About a year ago, Massachusetts architect David Handlin embarked on an experiment to give his reading “purpose and focus.” He committed to reading only American novels and decided to compile a list of the 100 best that were published between 1770 and 1985. He shared that list with The American Scholar and called it a “draft.”
“A month into this exercise, I suddenly understood what I was doing. I was filling some of the gaps in my undergraduate education,” Handlin wrote.
The list created quite a stir, eliciting animated discussions over the criteria for “best” and the omission of certain texts.
Sandra Gilbert, a distinguished professor of English emerita at the University of California and author of eight books of poetry, even chimed in and questioned the criteria for “novel” and “American.” She was frustrated that the list “would fall into any publisher’s mainstream” and so she was compelled to write her own list, although with a slightly different intent.
“I’m not at all inclined to demand deletions, but prefer instead to suggest additions that would make this mini-narrative of our literature (for a narrative it is) more representative of the culture we’ve inherited,” wrote Gilbert in her response.
We agree that our literary heritage is indeed part of the American narrative. So we’ve combined Handlin’s and Gilbert’s lists into one mega-list of 200 American novels. Below you will find them all in chronological order.
We’re asking: which ones have you read? Check the boxes next the book and hit “vote.”
One thing that jumped out at us here at Art Beat is that the list stop at 1985 (Gilbert’s list actually stops at 1986 because she could not tolerate the exclusion of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”) What are the novels you would add to this list that were published since the mid-80s?
And if you could make a short list of books that you haven’t read on this list, which titles would you include?
Leave your answers in the comments section below or tweet at @newshourartbeat with the hashtag #NewsHourAsks.