The Reading List

How does one put together a list of Must-Read Novels? The idea of a literary canon invariably assumes some recourse to a higher authority – in other words, what other people have said are the great works of literature. As our culture is still dominated by white men, most lists of Great Works tend to be heavily white, Western and male – many of them dead, or still alive but so deified that they might as well be. Fortunately, I’ve had the benefit of some wonderful teachers in feminist and post-colonial literature (chief among them the great Jocelyn Harris, Professor Emerita at the University of Otago). With their lessons in mind, I’ve tried to make sure that my list looks further afield than all those ranks of men.

That said, I do enjoy a good Dead White Male – I’m also white and male, so that’s perhaps not surprising – and my list is always going to be subject to my bias. For better or for worse, I’m able to appreciate a DWM who’s a marvellous wordsmith even when his sexual politics are repugnant to me or now unacceptable in the age of #metoo. That’s not to say that I think politics or perspective are unimportant, or that art should live in a moral vacuum, which it can’t, frankly. It’s understandable why writers like Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Philip Roth continue to infuriate feminists, people of colour and their compatriots, and it’s also totally legitimate to call these writers out on their misogyny or racism. I’m just not going to stop reading them, or occasionally applauding when I come across beautiful writing.

To make the project manageable, and to give myself a fighting chance of one day perhaps finishing, I decided to set a few ground rules. The list is predominantly novels, with a few exceptions for epic poetry (Beowulf, the Odyssey, Eugene Onegin), memoir (Testament of Youth, Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table) and seminal works of non-fiction (The Feminine Mystique, The Female Eunuch). I’ve been deliberately spare with books written after the year 2000, on the basis that it takes a decade or two for a book’s “classic” status to fully manifest.

I allowed myself a few free passes on highly-praised books that looked too difficult or too damned long to bother with (Finnegan’s Wake, anything by Thomas Pynchon), and I’ve largely avoided science fiction as it’s a genre I don’t enjoy. As a native of New Zealand, I also threw in a few local novelists adored in our country but less well-known internationally.

The lists that I worked from (with some judicious pruning) were:

So here they are, presented in date order by the year of their publication. For books published in series – Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time – I’ve listed each volume separately, as I expect to read them separately and non-consecutively. Read it and weep, people.




  1. Gawd, I’ve read only 4 of these – mostly from later years – and started and failed to finish another couple. Perhaps your blog will inspire me to have a go at some of them.


  2. I can’t resist a list! This is a good one. I started my Rose City Reader book blog 11 years ago to keep track of all the book lists I am working on – prize winners and Must Reads. It’s hard to keep up!

    Recently, I did what you did and made a list of “classics” I haven’t gotten to yet that I want to make an effort to read. My list is here: You might be interested in sharing your list with the Classics Club, a group of bloggers working on similar lists. You can find the details and the link in my post.

    Of yours, I’ve read 103. My favorite = Dance to the Music of Time. My least favorite = The Magus. Several of the 67 I haven’t read are on my TBR shelves.

    Good luck and happy reading!


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