best book in history
December 12, 2002 5:03 PM   Subscribe

Don Quixote voted best book ever.{more inside}
posted by JohnR (49 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The three authors(and books) that did it for me were Henry Miller,Tropic of Cancer,Robert Pirsig's Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Carlos Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan.
posted by JohnR at 5:04 PM on December 12, 2002

The best, eh? What do we need the others for, then?

Let's burn 'em.
posted by muckster at 5:09 PM on December 12, 2002

When Homer, Virgil, Dante are not mentioned, then you have to wonder about those who voted. Cervantes is wonderful. But Book II a bore.
posted by Postroad at 5:10 PM on December 12, 2002

Saramago made the list, but not Cardoso?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:22 PM on December 12, 2002

The full list can be found here. Note that Homer and Dante are on it. As for Virgil, does he really deserve to be?
posted by moss at 5:31 PM on December 12, 2002

Postroad, they're all on there. Full list here.

Immediate quibble that comes to mind on first glance: Beckett's Trilogy makes the Top 10, but Ulysses only makes the Top 50? I mean, all props to mad Sammy Beckett, but WHAT?!
posted by scody at 5:32 PM on December 12, 2002

scody: that might have something to do with people liking books that they can actually read. I mean, all props to mad Jamie Joyce, but AGH!

Also, not to quibble, but isn't this post about seven months late?
posted by Dasein at 5:47 PM on December 12, 2002

If I were stranded on a desert island, I would want a book on boat building. Then Proust. And, oh, yes: those books that seemed so nice some time ago: the old and new testaments.
posted by Postroad at 5:52 PM on December 12, 2002

Anyone else get a kick out of the fact that Salman Rushdie was on the panel?
posted by fnord_prefect at 6:02 PM on December 12, 2002

Previously discussed here.
posted by rushmc at 6:02 PM on December 12, 2002

OK: Toni Morrison's AND Salman Rushdie in the Top 100???? Yougottabekiddingme. Methinks the fix was in.
posted by psmealey at 6:12 PM on December 12, 2002

In the Western canon Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is, for me, unsurpassed.
posted by the fire you left me at 6:26 PM on December 12, 2002

You've clearly never read Midnight's Children, psmealey.

And as far as him being on the panel, even among writers, he (like all those people) are extraordinarily well-read, even for world-class writers.

Of all the top-100-ever lists I've seen since the end of the century, I can quibble with this one the least. (And after Cervantes, the list is alphabetical. I just noticed that.)
posted by chicobangs at 6:30 PM on December 12, 2002

For some reason it deeply amuses that the article says things like "Leo Tolstoy of Russia" and "ancient Greece's Homer."

Biggest quibble: Out of all Dickens' books, Great Expectations was voted most worthwhile? Really...
But hey, Lu Xun made the list. That's cool.
posted by hippugeek at 6:35 PM on December 12, 2002

It seems a bit strange, the inclusion of dramas and novels together. The list is called the 100 best books? Where's the nonfiction? And can these "books" from such a wide variety of time periods really be compared and ranked?
posted by jonz at 6:36 PM on December 12, 2002

You've clearly never read Midnight's Children

I read it, but kept falling asleep.
posted by the fire you left me at 6:37 PM on December 12, 2002

I only know the work of half the people on that panel, and I don't like any of them. Don Quixote was great, but why should I care what they think the best books are?
posted by Hildago at 7:04 PM on December 12, 2002

scody, the list is in alphabetical order (except for Cervantes) , which explains why Joyce isn't in the top 10.
posted by bobo123 at 7:31 PM on December 12, 2002

Don Quixote received 50% more votes than any other book. That is what struck me. I have not read the book. Does anyone have a theory why does this book stands out to such a degree?
posted by JohnR at 7:34 PM on December 12, 2002

I dunno. I wonder what percentage of them have read it in Spanish though.
posted by Hildago at 7:36 PM on December 12, 2002

What? No A Tale of Two Cities? No Les Miserable? And, perhaps most shocking of all, no R. L. Stine?
posted by willnot at 7:53 PM on December 12, 2002

I recently watched an episode of Ark II that had a Don Quixote-based character in it. Goes to show just how the ideas of the book really apply to mankind universally, even post-nuclear holocaust mankind circa 2476 AD.
posted by shoos at 9:52 PM on December 12, 2002

Don Quixote is generally considered the first novel. My theory is that everybody felt they had to include it--maybe low on their list, but somewhere. Usually, that's what propels Ulysses high up in these lists, too. These books might not be the best at what they do but they're the first, so you have to give credit. This is exactly the kind of mainstreaming effect that makes these lists so terribly boring. Criticism isn't a democratic affair: I'd be a lot more interested in the books that were mentioned only once.
posted by muckster at 10:12 PM on December 12, 2002

I've tried many times to read Don Quixote and always enjoy the first 50 pages or so and then completely bog down by page 100.

Interestingly, just about everything from the book that is commonly known about it happens in those first 50-100 pages. So I'm guessing that most people either don't make it much further than I, or nothing worth mentioning happens after that.
posted by obfusciatrist at 10:38 PM on December 12, 2002

Nabokov gave Harvard lectures on why Don Quixote was a bad book. Just thought I'd throw that in there. I was glad "Lolita" made the list, though after reading "Pale Fire" I think that's even better.
posted by adrober at 10:52 PM on December 12, 2002

I recently watched an episode of Ark II that had a Don Quixote-based character in it.

Good God, where is that show airing? Didn't it last like ten episodes? I thought I was the only one who remembered it.
posted by kindall at 10:53 PM on December 12, 2002

Don't read these lists. The list is shit.

Muckster - I don't know, Ulysses is pretty fucking good
posted by shabrem at 11:25 PM on December 12, 2002

kindall: it was on Sci Fi channel, I think.
posted by shoos at 11:50 PM on December 12, 2002

adrober: Try Ada.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:56 PM on December 12, 2002

Penthouse didn't make the list? Sup wit dat?
posted by LowDog at 5:34 AM on December 13, 2002

I hope that someday Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body sneaks onto lists like this one.
posted by alumshubby at 5:39 AM on December 13, 2002

Pippi Longstocking? Really?
posted by Samsonov14 at 7:12 AM on December 13, 2002

Pippi Longstocking's pretty fucking good.
posted by muckster at 7:30 AM on December 13, 2002

These books might not be the best at what they do but they're the first, so you have to give credit.

I'm not sure what you have in mind that Ulysses is doing, but I'm pretty sure it's the best at it. Give it another shot; unlike Don Quixote, it gets more fun as it goes along, and by the time you get to the whorehouse scene you'll be glad you did.
posted by languagehat at 7:53 AM on December 13, 2002

obfuscaitrist: Yeah, there's a whole big pastoral slog in the middle there that just about sinks the whole thing. But it picks up again and is a great read to the end. An abridged version with that part excised would be far superior for the modern reader. Anyone who hasn't read past that part has really missed out on some excellent work.

Not that I blame anyone, though. That pastoral crap is sheer torture to get through, and totally without merit.

(and muckster, it's considered the first modern novel, but that's not why it's on the list. The whole idea of one's imagination actually changing the world around you, to see the hope and the good instead of the negative, resonates with many people. Remember the reference in Cyrano de Bergerac, when the Comte de Guise warns Cyrano that tilting at windmills can drive you into the ground, to which Cyrano ripostes it can also lift you to the stars. That's the feeling you get at the end of the book, and there are few better feelings in the world.)
posted by GhostintheMachine at 8:21 AM on December 13, 2002

All right all right. I wasn't badmouthing Ulysses, and I don't have to "give it another shot." I enjoyed the book, but I felt that some of the innovation and nuttiness was pure showing off that wasn't exactly necessitated by the plot. Or rather, the whole thing is conceived in such a way as to give Joyce occassion for all kinds of whackiness. It's a testing ground for new techniques. Embedding multiple languages and histories of languages, the mock heroic, the fake play, the stream of consciousness monologues, the play with time and synchronicity, the switching p.o.v.s, etc. etc. It's a grab-bag of new effects. It's busting at the seams with innovation. Bully for him. It's a great book, I don't disagree.

Which is fine. I like that stuff. But when it comes to high modernism, why doesn't Mrs Dalloway get all the same props? I think that Pynchon explores some of the trails blazed by Joyce much more satisfyingly. Barthes, Musil, Faulkner, DF Wallace, Don Barthelme, Burroughs-- there are plenty of people who tilled similar ground without being on EVERY best-of list ever made. And the reason for that, as I said, is that Joyce did it first. (On preview: GhostintheMachine, it's certainly not considered the first modern novel. I'd nominate Heart of Darkness.)

I was pointing out that these lists are dull because it's always the same usual suspects. Apparently, you can't make such a list and leave off Ulysses (why not include Finnegans Wake for a change? Well, he just went a little too far there for most people's tastes...). The book simply has a towering reputation as the 20th Century's greatest, and that's that. It's the 900 pound gorilla that's on every damn top books list ever made, and that's just one of the reasons these lists are silly. There's nothing wrong with the book--I simply don't like playing favorites. Art isn't about kicking the other writers' ass.
posted by muckster at 8:37 AM on December 13, 2002

Writing as DrMoonPie here. I wrote my dissertation on Don Quixote. It’s a terribly repetitive, disorganized, choppy narrative, full of nasty, brutish cruelty. Nabokov said it best: “Don Quixote has been called the greatest novel ever written. This, of course, is nonsense.” I agree with obfusciatrist: most people’s knowledge of the book comes from having read the first few chapters, or from Man of La Mancha. Neither of these is representative of the whole.

Quixote, as presented by Cervantes, was a dangerous madman. He most certainly did not see the good in the world. For him, the world was a place filled with terrifying monsters and villains, many of whom he tried to kill. He’s not the kindly, gentle soul portrayed by Peter O’Toole (or Robert Goulet), running around helping maidens. Cervantes makes it clear that Quixote has no other motive than the quest for adventure, not honor, certainly not love for Dulcinea.

I think most readers today read DQ through a modern Romantic filter. Readers are free to read as they please, of course, to take anything from a book that they want to. But an important difference between Quixote and Cyrano is the time period in which they were created. Cervantes and his contemporaries did not have the same regard for individualism that we (and Rostand) do. Before the 19th Century (give or take a few decades), eccentricity and individuality were seen by most as evils to be squashed. The greatest good was to contribute to society, not to better oneself. There are, of course, a few literary exceptions. But most story lines that feature eccentric characters concern themselves with bringing these characters back into society where they can do some good for others. All that changed around 1800, when the Romantics took over the literary scene.

Sorry for being so long winded. This is a subject near and dear to my heart! DQ is still worth reading, of course, as it represents a mightily important literary effort. But it’s not the novel that most people believe it is.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:53 AM on December 13, 2002

muckster, how exactly are you defining "modern novel"? Because every authority I've ever read has called it that, and I've never heard anyone say the same for Heart of Darkness. Quixote definitely wasn't the first novel as you asserted, especially since it references several earlier novels in the story itself. But it certainly has a quality that distinguishes it from all its predecessors, marking a dividing line between ancient and modern times.

Now if you're suggesting there should be a further differentiation between the "modern" and the "contemporary", well, then you'd have room to argue for Conrad. I'm sure others would disagree with your choice, but I'm willing to accept that there is just as distinct a difference between Cervantes and, say, Clancy as there was between Cervantes and those who came before him. I'll leave it to others to define that line.

I will agree on the whole "usual suspects", though. It's the same with film. I love Citizen Kane - it's probably my favourite too - but why is it an automatic lock for #1? It's as if certain choices are beyond criticism, or there's some sort of universal taste we're supposed to share, and that's just wrong.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:00 AM on December 13, 2002

Cervantes makes it clear that Quixote has no other motive than the quest for adventure, not honor, certainly not love for Dulcinea.

Sounds particularly relevant today, given the nature of our politicians.
posted by rushmc at 9:03 AM on December 13, 2002

What keeps DQ from being a novel (by many people's definition) is that there's not much narrative unity. Chapters follow one another in more-or-less random fashion, with little to tie them together. The title character also doesn’t really develop as the book progresses. It's more a collection of episodes than a coherent story. My candidate for the first novel is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Not a very good book, by any means, but an important one in the history of literature.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:05 AM on December 13, 2002

Now if you're suggesting there should be a further differentiation between the "modern" and the "contemporary", well, then you'd have room to argue for Conrad.

Of course. In literature, modernism is generally considered as a period that lasted from around the turn of the century into the 30s, reaching its apex in the 20s. Ulysses (1926) isn't the first but the most prominent, even defining, modern work (thus "high modernism"). Also see Proust, Woolf, Eliot, Kafka, Stein, Hemingway, F. Scott et al.

Contemporary literature is stuff that's coming out right now.

Good call on Citizen Kane. My eyes glaze over immediately when I see it on a list. (And why is it so important? Because of Welles' formal innovation. Same deal as Ulysses. Just let me hasten to say "Great movie!" so nobody is going to tell me to give it another shot.) Which brings me back to my original point: these lists are not exactly a way to uncover hidden gems.
posted by muckster at 9:29 AM on December 13, 2002

Yeah but seriously, Pippi Longstocking? How that beat out Hop on Pop and Harold and the Purple Crayon I have no idea.
posted by Samsonov14 at 10:10 AM on December 13, 2002

MrMoonPie: Yes, but what about Menard's Quixote?
posted by trondant at 12:51 PM on December 13, 2002

Ah, of course Menard's version is far, far richer than Cervantes'. No comparison, really. Have you seen Menard's wine tasting note, by the way?
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:30 PM on December 13, 2002

MrMoonPie: do you have a version of your dissertation posted on the web? I´d (sincerly) like to read how you defend your opinions on the Quijote. Although I´m sure you make interesting arguments in your paper, just on hearing your comments it strikes me as a pretty superficial interpretation. I´m not trying to flame, just an honest opinion. I´m not sure how great a difference it makes but I was lucky enough to read it in Spanish and I found so many parts of the book where it becomes clear that Cervantes doesn´t want to depict Don Quijote just as a "dangerous madman", in fact, I think that a close reading finds that Quijote is not intended to be truly mad at all but merely to be making a bold and totally absurd attempt to convert his life into pure art - for him embodied by the shlocky romantic novels of his time, a nice ironic touch. He´s like a method actor stuck in his role 24 hours a day or better yet, like Andy Kaufman playing an elaborate joke on everyone, even it seems on himself.

As far as the list goes, who cares who´s number 1? El Quijote is a brillant work, so is Lolita, Hamlet, Ulysses, etc. etc. etc. Read them all!
posted by sic at 4:21 PM on December 13, 2002

MrMoonPie: That's a new one on me. Personally, I'm waiting for Pierre to invent and patent this all by himself. Thanks for the link.
posted by trondant at 4:56 PM on December 13, 2002

hey... tom jones isnt on it... i thought that was the "first novel", i mean it lays all the rules about writing novels in it... i guess its called "most meaningful" and the deeper meanings in tom jones were a bit weak although it was really entertaining...
posted by klik99 at 6:17 PM on December 13, 2002

Vergil is on the list.
posted by zerofoks at 12:50 AM on December 14, 2002

I would have enjoyed the wine tasting note more if it hadn't been so sloppily written. "His admiral ambition"? "Sport's"?? We're not talking about a blog entry here; this is in some sense "after Borges," and the fastidious Borges would be appalled. Take at least a minimum of trouble, for pete's sake.

(I thought the list was pretty good, unlike most similar ones, which are filled with the latest trendy hits.)
posted by languagehat at 7:39 AM on December 14, 2002

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