Continuing my own personal and, I suggest, in this aspect no different from every other, list of the greatest novels ever:
80 Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
I never warmed to Asimov’s Robot series and its laws of robotics. It seemed to me such a simple piece of hacking and rewriting code to remove the “Thou shalt not by any action or omission cause or allow to occur any harm to human.” programming and have robots ho beserk a la Terminator. With Foundation though, for my money, Asimov outdid Arthur C Clarke’s prophetic invention of the geo-stationary satellite with his invention of the predictive science of big data aka “psychohistory”. He got there way before Tesco with its Clubcard, Google or Facebook with whom data re-selling seems to have reached its apogee or should that be nadir.
79 The Ipcress File by Len Deighton (1962)
The spy who might, or might not, have been called Harry Palmer provided the down-market, sleazy, working class antidote to Fleming’s uber-snobbish James Bond. The plot is sufficiently convoluted to trespass onto Le Carre territory but fast-paced enough to satisfy the demands of the thriller market for which Deighton was writing.
78 War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
Epic in scale and epic in conception but yet oddly intimate in its symathetic portrayal of the often ineffective central character Piotr who is tossed this way and that by the turbulent events of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. I was so pleased that in the end this well intentioned man actually gets the girl – Natasha, who is by far the most interesting and fully developed female character in the novel.
77 On The Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
The ultimate expression of the bestnik counter culture and arguably the first literal road trip to serve as a metaphor for life. Although I never warmed to the characters, I found the book poetic and it seems to me to capture the essence of that alienation better than anything else written on the subject.
76 Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte (1847)
The prototype for every Mills and Boon romance ever written with the poor young heroine getting the rich unattainable husband who does care for her in spite of all his actions appearing to contradict this notion. Throw the complication of the mysterious first Mrs Rochester into the mix and you have all the necessary ingredients for the melodrama. What makes this special for me though is how we are shown the physical passion of the eponymous heroine for Her employer and the turmoil this creates within her given the constraibts imposed on her by Victorian society not just in terms of what her sex may do and say but also by what her rank in society permits.
75 Charlie and The Chocolate by Roald Dahl (1964)
One for every little kid who grew up feeling somehow they were always second best and never got a lucky break. Here was one of their number naking it big for all of them. That Dahl could so perfectly get inside the head of such a child and deliver their greatest fantasy come true is probably down to the same merciless insight into the human psyche that enabled him to write some of the most disturbingly macabre adult stories ever penned.
74 The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)
The father of the science fiction genre, for me this was a toss up whether to include this or his equally fantastic, in all senses of the word, The Time Machine. This has a scope and breadth of vision that for me just gives it the edge. It succeeds in exoosing how puny man is, not only in the face of technologically superior aliens, but also in comparison with the microscopic life about which, even now, let alone at the time this was written, we understand only so little.
73 To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
If you’re going to write just one book then it had better be a damn good one and in this, I think, Harper Lee succceded without question. Tackles the big theme, Racism, with childish clarity of vision uncluttered by the hemmung and hawing of adult compromise. In Atticus it offers a hero of such straightness and courage that he is surely the father figure that we would all wish to have.
72 Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856)
It is the shocking ordinariness of Emma Bovary and her non-descript husband that contemporary readers found so difficult to stomach. She could be one of them, their neighbour, their friend and yet she sank lower and lower in pursuit of her romantic illusion sacrificing every cherished bourgois value of maternal and wifely modesty and chastity along the way. This, I think, was part of Flaubert’s design. Not for him the inevitability of the genetic propensity of Zola nor the sweeping societal pressures of Balzac, just the individual’s own moral choices.
71 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
Tolkien insisted that his Lord of The Rings trilogy, published just after World War II, should not be read as his reworking of recent world events in fable form. Such is the impact of those three books that this shorter novel is reduced to the role of a mere prologue. But to me it is a much better story. It has a tightness and narrative drive that the later, more grandiose vision lacks with its sprawling tales of battles and old emnities refought and resolved. Here we have a simple quest undertaken reluctantly by a small hobbit who is all too aware of his own lack of the qualities (I would say shortcomings but that would be a dreadful pun under the circumstances) he believes essential for a hero in his own or any other time. He faces seemingly insurmountable odds and numourous perils and overcomes them with a mix of (low) cunning and courage which he never knew he had. If that is not a rallying call for the little man we all sometimes feel when faced with life’s iseemingly impossible challenges then I don’t know what is. Of course this story then spawnwd the whole fantasy genre and Swords and Sorcery and its role-playing offspring Dungeons abd Dragons. So its cultural influence us immense. But at the bittom it is just a damn fine story of the everyman who takes on the worst the world can throw at him. And against all idds he wins. Hurrah for that.