Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How to choose the hundred best novels

Monday 25 November 2013  
I'm only a tenth of the way through my Guardian/Observer list, and as I revisit old favourites from week to week I find my contemporary verdict refracted through past readings

Penguin Classics
Decisions, decisions … Shelves of Penguin paperbacks. Photograph: Sam Frost

The first classic of English literature I can remember reading is Animal Farm. I was about 11 or 12 years old and lying on my bed with the rough, tickling sensation of a bright red blanket on my bare legs. I still have my Penguin edition, spine broken, and with loose yellowing pages. Somehow, the combination of Orwell and a scratchy institutional blanket seems appropriate.

Compiling this Guardian/Observer list of 100 great novels in the English language, and rediscovering old favourites from week to week, has become as much an autobiographical as a literary process. I keep meeting my juvenile self in forgotten states and discarded guises: sitting in a cricket pavilion on a wet summer's afternoon with The Code of the Woosters; roaming Dorset on a bicycle, aged 15, with Jude The Obscure, or was it The Mayor of Casterbridge? Eking out the tedium of school with a copy of Vanity Fair; by the seaside with Middlemarch, and so on.

I'm also having to recognise how late I came to some of the very greatest entries in this list: perhaps twenty-something before I even opened The Great Gatsby; and at least 30 before I completed my reading of Austen's classic six. In advance of this project, I loosely sketched a draft list at the outset, but it keeps changing.
Now, having written some 10 entries, and got as far as 1838 with Edgar Allan Poe, and the Americans, I'm worrying about some of my omissions. No Horace Walpole.

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