Monday, September 10, 2007

As If the World Needed Another

Top Ten List. Novel titles this time.

10. War and Peace. Ashamed to say I have not read this, but have glanced through it enough to get the impression that the very vastness of its thematic, moral and social boundaries justify the almost overreaching ambition contained in those three words.

9. Tender Is the Night. Neatly communicates the fragility of its characters, and gets double points for being a John Keats allusion.

8. The Last. . . (of the Mohicans, Picture Show, Gentleman, Puritan, Tycoon, etc.) The perfect foundation for any elegy.

7. East of Eden. Cain and Abel updated to the Salinas Valley. The James Dean movie adaptation was also good.

6. The Razor's Edge. Somerset Maugham's rumination on the effects of capital on character and human affection, aptly summarized by this reference to a Buddhist proverb.

5. Heart of Darkness. As immediately dreadful as the smell of napalm in the morning.

4. For Whom the Bell Tolls. The closest to baroque that Hemingway ever got, its title the perfect exposition of the protagonist's growing awareness of his inevitable demise.

3. Far From the Madding Crowd. Hardy had some first rate titles; Jude the Obscure almost made the cut, but this one carries with it the moody atmosphere of the fictional Wessex moorlands where he set his works.

2. The Sound and the Fury. Expertly prepares us by way of a quotation from Macbeth for its complicated narrative structure, including that of Benjy the manchild.

1. Vanity Fair. Thackeray's uproarious yet forgiving sendup of Regency mores, all set within the coy frame of a pantomime show.

While I'm here, might as well include some duds as well. Here's the Ten Worst.

10. The Red and the Black. Critics still fight over why the hell this book is called this, which is sufficient cause to bring Stendhal up on charges of titular imprecision.

9. October Light. I like John Gardner, but Faulkner already gave us "A Light in August," and there ain't enough room on the syllabus for two novels whose dust jackets advertize an astrological phenomenon as appearing in a given month. At least change it up a bit. "November Fog" would be a bold move.

8. Vile Bodies. I really can't add to this.

7. Within a Budding Grove. I'd like to read more Proust, but he could at least have done me the favor of giving his book a title that wouldn't make my mother worry about me if she saw me reading it.

6. Moby Dick. I hate to be crass, but it is a fact that "Moby" means "Big" in old sea tar lingo.

5. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Let's keep the truisms off the title page, eh, Flannery?

4. The Magic Mountain. This go-to candidate for best German novel of all time sounds like one of the four feet tall and under rides you find in third rate amusement parks.

3. Middlemarch. Middlebrow. (George Eliot deserves her own list of lousy titles. The Mill on the Floss, Romola, Adam Bede, it goes on.)

2. To Have and Have Not. The latter, in this case.

1. Persuasion. I hated this book from the front cover to the final puncuation mark. True, it is a misstep by one of the finest practicioners of the medium, but that doesn't excuse its title from bearing only a casual relation its central action, which brings drawing room triviality to a new low.


The said...

Tom - to add to your "great" list here:

First, "The Great Gatsby" - do you think this book would've actually made the classics list if Fitzgerald had gone with his first choice, "Trimalchio" instead? (Zelda renamed it.)

Second, "The Beautiful and the Damned." If that title doesn't want to make you read the book, I don't know what does.

Honorable mentions include "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Music for Chameleons," "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," (irony points) and "In Cold Blood."

For worst ever, with apologies to the classics majors, I'd have to go with The Golden Ass.


Thomas Banks said...


Yeah, Golden Ass is pretty bad. As for "Gatsby," I think its a decent working name. Trimalchio would certainly have been a step down, and I'm not sure many people would get the reference (banquet of, etc.)