Life is short, you've got a lot to do and you still havent watched The Wire or read War and Peace yet. Well I haven't watched The Wire either but fortunately I have read everything so here's a quick primer on 20 'great' big books that I've read so that you don't have to.
1. Clarissa: This will take you hundreds of miserable hours to finish and at the end of it you will have no feeling of achievement, merely the aching knowledge that you wont get those hours back. Even Richardson's much shorter Pamela drags and Fielding's pisstake on Pamela, Shamela isn't the barrel of laughs you'd like it to be either.
2. The Mill On The Floss: The soppy ending is telegraphed miles ahead and its a dreary trudge to get there. If you're only going to read one George Eliot in this lifetime make it Middlemarch.
3. Finnegan's Wake: A literary experiment or a longform poem, not a novel: read Ulysses or Dubliners or Portrait instead.
4. Jude The Obscure: Thomas Hardy's books and prose style have not aged well. His poetry is terrific but I think you can easily skip the gloomy Jude The Obscure, The Return of the Native & Tess and maybe just read Far From The Madding Crowd which, spoiler alert, has a rare-for-Hardy happy-ish ending.
5. The Brothers Karamazov: Controversial one this. I loved the Brothers K but if you're only ever going to read one Dostoyevsky read Crime And Punishment instead because its shorter, more focused and more contemporary. But hear me well: the five 5 big Dostoyevsky novels are all worth getting stuck into if you've got the time...
6. Little Dorrit: Read the first chapter that begins in a prison in Marseilles. Skip to the end. But definitely read this before Dombey and Son or The Old Curiosity Shop or Hard Times or the steadfastly unfunny Pickwick Papers. My preferred Dickens is the late 3 act masterpiece: Bleak House.
7. Armadale: Wilkie Collins has been undergoing a revival of late but this isn't the one to start with. The Woman in White, No Name, The Moonstone - stick to those.
8. From Here To Eternity: Interesting gay subtext, strange nihilistic ending, but James Jones's masterpiece is The Thin Red Line - go get that. Now.
9. Infinite Jest: DFW's real genius was for writing essays. Read those and you won't regret a minute spent in the great man's company.
10. War and Peace: The war bits will irritate those of you who like romance. The romance bits will irritate those of you in it for the war. The weird lengthy coda will annoy everyone. Look, I'll be honest I did like this book but if you're pressed for time read Anna Karenina or The Death of Ivan Ilyich or Hadji Murad.
11. To The Lighthouse - Not really a fan of Woolf but I think Mrs Dalloway is better and sharper than Lighthouse. If, however, you're curious about what posh people were thinking about on their holidays in the pre WW1 salad days then this is the book for you.
12. A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu: the first 30 pages will give you gist. Trust me.
13. The Harry Potter Series: I think we can all agree now that some kind of collective madness overcame the word in the late 90's when fully grown adults started wearing wizard hats and reading these novels. I'm reading these to my seven year old at the moment. Holy Christ do books 4 & 5 drag.
14 Dune. I read all 6 Frank Herbert Dune books and a couple of knock offs written by his kid. What the hell was I thinking? Don't get sucked in.
15. Against The Day. This is not the Thomas Pynchon to begin with. Start thusly: a) Inherent Vice b) Lot 49 c) Gravity's Rainbow d) Vineland e) Bleeding Edge f) Mason & Dixon g) V h) Against the Day.
16. The Finkler Question. Steadfastly unfunny, but not in a Stewart Lee deliberately unfunny meta-textual kind of way, just in a regular unfunny kind of way.
17. The Heart of Midlothian - Sir Walter Scott hasn't aged that well either although Ivanhoe is still a rollicking good read, isn't it?
18. The Screenplay of The Counselor: Reads like it was written by that pervy old guy who's always hanging around the frozen yoghurt place the Catholic schoolgirls go to after soccer practice, but in fact it was written by Cormac McCarthy! Huh?
19. The middle 300 pages of anything written by someone who is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. You know what I'm talking about. The book starts well but then the IWW training kicks in and we get 300 pages of noodling around the same portentous issues with no jokes and plenty of hack philosophy and psychology. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule - Daniel Woodrell went to the IWW for example and you'll never hear me say a word against DW!
20. A Suitable Boy. I kid. A Suitable Boy is terrific and I won't hear a word against it. I carried it around India with me for two months and it makes a useful stool, a source of emergency toilet or roll up paper and it could be a handy defensive weapon. Its perfect really except for the fact that . . . MAJOR SPOILER ALERT after 1300 pages she HIDDEN TEXT: doesn't actually marry the suitable boy.