not your average mystery book. But it is my favorite mystery book out there. Looking into a murder from decades ago, the narrator manages to examine an entire town and it's way of thinking. Amazing.

The Tongue's Blood does not Run Dry
A collection of stories, this. And like most collections there are some weak points. But the few that are great come close to being the best shorts of the century. "Woman in Pieces" stands the highest (and darkest) of them all. But this is still a book not to be missed.

Updates (April 2014):
Blood Meridian

I read this a while ago and didn't really 'understand it. Sure it was amoral and nihilistic, but who was the judge? Too many questions, though that's not always a bad thing. Beware that it is a violent book. Realistically so. I mainly bumped this book up on the basis of these two videos by a professor. Video one. Video two.

Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountain
I found Baldwin's work only last year. I love his essays (which cannot be included on this list, but should be read by all) and dived into this afterwards. Amazing work indeed. I would say it qualifies as one of the more beautiful American novels of the century. Check it as soon as you can.

And now I'm creating an also ran list of books I really enjoyed from this century, but which are no longer ones I think of as extremely significant:

That Smell

It's hard for me to separate this man's work from his interviews and all else that he has spoken about. But even on its own this book is something to consider. Written at a time when Arab Nationalism was still at its height, the author's observations are incisive and prophetic at times. Beautiful.

The Stranger

The Stranger, at first, doesn't seem like an all that compelling book. It's tightly written, there's no doubt about that, but it puts a certain amount of distance between you and the MC. But by the end I was applauding this existential feat. One should read this for all the underlying implications of the book.

All Quiet on the Western Front
What a story. WWI. I really can't add to this except that the books claim of being the best book about war ever is hard to refute. Perhaps the best book about modern warfare. Reading about the horrors of this war, from the side that lost, is not to be missed.

Munroe, Selected Stories
Hard to find fault with stories this perfect. All of them crackle with tension, with a hint at something more. But they never explode. Like a dance. Amazing.

On Violence
As only Ms. Arendt can write. What you get here is her incisive writing and eye which manages to parse things with a rare talent. In this case it's about violence. Watch her take apart the "power grows from the barrel of a gun" saying. It's beautiful.

Waiting for the Barbarians
A book really written about the end of his Empire, that is South Africa. But the manner in which it is written (no specifics) allows it to apply to almost any other Empire. In that, and in how the Empire works with, then against a small bureaucrat, this book excels.

The Good Earth

What a story. Biblical in many ways, this book tells a very beautiful story about pre-revolution China. 

Homage to Catalonia
I would say that this has to be read alongside (before, preferably) 1984 and Animal Farm. It adds so much to that story. Here we have Orwell, the young man as a journalist. We see him slowly turn against the Communist movement he once held in high esteem. His objectivity is to be admired.

Mother Night
Another Vonnegut novel. This one dealing with propaganda and the saying: You are you pretend to be...

The War of the End of the World:
An epic book about the previous century. But a necessary one nonetheless. Haunting. Tragic. A tale that takes almost every view into account. This is the story of hope crushing up against larger uncaring forces, and yet behind them all are small people trying to find their dignity. From this book, I now have the impetus and blueprint on how to tackle epic struggles that I will write on in the future.

We. Just (March, 2014) read this relatively unknown novel (to a commoner like myself, apparently it's known in more than a few other places... namely literary circles that know their dystopian novels). A precursor to 1984 (and, like Darkness at Noon, it's easy to see its influence on Orwell) written by an old Russian revolutionary who has the (now) honor of having his book be the first to be banned by the Bolsheviks. The amazing thing about this book is that he manages to predict what a totalitarian state would look like. An eery and in the end important book. All should read it.

Animal Farm

Another Orwell book. This one a fable made from the creation of a dream turned nightmare. Not to be missed, and still important in this day and age (where such ideas as communism seem like something from a foregone era).

Dharma Bums
A personal favorite (one I prefer to On The Road) about alienation and the human need to look for something other than the prescribed route. Perhaps it's a dreamer's book, but it's a damn fine one at that.

The Unbearable lightness of Being
The voice alone is able to carry this book far. The philosophical nature of the book also allows for much pondering.

The Sorrow of War (added April 2014)

What a book. Easily one of the saddest books, and most visceral of the lot (and I admit I have quite a few books on war on this list). Told from the 'winning' side of the Vietnam conflict, this book is something to behold with the breadth of the issues it tackles. I am not sure that any other war book is better. Nonetheless, everyone should read it.

The Master & Margarita

Written for a Moscow in the midst of Stalin's terror, this magical and uplifting book puts forth a story in the most magical way with the most succinct writing around.

Some articles you might be interested in:

# List of the 5 best international novels out there
# 5 Best scifi novels
# An article on what makes a classic book.
# Best books of the 21st century
# Best books of the 20th century
# A review of the Diary of a Man in Despair

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