Today I was searching through some old writing files on my computer, stuff I’d not looked at since about 2001. In searching the dark, dusty shelves of my hard drive, I re-discovered an old Excel spreadsheet I’d made called “The 100 Best Novels of All-Time.” Upon opening the spreadsheet all these years later, it looked like some arcane code which made not a bit of sense to me now, even though I was the one who made it. Ahhh, how time ravages the memory.
A bit of context…when I first embarked on my dream of becoming a published novelist, around 1999, I had just sold my investment firm. As a fugitive from the world of finance, my tool of choice was still the spreadsheet, therefore, the entire world, literature included, seemed ripe for numerical analysis. Old habits and all that.
Below you can see a screenshot of the digital antique.
Deciphering my old spreadsheet took about 30 minutes. The acronyms in the headings — MLB, MLR, Rad, UKGO, and 4-List — meant nothing to me at first. I had to google “100 Greatest Novels of All Time” as a way to hopefully stumble on a clue to their cryptic origins. I was soon rewarded with links to a page on the Modern Library website that had two lists, one from their Board (MLB = Modern Library Board) and one from their readers (MLR).
Okay, two riddles solved. What about the rest?
Turns out that “Rad” was an abbreviation for the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s Rival List of the 100 Best Novels of All-Time.
Another check of Google’s returned links sent me over to a similar list compiled by the UK’s Guardian/Observer media outlet (UKGO), which they had since updated in October of 2003.
Four mysteries solved, one to go.
Alas, I wasn’t able to Sherlock Holmes my way to an answer as to what “4-List” referred. Based on the data, I know it wasn’t a summary of the other four lists; it was, in fact, a fifth list, but I’m unable to decipher it’s origin. If you have any ideas, please post them in the comments. It’s probably pretty obvious to many of you, but not to this old soldier.
Any way, I see what I did with these five lists and my handy spreadsheet: I listed every book that appeared on at least one of the five lists (a total of 316 individual books) along with their respective rankings for each list they appeared. I then totaled the scores and ranked the 316 books based on their cumulative score from the five lists. Obviously, any book that appeared on a greater number of lists stood a better chance of scoring high in my Über ranking.
Interestingly, and evidence of the immense subjectivity of the question itself, only eleven books appeared on all five lists, another twelve books made it on four of the five lists.
Lastly, I ranked all the books based on their total score to determine my Five-List Über Ranking of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. Without further ado, here they are:
|1||The Great Gatsby||F. Scott Fitzgerald|
|4||Brave New World||Aldous Huxley|
|7||Lord Of The Flies||William Golding|
|8||Catcher In The Rye||J.D. Salinger|
|9||The Grapes Of Wrath||John Steinbeck|
|10||The Sound And The Fury||William Faulkner|
|11||Animal Farm||George Orwell|
|12||Slaughterhouse Five||Kurt Vonnegut|
|13||A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man||James Joyce|
|14||To Kill A Mockingbird||Harper Lee|
|15||On The Road||Jack Kerouac|
|16||To The Lighthouse||Virginia Woolf|
|17||Invisible Man||Ralph Ellison|
|18||The Lord Of The Rings||J.R.R. Tolkien|
|19||The Sun Also Rises||Ernest Hemingway|
|20||The Call Of The Wild||Jack London|
|21||As I Lay Dying||William Faulkner|
|22||A Passage To India||E.M. Forster|
|24||Native Son||Richard Wright|
|25||Gone With The Wind||Margaret Mitchell|
|26||A Clockwork Orange||Anthony Burgess|
|27||Heart Of Darkness||Joseph Conrad|
|28||A Farewell To Arms||Ernest Hemingway|
|29||Charlotte’S Web||E.B. White|
|30||The Fountainhead||Ayn Rand|
|32||The Good Soldier||Ford Madox Ford|
|31||Under The Volcano||Malcolm Lowry|
|33||I, Claudius||Robert Graves|
|34||The Age Of Innocence||Edith Wharton|
|35||U.S.A. (Trilogy)||John Dos Passos|
|36||All The King’S Men||Robert Penn Warren|
|37||The World According To Garp||John Irving|
|38||The Color Purple||Alice Walker|
|39||The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter||Carson McCullers|
|40||Sons And Lovers||D.H. Lawrence|
|41||Tender Is The Night||F. Scott Fitzgerald|
|42||One Flew Over The Cuckoo’S Nest||Ken Kesey|
|43||Stranger In A Strange Land||Robert Heinlein|
|44||Song Of Solomon||Toni Morrison|
|45||My Antonia||Willa Cather|
|46||Winesburg, Ohio||Sherwood Anderson|
|48||Of Human Bondage||W. Somerset Maugham|
|47||Their Eyes Are Watching God||Zora Neale Hurston|
|50||Howards End||E.M. Forster|
|51||The Old Man And The Sea||Ernest Hemingway|
|50||Tropic Of Cancer||Henry Miller|
|52||Go Tell It On The Mountain||James Baldwin|
|53||The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie||Muriel Spark|
|54||Women In Love||D.H. Lawrence|
|55||An American Tragedy||Theodore Dreiser|
|56||The Wings Of The Dove||Henry James|
|57||Sister Carrie||Theodore Dreiser|
|58||The Handmaid’S Tale||Margaret Atwood|
|59||A Room With A View||E.M. Forster|
|60||Sophie’S Choice||William Styron|
|62||Of Mice And Men||John Steinbeck|
|63||The Ambassadors||Henry James|
|64||Darkness At Noon||Arthur Koestler|
|65||Atlas Shrugged||Ayn Rand|
|66||The Golden Bowl||Henry James|
|68||The Maltese Falcon||Dashiell Hammett|
|67||The Naked And The Dead||Norman Mailer|
|70||Ethan Frome||Edith Wharton|
|72||Rebecca||Daphne du Maurier|
|71||The Way Of All Flesh||Samuel Butler|
|73||Lady Chatterley’S Lover||D.H. Lawrence|
|75||The Rainbow||D.H. Lawrence|
|76||The Jungle||Upton Sinclair|
|77||Farenheit 451||Ray Bradbury|
|78||Light In August||William Faulkner|
|79||Portnoy’S Complaint||Philip Roth|
|80||The Moviegoer||Walker Percy|
|81||Henderson The Rain King||Saul Bellow|
|82||Portrait Of A Lady||Henry James|
|83||Appointment In Samarra||John O’Hara|
|84||From Here To Eternity||James Jones|
|85||Brideshead Revisited||Evelyn Waugh|
|86||Angle Of Repose||Wallace Stegner|
|87||The Studs Lonigan Trilogy||James T. Farrell|
|88||Death Comes For The Archbishop||Willa Cather|
|89||The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz||L. Frank Baum|
|90||A Handful Of Dust||Evelyn Waugh|
|91||The Good Earth||Pearl S. Buck|
|92||The Hobbit||J.R.R. Tolkien|
|93||Mrs Dalloway||Virginia Woolf|
|94||The Bridge Of San Luis Rey||Thornton Wilder|
|95||Absalom, Absalom||William Faulkner|
|96||Rabbit, Run||John Updike|
|97||Look Homeward, Angel||Thomas Wolfe|
|98||Wise Blood||Flannery O’Connor|
|99||Wide Sargasso Sea||Jean Rhys|
|100||A Tree Grows In Brooklyn||Betty Smith|
Even 10+ years after compiling this work of staggering analytical genius (read: mostly a big waste of time and yet another way to procrastinate from actually writing), I’ve still only read eleven of the books in the Top 20 of my own Über list.
It also strikes me that lists like this, especially in the literary world, are varnished with copious amounts of intellectual bluster and snooty-nosed nonsense. The list is chock-a-block full of novels that I have tried to read but found to be more effective at sleep inducement than pulling the shades, turning on the Weather Channel, and tossing back a handful of Ambien. So called great literature is often a long way from entertaining. But, again, maybe my own literary palette is just a bit too lowbrow and blue collar. Oh well, guilty.
That said, the list does contain some of my all-time favorite novels, books that I’ve read multiple times, both for their sheer pleasure, as well as the treasure trove of good writing lessons crammed into them. Literary goldmines like The Great Gatsby (#1), Brave New World (#4), Catcher In The Rye (#8), To Kill a Mockingbird (#14), A Clockwork Orange (#26), Winnie-The-Pooh (#61), and The Hobbit (#92).
But a lot of my favorite books didn’t make the top 100, but where listed among the 316 books found amongst the five lists. Some exceptional books (read: personal favorites of mine) that didn’t make the Top 100 are listed below. Let’s calls these my Honorable Mentions, or…
How Did These Books Not Make the Top 100?
|102||A Prayer For Owen Meany||John Irving|
|106||Lonesome Dove||Larry McMurtry|
|111||The Secret Agent||Joseph Conrad|
|114||Don Quixote||Miguel De Cervantes|
|116||Robinson Crusoe||Daniel Defoe|
|122||Tom Jones||Henry Fielding|
|128||Dangerous Liaisons||Pierre Choderlos De Laclos|
|137||2001: A Space Odyssey||Arthur C. Clarke|
|145||The Count Of Monte Cristo||Alexandre Dumas|
|175||The Stand||Stephen King|
|176||Huckleberry Finn||Mark Twain|
|182||The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe||C. S. Lewis|
|196||Schindler’s List||Thomas Keneally|
|232||Starship Troopers||Robert Heinlein|
|235||Something Wicked This Way Comes||Ray Bradbury|
|236||Bonfire Of The Vanities||Thomas Wolfe|
|263||The Hunt For Red October||Tom Clancy|
|273||The War Of The Worlds||H.G. Wells|
|302||The Godfather||Mario Puzo|
In Conclusion: What’s It All Mean?
What should be noted about these lists is the wildly different world of Great Fiction and Great Selling Fiction. In once again consulting my very brainy friend, Google, I was lead to several different lists of the best selling novels of all time, and how different that list is than ours. Yes, many books appear in both worlds — The Hobbit, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With The Wind, The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, to name a few. But most of the best selling books of all time don’t make the cut for “great literature.”
So what’s the take away? For me, as a writer, I had to decide what my goal is as a writer: write great literature, or write popular fiction? The answer for me is not so much an either/or question, but more a matter of priorities. For me, job one is writing the best (read: most entertaining) stories I can, stories that readers love. Stories that keep the pages turning and the reader engaged. Priority number two is to write well, to develop the best skills and the highest form of the craft as I can, but never at the expense of the reader’s enjoyment. Put another way, I’d rather sell a hundred million copies while I’m alive than make the 100 Greatest Novels of All-Time list after I’m dead, and I’d rather entertain millions today than educate 8th grade English classes tomorrow. But that’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself, and there’s no wrong answer.
A Different Kind of List
I need your help. I can’t stop wondering what a list like this would look like if we changed the question slightly. When asked “What’s the greatest novel ever?”, you’ll invariably get people giving you their highbrow, intellectual answers, so the classics will dominate, whether most people actually enjoy then or not. But what if we asked people, anonymously if needed, “What’s your favorite novel ever, the one you’d take with you to a deserted island if you could only take one book?” I think this list would be a lot different, and probably more useful for readers, and for authors aspiring to put food on the table with their writing.
For me, I’ll give you a few books that are among my all-time favorite reads, and each worthy of inclusion on my deserted island packing list:
#1 is Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. I just loved this book and have read it three times, no small accomplishment as it weighs in at about 700 pages. It’s got everything from humor to shoot outs to heartache. It even has a blue duck.
#2 is The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. Like Lonesome Dove, this book is both an incredibly fun read, but also long on craft. Movies are never as good as the book, and The Godfather movie is consistently listed as the best movie ever made. So how awesome must the novel be? Just saying.
#3 is a guilty pleasure from my youth, Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. I may have grown out of this book a bit at this point, or maybe not, but it was one of the books I read early on that sparked in me a desire to be a writer. I found the characters fascinating, especially the insider access to what it is to be different. Before Rice, monsters were one dimensional. Interview turned the genre on its head and made people want to actually be Vampires — that was its genius. Too bad Vampires have been done to death (forgive the pun) of late.
#4 Lastly, pretty much anything by Pat Conroy.
So what I need your help with is this:
I’d like to know what is your favorite novel of all-time, the book that just gives you bunches of raw pleasure? Good writing, bad writing, doesn’t matter. Just that it was super fun. Post your choices in the comments below and let’s see if we can start our own list of the Top 100 Best Reads of All-Time.
Wishing you happy reading and easy writing,