IT IS foolish to proclaim any one book as ‘the greatest novel.’ Tastes and judgements differ, just as our reading experiences do. We can only make a subjective choice, and that is limited by what we have read.

Of novels written in English, George Eliot’s Middlemarch is certainly one of the greatest. At 896 pages (in my Penguin edition) it cleverly interweaves several plotlines, is rich in characters and has a strong sense of place. It includes both social comedy and discussion of the political and religious issues that were important in the early 1830s, when the novel is set. It is a satisfying read in that creates its own provincial world and skilfully brings its narrative to a conclusion.

Size seems to matter when we talk about really great novels. But length itself is not enough. There are plenty of very long novels that would be twice as good if they were only half as long.

A really great novel is one the reader would not want any shorter: every chapter, every scene, almost every sentence is important to the overall effect.

Much as I enjoy Dickens’ novels, and no writer ever created more memorable characters, I feel his books would often be the better for a little editing. While James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, at times loses its hold on the reader (or at least me).

A couple of weeks ago a Guardian editorial stated: ‘There is one thing that readers of fiction have in common: the wish to be absorbed in a story that is not about themselves.’ I want to discover new worlds through my reading of fiction.

My ‘greatest novel’ is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I returned to it last month. It is a big book (624 pages), broken into 135 short chapters. Those who have not read it may know the story from one of the film versions (of which there are more than a dozen).

It plunges the reader into the unfamiliar world of 19th century whaling. We accompany the Pequod under the obsessive Captain Ahab as he seeks out again the white whale (Moby Dick) that bit off his leg on his previous voyage. The novel is wide-ranging and digressive - full of strange whaling facts and lore, and humour.

It is a wonderfully unconventional adventure story about the obsessive search for this white whale. It explores the nature of revenge, madness, friendship and death. And it is a work of literary virtuosity. It has been called ‘the greatest work of imagination in our literature’. I know no other book like it. It is my favourite novel.

Because it is so long out of print it is available free as e-book. And if you google you can listen to it being read aloud (also for free) – with each chapter by a different speaker.

If you would like to nominate your greatest novel, please email

Lance Christopher

PS Although books can indeed be bought as paper copies, or as eBooks via Kindle, they can also be borrowed digitially and, once the coronavirus lockdown has passed, as print copies, from Wiltshire libraries.

Free RBdigital eBooks, eAudio and eMagazines are available from Wiltshire libraries, who have over 2,500 eBooks, over 1,000 eAudiobooks and 38 eMagazines available.

All you need to access them is a Wiltshire library card and an email address so that you can register with RBdigital. If you don’t have a library card, you can join online by completing a form and then receiving an email with your library card number.

More information about this service and a link to the joining form can be found at