1. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Perhaps the best American novel (although see ‘10’) or the best novel about America and the hollowness at the heart of the dream. The closing paragraphs of ‘Gatsby’ are surely some of the most poignant and powerful ever written.
2. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The individuality of Vonnegut’s style is a curious yet perfect match for the pain of the emotional content. A humane, human book that always remains a work of art rather than biography, no matter how apparent the author’s presence.
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Mozart opera of novels and again a transcendent union of structure and content in which unhappy marriage is the reward for those who show a weakness of character and lifelong happiness is a province reserved only for those “who truly know themselves.”
4. Just William by Richmal Crompton
The funniest English novels ever written?
5. What Maisie Knew by Henry James
The other side of childhood and James’ finest working of his preoccupation with the theme of innocence corrupted. James is the master of making what is not said the most important thing on the page.
6. Pricksongs and Descants by Robert Coover/Collected Stories by Donald Barthelme
Two of the most innovative of all American short story writers. Recklessly imaginative, they are both remarkable for the playfulness and sheer brio of their writing. Coover’s ingenuity and Barthelme’s absurdity made me look at writing in a different way. More than anyone else these are the writers who made me want to be a writer myself.
7. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
And without these two books in my childhood I doubt whether my imagination would have developed at all.
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The finest American novel not written by an American. Perhaps the finest American novel ever (but see ‘1’. And don’t forget ‘10’.) No one can emulate Nabokov’s dizzyingly vertiginous prose and his command of the text.
9. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Eliot could write bad books (Romola) and half-brilliant books (Daniel Deronda - the first half) but in Middlemarch her serious intelligence produced a novel that no one else could have been capable of - a picture of society as an organic, living, breathing synthesis - order and disorder, hope and hopelessness, pride and humility, charity and greed. If only she had seen fit to marry Dorothea to Lydgate.
10. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The perfect novel.
… And I can’t believe there wasn’t room for 11. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, a novel about the wanton destruction caused by passion and bad behaviour, written with the greatest delicacy and precision.