The Armchair Mountaineer

the deeper I go
the deeper I go
green mountains

—Taneda Santōka

Some people climb mountains to breathe rare air; I prefer reading. I’ve been thinking about the Everests of the armchair, books widely acknowledged to be landmarks, but only read by bookworms prepared to trudge a long way uphill. I asked the internet what it thought, ransacked my own notes and scattered reading lists, and here it is: my personal compilation of literary peaks. I left off a few books I’d already read — William Gass’s The Tunnel, Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Giovanni Bocaccio’s Decameron, Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, each of which would otherwise certainly belong — and those that remain are books (or tightly connected series) I haven’t read. They’re listed in no particular order. They’re not all novels. Perhaps your list would differ? (These are just the chunkers I want to read.) Tell me in the comments.

“Mont Sainte-Victoire,” by Paul Cezanne: 1887.
  1. In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
  2. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter
  3. The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil
  4. The Life of Reason, by George Santayana
  5. Anniversaries, by Uwe Johnson
  6. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  7. The Power Broker, by Robert Caro
  8. The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz
  9. USA, by John Dos Passos
  10. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon
  11. Jerusalem, by Alan Moore
  12. The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser
  13. Miss Macintosh, My Darling, by Marguerite Young
  14. The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu
  15. Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, by Rebecca West
  16. The Gormenghast Novels, by Mervyn Peake
  17. Harlot’s Ghost, by Norman Mailer
  18. Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
  19. Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon
  20. Burton’s The Arabian Nights
  21. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
  22. Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates
  23. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
  24. Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann
  25. Studs Lonigan, by James T. Farrell
  26. The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell
  27. The Recognitions, by William Gaddis
  28. The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning
  29. The Making of Americans, by Gertrude Stein
  30. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
  31. Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman
  32. The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer
  33. Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford
  34. Underworld, by Don DeLillo
  35. Terra Nostra, by Carlos Fuentes
  36. Ulysses, by James Joyce
  37. Civilization and Capitalism, by Fernand Braudel
  38. History, by Elsa Morante
  39. JR, by William Gaddis
  40. Phantom Africa, by Michel Leiris
  41. The Makioka Sisters, by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki
  42. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Guanzhong Luo
  43. Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain
  44. The Abruzzo Trilogy, by Ignazio Silone
  45. On What Matters, by Derek Parfit
  46. The Sleepwalkers, by Hermann Broch
  47. Wolf Solent, by John Cowper Powys
  48. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann
  49. The Family Idiot, by Jean-Paul Sartre
  50. The Golden Bowl, by Henry James
  51. Stages on Life’s Way, by Soren Kierkegaard
  52. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
  53. The Avignon Quintet, by Lawrence Durell
  54. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Stern
  55. Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson
  56. The City in History, by Lewis Mumford

5 thoughts on “The Armchair Mountaineer”

  1. I’ve been interested for a while in novelistic traditions that developed independently of the West. In that respect, Stephen Moore’s two-volume The Novel: An Alternative History opened up vast fictional terrains of which I had previously had a merely adumbrated view. Subsequently, I’ve read The Tale of Genji (in the Royall Tyler translation), now ranked among my favorite novels, and have plans to read The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin (David Hawkes and John Minford translation) and, if stamina permits, The Plum in the Golden Vase (in the David Tod Roy translation which Eliot Weinberger claims is unreadable lol). In any case, the full volumes are already shooting me accusatory glances from my bookshelf. Another novel on my list thanks to Moore, though it wouldn’t qualify as a mountain, is Kadambari by Bana. Who knew Sanskrit novels from the 7th century existed?

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  2. Interesting list. I’d add The Transylvanian Trilogy, by Miklós Bánffy – Austro-Hungarian power politics just before WWI. I posted about it last summer. Maybe another 2018 read: Trollope’s Barchester novels, most of them pretty hefty, except for the first, The Warden – many characters recur, drop out then reappear, throughout the series. Hope to start the Pallisers this year – and Anniversaries, on your list, and the Musil has been on the shelf for a while now.

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    1. Oooh, thank you. Bánffy is new to me. — I like Trollope, and I’ve read quite a bit. If some books are mountains in disguise, some books are not-mountains disguised as mountains, if that makes sense? I feel like Trollope is so addictively readable that the length almost doesn’t matter. For sure I recommend them, though, along with you, to anyone reading these comments.

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  3. Another non-occidental peak only recently climbable by English-speaking mountaineers (though in this case its author was a Shakespeare enthusiast): Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq.

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