Category Archives: 149 Greatest Novels

I’m reading my way through a blended list of 149 greatest novels of all time; based on two such lists in The Guardian, one in 2015 and one in 2003. Wish me luck!

250-Year-Old Novel Tied To Danish Sperm Science!

First of all, to prevent confusion, and in hopes of not being sued, let me state that this post is NOT about the 70’s British pop band called Tristram Shandy, shown in the featured image, nor to the best of my knowledge are any of the band members Danish or involved in any way with Danish sperm. But their NAME is relevant, and their hair is so FLUFFY. Hence my use of the photo.

In my quest to read the 149 Greatest Novels of the English Language, I’ve made it to #7, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Lawrence Sterne. But this isn’t about that.

This is about how a 250-year-old novel and a news story from last week both came to my attention on the same day, and told me the same thing.

The book starts with an anecdote about Tristram’s conception – about how he can be so sure of its exact timing due to a confluence of London travel, Sciatica, strict clock-winding habits, and a mother’s ill-timed query*. He relates this to show how the events surrounding this conception led directly to his “thousand weaknesses both of body and mind”.

The TL;DR version: during her impregnation, Mother Shandy annoyed Father Shandy with a question, and this led directly to the resulting child having “a disordered state of nerves”.

Ok, that’s cute, from before the time when we understood how biology and inheritance works. But then, I was reading this article by Carl Zimmer, New York Times, in which is discussed:

this controversial hypothesis: that a man’s experiences can alter his sperm, and that those changes in turn may alter his children.

That’s just what STERNE said 250 years ago! Granted, the scientific study going on in Denmark is about physical changes to a man’s body resulting in physical traits in his children, and the book is referencing the man being annoyed during procreation (how delicate I’m being!) leading to the child being a Nervous Nellie – but still… a funny coincidence of the universe bringing my attention to these two very different sources at about the same time.

Life’s a funny old thing, ain’t she?


*Read the book yourself to see how these all worked together.

Big Ass Book!

Good lord!  This book is over 1500 pages long. I want to read it, which is why I borrowed it from the library. But I’m not going to finish it in 2 weeks, or 4, or even 6. This is a PROJECT, this book. Why, you ask, would I want to read such a thing?

Well, I’ll tell you. A while back I ran across The Guardian’s list of the 100 Best Novels in the English Language, or some such thing. Being a sucker for lists, I checked it out and found that I had read shamefully few of these alleged ‘great’ books.

Further googling uncovered a similar list from a decade earlier. Most of the books on each list were also on the other, and mostly in the same order, but when I got them all put together on a spreadsheet (data!), I discovered that I now had a list of the 149 best novels of all time.

So I decided to read the ones I’d missed. In chronological order. Yippee, a mission…let’s GO!

First up: Don Quixote, Cervantes, 1605. That is a remarkably long time ago, and this was a remarkably enjoyable book. I’m guessing that if I could read Spanish, and I tried to read it in the original, I might hate it almost as much as I did the next couple of moth-eaten old wrecks, but luckily for me, I’m illiterate in all but my native tongue, so I was able to like the hell out of this story.

#2: written in 1678 by John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress is the story of a man’s search for salvation. Or something.

Oh fuck me running, I TRIED, I really did. The language was tough, but I knew to expect that, and I’m not afraid to stretch myself, so I thought I could do it. Wrong. It wasn’t just the language…the story was so…. fraught… with such heavy-handed Christian symbolism, it made my teeth ache. Am I closed-minded? Am I shallow? Maybe so…but I. Just. Couldn’t.

#3 (don’t panic, I’m not doing all 150 right now): Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe (1719). This was slightly better, but this time the language  DID get to me. I couldn’t focus on it, couldn’t parse my way through it; I gave up. It was also partly that I just wasn’t interested in the story. Skip.

#4: Gulliver’s Travels. FINALLY! Apparently, by 1726, the language had evolved enough that I could enjoy it (oh, yeah, those 7 years made all the difference ;-)). That Jonathan Swift can spin a riveting yarn, I tell you what. Little people, big people, and all of them with social and political foibles just like us!

Which brings us to the screeching halt that is #5, Clarissa. (Samuel Richardson, 1747-8) Written in the form of letters, some between our heroine Clarissa and her BFF Anna, others between other people (haven’t got past 3rd page yet, please forgive vagueness), it is a classic, a masterpiece, a triumph.  That may be so, but it’s also freaking HUGE. I think I saw somewhere, the LONGEST novel ever.

It encompasses 537 letters written over the period 10 January through 18 December… which gave me my idea for a PROJECT! I’m going to read it in real-time, next year.

So I’ve ordered it from The Book Depository, and I’m going to start it on 10 January and read the letters on (or close to) their dates! (Who’s with me? Anyone want to do an online, year-long, book club for a 260-year-old book?  Read all week, then maybe something like a Facebook page where we talk about it every weekend? No? Ok, just thought I’d ask.)

In the meantime, I’m still planning to slog through the rest of the list, and I’ll be sure to keep you all posted. (Oh YAY, is what I hear you all not quite saying aloud.) Next up: Tom Jones. Oh wait, I read that one years ago. SKIP.  Next up: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne, 1759; currently on hold at the Next Town Over Public Library.