The Fill-in-the-gaps project: a hundred book reading list

I’ve got my list ready — or most of it, anyway — and sheesh, it took longer than I expected, even though I’d started this list in longhand form months ago. My plan was to keep the list to myself (do I really want the world having a permanent record of my reading gaps?) but then I mentioned the list on Facebook, and another blogger, Moonrat, picked up the idea and ran with it.

And I’m really glad she did. Because by naming the project, getting the above logo designed (by Ren Feathers via Emily Cross), and inspiring others to jump on board, now there are quite a few lists out there. And if you’re a list person like me, you enjoy getting a peek at other people’s plans.

In my own mind, I plan to call the project “Fill-in-the-gaps” instead of “100 Books” because I Googled the latter and “100 Books” is an overly common tag. If you decide to make your own online list in any fashion, feel free to save/copy the logo above (Emily Cross has other nifty versions available).

Coming up with the first 50 or 60 titles was easy. I used many different “100 Best Novels” and prizewinners lists, and I also combed essays by other writers, notating which novels are most often named as influential (Nabokov and Tolstoy probably come up the most).

Another detail, of interest only to fellow list-makers: Last night I kept adding some final titles and erasing them. Adding titles because I own them already and plan to read them soon; erasing them because they don’t quite fit the concept for me. The list isn’t just “hard” or “chore” books, it includes books I’ll have no trouble diving into as well; but it isn’t everything I plan to read, either. For me, these are books that fill a gap somehow, that move me toward feeling more well-read. So there are some high-pleasure, can’t-wait-to-read-books I put on the list because they are written by authors I am trying to read from first book to last (Meg Wolitzer, Zoe Heller, Lionel Shriver), and this helps me get there. But then there are other high-pleasure books I left off, because they’re not moving me toward any particular goal. (I said this was a minor detail.)

Anyway, here’s the list so far, with older books up high and newer books down low. I’m not reading them in this order, and in fact I already finished two (asterisks) since I started the list in January.

Old-timey classics
1. Dickens, Bleak House
2. Melville, Moby Dick
3. Dostoevsky, Crime & Punishment
4. George Elliott, Middlemarch
5. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
6. Another Henry James (Wings of the Dove?)
7. Hardy, Jude the Obscure
8. Flaubert, A Sentimental Education
9. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
10. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
11. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
12. Theodore Dreiser, American Tragedy
13. James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
14. James Joyce, Dubliners
15. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
16. Nabokov, Lolita
17. Nabokov, Pale Fire
18. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
19. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
20. Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence
21. Conrad, Heart of Darkness
22. Any Faulkner
23. Any D.H. Lawrence novel (plus Italian essays)

Modern classics
24. Any John Cheever
25. Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
26. Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
27. Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
28. Philip Roth, The Breast
29. Philip Roth, Exit Ghost
30. Saul Bellow, Herzog
31. John Fowles, French Lieutenant’s Woman
32. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
33. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
34. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg Ohio
35. W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
36. Norman Mailer (any would do, but I chose Castle in the Forest)
37. Shirley Hazzard, Transit of Venus
38. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
39. James Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
40. Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
41. Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
42. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
43. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
44. Charles Baxter, First Light
45. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust
46. Allan Hollinghurst, Line of Beauty
47. Paul Bowles, Sheltering Sky
48. Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
49. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
50. Evan Connell, Mrs. Bridge
51. Anne Frank’s Diary (re-read)
52. Any Ruth Murdoch
53. Any Sarah Waters (Fingersmith?)
54. Any Rose Tremain
55. Any Joyce Carol Oates
56. Any Updike
57. Any Peter Carey

Recent worthy dusties, nearly all on my shelves
58. Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow
59. Lorrie Moore, Birds of America
60. Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
62. Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles
63. Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
64. Ian Frazier, Cold Mountain
65. Edward P. Jones, The Known World
66. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
67. Catherynne M. Valente, Orphan’s Tales (my son has been trying to get me to read forever)
68. Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
69. Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
70. Marilyn Robinson, Housekeeping
71. Robert Bolano, Savage Detectives
72. James Meek, People’s Act of Love
73.*Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
74.*Seth Kantner, Ordinary Wolves
75. Lionel Shriver, Game Theory
76. Meg Wolitzer, The Ten O’Clock Nap
77. Zoe Heller, The Believers
78. E.L. Doctorow, The March
79. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
80. Michael Ondatje, The English Patient
81. Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler: Tale of an American Dreamer
82. Dean Koontz, Life Expectancy (to read with my daughter)
83-87. Next 5 Booker winners
88-92. Next 5 Pulitzers
93. David Marusek, Mind Over Ship (Alaskan book!)

94. Richard Powers, The Echo Maker
95. Junot Diaz, Drown
96. Sherman Alexie, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
97. Toni Morrison, Beloved
98. David Vann, Legend of a Suicide (Alaskan!)
99. Stuart Archer Cohen, Army of the Republic (Alaskan!)
100. Jon Clinch, Finn

There — done.

Note — I read nonfiction, but decided to keep this list 100% fiction. Go figure.

12 thoughts on “The Fill-in-the-gaps project: a hundred book reading list”

  1. Great list. Good luck with Pale Fire. I love Nabokov and have read many of his books, but that was the single-most difficult book I’ve ever read. It took me nearly 3 weeks, and I know 95% of it went over my head.

  2. Seeing your list makes me want one too (as long as no one holds me to finishing every book…we get to make our own rules and slide in subsitutions, right? As long as we promise to have a little balance between edification and passion?) And I love how this project took off and took shape online.

  3. i heartily approve. mostly because you have so many like or related titles to my list; this makes it all very companionable.

    re: Sarah Waters: i really liked NIGHT WATCH and AFFINITY. i liked reading the first more, but the latter affected me more in the long-term, i think. im looking forward to the new one.

  4. Hey Andromeda, i added you as an author for the blog, so you can post your list of 100 books up on the ‘fill in the gap’ blog, or if you want i can post it for you, whatever your more comfy with 🙂

  5. Andromeda, I’m not even going to try to convince you how many of your books I have read, and how many of those I found not worth bothering with.

    Okay, I was laughing a little when I wrote those words, but. If you’re bogged down, don’t forget, life is short, Moby Dick is long, Wallace Stegner is a misogynist asshole, and Georgette Heyer is always a good place to run and hide.

    Most sincerely,

    A Popular Fiction Fan Forever

  6. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Dana — first, do we allow the a-word on this blog? Probably not. But I don’t know how to edit it without removing your entire comment, which I enjoyed.

    As to your point: yes, I agree that life is short. But I do love many classics — just finished “Brideshead Revisited” last night and absolutely loved it — so I really don’t want to give the impression I am reading older works out of a sense of duty alone.

    As for popular fiction — did ya’ notice the Dean R Koontz, C. Valente, and Orson Scott Card on my list? (And also, wasn’t Dickens the pop author of his day? I think people sneer at him still…)

    If Dana or anyone else reading this is ever inspired to write a “10 (or more) popular genre books you MUST read,” please do. I’ll run it.

    And also, I don’t know if it counts as pop fiction, but among my favorite mysteries is the CLASSIC Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. Highly recommended.

  7. Like I said, Andromeda, my tongue was mostly in cheek, and make no mistake, I am awed by the ambition of your list. I think I was scarred for life by the modern lit class I took in grad school. We read one to two books a week, only one of which I still have on my bookshelves (Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). I became so impatient with the density and all too often the astonishing abrogation of narrative of so-called “literary” prose that the teacher said, “You’re not having a good semester, are you, Dana?” I sure wasn’t.

    Later, post degree, when I shouldered into my own work, I grew concerned over my lack of literary reading cred. Unlike you, I wasn’t confident enough to make my own list, so I decided to read the Pulitzer, Booker and Nobel winners, as well as current books given a thumbs up from the NYT Book Review. Oh lord. All I can say is I stuck with it as long as I could.

    The love of story is an intrinsically human trait. When as a critical community we (meaning in the larger sense) laud novels whose style deliberately obscures the narrative, it seems to me to be a deliberate slap at the reader. “You’re too dumb to understand this, back to Stephen King with you.” By bashing guys like King, we also belittle the people who love his books. Why would anyone want to keep reading anything after that?

    Okay, that’s my rant for the day. Hope you don’t mind me riding my hobby horse through your blog.

  8. And then, because tangent is my middle name, I hit the “Publish your comment” button without drawing any conclusion or making any point.

    Lists are subjective. You’re smart to make your own.

    That’s all, really.

  9. Good to see Ted Dreiser among your choices. A now over-looked author, if it weren’t for the film representation of his “An American Tragedy.” Yeah, Liz Taylor and Monty Clift make for a good-looking tragic couple.

    Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” also a good historical document, especially for its modern portrayal of an American woman who is not quite “traditional” for her times.

  10. Well said, Dana, and a great discussion all around. Your determination, however short-lived, to read prizewinners and bestsellers brings the thought back to its essence: there’s no accounting for taste. And there are so many angles on enrichment. Who’s to say whether cultural literacy or a study of great plots is a more worthy goal? What matters, I think, is reading what we love, and not being in such a rut that we miss what we might love even more, and books that might read differently for us at other times in our lives. Which could be the case for me with Dreiser, whom I had to read in a very dry American Lit course. Will have to give him another shot.

  11. Stuart Archer Cohen

    Thanks for shoehorning The Army of the Republic onto your list!
    I was glad to see Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment up there: one of my favorites, but I thought I'd add a few of REALLY old-timey classics to the list:
    The Iliad, by Homer. Brutal, depressing, thrilling and an incredibly effective essay on how the petty egos of powerful men result in devastation for the rest of us.
    Xenophon's Anabasis. The account of Operation Desert Storm 1, as 10,000 Greek mercenaries get lured into what's now Iraq (then Persia) with a succession of idealistic lies and craven self-interest. Written in 400 BC, it's a true-life thriller whose essential elements still get replayed in the here and now, in all their pathos and random horror.
    Virgil's Aeneid: After the fall of Troy, the Trojan survivors flee to found a new country. Unforgettable examples of Roman oratory and a riveting description of the Trojan horse and sack of Troy from the victims' point of view. One moral: don't spurn your lover and drive her to suicide, because you just might run into her in the Underworld.

    Mencius: Collected sayings of the great Chinese philosopher, about 330 BC. Okay, this one's a stretch, but if you want to understand China, as well as read some great stories that resonate in any language, dive in and don't come up for air until you've finished. Better Confucian aphorisms than Confucius, and a heck of a lot better sense of humor. Read the Penguin D.C. Lau translation.
    The Dream of the Red Chamber (The Story of the Stone) Strange and enchanting novel of 18th century China. The story of the decline of a wealthy Chinese family, their dependents and servants, and various animated pieces of stone and Taoist immortals that wander through from time to time. Yeah, I know it's weird, but it draws you in. Regarded as China's greatest novel, its author died broke and never saw his book in print.

    Latin American Literature:

    Jorge Luis Borges: Ficciones, The Book of Sand, and any others. Borges never wrote a novel because he didn't see the point of using up so many words to get across an idea you could express in a paragraph. His short stories are mind-bending.

    Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo. Breaks every narrative rule known to man in this story of an early 20th century Mexican village and the patron who controls it. You don't read this "novel" as much as tumble through it, it's mercifully short, so you'll finish before you feel too beat up. Then you'll want to read it again. (I'm generally with Dana Stabenow on writers who make me feel stupid.)
    The Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis through Nehemiah. A highly underrated book these days, or one that's taken at face value. Reading the "historical" books takes you from the creation of the universe to the birth of morality, of law, and then the long, unsatisfying trudge across the Sinai and into a questionable future. A book that deals with humanity's continued moral failings and it's heartening desire to keep trying. Must be read in sequence to get the feel for repetition and cycles so dear to its authors. Get past the idea of neat little "Bible stories," the Bible doesn't so much provide the answers, as enshrine the questions we need to keep asking. For the readers digest version, just read the book of Judges. It will leave you saying: "Wow!"

    I could go on and on, but there it is. Thanks for listening.


  12. Nana Fredua-Agyeman

    Hi I love your list and after reading the others I think I would have to make a list of my own. Did you give yourself the target? I mean the duration to complete this list of books? 1 year? or 2 or 3? what if other books pop up and they are equally interesting?

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