Features of note

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How the Greatest Literature of All Time list was created

How works were selected

The story of science fiction

What counts as SF?

Much of what you read in English was not written in English. Does it matter?

Finding the best translations

Much ado about Shakespeare

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Shakespeare's eyes
What was he really about?

William Shakespeare

Was it Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare's plays?

The controversy

What he wrote—and what really happened

The histories

Not all other writers think Shakespeare's the best

What they've said

The plays are the thing:

Hamlet

Henry IV, Part 1

Julius Caesar

King Lear

Macbeth

Othello

The Merchant of
Venice

Romeo and Juliet

The Tempest

Recent commentaries

Lolita US first edition

Falling for the charm of the predator

Lolita is the kind of book that grows thicker every time you read it.The first time you may race through to take in the plot of the adult male who loves and loses a pre-adolescent girlstill shocking more than half a century after its publication. Still shocking in how unshocking it seems, as you first read it in Humbert Humbert's calm.... Lolita

The Picture of Dorian Gray first edition

Taking the pith out of artistic ideals

Everyone knows the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray: a beautiful young man remains unblemished by age, while his painted portrait, hidden from public sight, grows older and corrupted by moral degradation. It's become a common compliment to a friend's continued youthfulness to say "You must have.... The Picture of Dorian Gray

Tis Pity She's a Whore title page, 1633

Pity us all

Perhaps the most shocking thing about 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is that it still shocks. John Ford's plays were written in a period of increasingly scandalous theatre. After the days of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, English drama took a more shocking and grisly turn that critics have termed "sensationalist".... 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

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A monk and a poet walk into a bar

For certain sensibilities, the music to play when seduction is on the menu is Leonard Cohen songs—any Leonard Cohen songs. They're seldom romantic in the style of the love songs in the Great American Songbook or modern pop traditions. But they have a quality of intimacy—at once melancholy and celebratory.... Leonard Cohen

Monkey's Paw original cover

Recovering from the past

The beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald's story "Babylon Revisited" with an expatriate American visiting Paris, scene of his carousing in the 1920s and now deserted by the old gang, may put a later reader in mind of Hemingway's look back at that era in A Moveable Feast (1964). The American in the short story is obviously a.... Babylon Revisited

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The whole story of a modern writer

Philip Roth is a writer I'd been reading a long time, checking out a new novel every couple of years, catching up on older efforts, without ever thinking of him as being one of the "greats". Just Philip Roth, ruminating on what it's like to be a young-then-middle-age-then-older, male, middle-class, Jewish, sexually.... Philip Roth

Flatland original cover

Curious and less curiouser

Flatland is a curiosity. This novella, fable, allegory, satire or math lesson—whatever it's supposed to be—is often counted as a classic science fiction work. From a bare description of Flatland, I could see why. A hypothetical world of only two dimensions is described within which all things, including the inhabitants, are.... Flatland

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This lady writer's not for beating

Mark Twain famously defined the ideal library as one with no Jane Austen books. He seemed to enjoy ridiculing Austen's work, reading which made him "feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven". At least some of his detestation of Austen may have been an act, but I see his point. Really, how much.... Jane Austen

Monkey's Paw original cover

The horror of unintended consequences

"The Monkey's Paw" is a story so well known for its plot that its writing and style are sometimes forgotten. In fact, it seems not to have been written by anyone at all, but has filtered down to us through the ages as folk tale or fable. Which is unfair to accomplished short story author W.W. Jacobs who wrote and published.... The Monkey's Paw

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Author provocateur

A case could be made for Wilkie Collins as one of the most influential writers of his era, his impact still being felt today in every kind of popular fiction. As much as, or more than, the iconic mid-Victorian figures of Dickens, Thackeray and Eliot. The argument would go something like this: First, look at his most... Wilkie Collins

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Burning questions

It may seem that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is becoming less relevant these days, as hard-copy books are at risk of disappearing, pushed aside by digital communications. Without paper media, warnings about book-burning may seem increasingly old-fashioned. For book-burning is what Fahrenheit 451 is.... Fahrenheit 451

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Last visit to Brideshead

Why do we still read Brideshead Revisited? An account of aimless, upper-class, young men wasting their time at Oxford University in hedonistic pursuits. Until the story is swallowed by the larger theme of an intensely Catholic, intensely self-absorbed, aristocratic family. Presented nostalgically and.... Brideshead-Revisited

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Containing the crazy

John Irving writes big books. Yes, long novels—longer than most contemporary works you find on the bestseller lists. But big in so many other ways. Big characters, big themes of the day, big and sprawling stories. And, most gloriously, he's got that knack of creating worlds. Give the first fifty pages... John Irving

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The puzzle that is Palliser

The problem with Charles Palliser as a famous novelist is that in every book he tries something radically different. He's the ultimate experimental writer, which makes him a bold and always interesting writer for those who appreciate such experiments but also makes it hard for him.... Charles Palliser

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Why don't more people love this novel?

For a few, Villette is Charlotte Brontë's big book—not just the longest of her four novels, but the most realistic, most interesting and most progressive. I fully understand this. There are times reading Villette I have to turn back to the title page to confirm that, yes, this really was written in the middle.... Villette

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Sister who blazed longest and hardest

Charlotte was the longest living of the three writing Brontë sisters, almost making it to age forty, and her output was by far the most extensive and most popular in its day. Yet many know her best as the sister of Emily Brontë, author of the revered Wuthering Heights, which she championed.... Charlotte Brontë

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Some get caught and some don't

Few novels divide readers as The Catcher in the Rye does. This may sound like a bizarre thing to say, since J.D. Salinger's novel has been wildly popular since it came out in 1951. It's been lauded as changing the course of post-Second World War writing—at least American writing—as much as.... The Catcher in the Rye

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Lost between the levels

Let's see. Margaret Atwood writes her Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Assassin about an elderly woman writing her memoirs about her and her sister's lives, the younger sibling having written an infamous novel called The Blind Assassin, which recounts her trysts with a political.... Blind Assassin

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Love, the beautiful disease

Love in the Time of Cholera is a favourite novel for lovers who take from it something like "Love is forever" or "Love conquers all" or "Follow your heart and you'll eventually find your one great love." Yet, Gabriel García Márquez's story also appeals to cynics who find the yearning, love-obsessed.... Love in the Time of Cholera

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Less sex than violence

It can be difficult to read Edward II today as a Christopher Marlow play. One keeps sliding into thinking of it as minor Shakespeare—you know, all those early plays with kings and numerals in their titles. Partly this is a matter of timing. We may appreciate Marlowe's own earlier plays, especially.... Edward II

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Killing social evil with kindness

You could make a case that every Charles Dickens novel is atypical in some way, but Little Dorrit really is a special case. For one thing, it's been called his most political novel—the book that George Bernard Shaw said converted him to socialism and that other great figures considered an example of.... Little Dorrit

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The writer to emulate—or to beat

Chances are, you think of Charles Dickens in one of two opposite ways. As the writer, the very icon of the great and popular author for the masses, against whose work all subsequent fiction is to be measured. Or as the epitome of an old-fashioned, wordy, sentimental style that had to be swept away before.... Charles Dickens

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The in-between romantic

Lord Jim is one of the Joseph Conrad novels that has me thinking at places "This may be the best writing I've ever read" and at other places "Come on, get on with it, would you!" Part of this ambivalence I put down to Conrad's position—along with a few other British and American writers like.... Lord Jim

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Tess the too pure

When Tess of the D'Urbervilles first came out in book form in late 1891, it was in equal parts hailed as Thomas Hardy's masterpiece and condemned as a moral outrage. The latter opinion was due mainly to the novel's sympathetic treatment of the titular country girl who had sex—and a child.... Tess of the D'Urbervilles

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The seriously sick artist

It's hard to take Edgar Allan Poe seriously as a literary figure. Not his fault. Poe took writing very seriously as an art form. His critical works show this. And his stories have proven tremendously influential in both the literary world and in popular culture. Ah, yes, but about the culture.... Edgar Allan Poe

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Star-crossed lovers live on, alas

Possibly Shakespeare's best-known play. Everyone knows the story of star-crossed lovers who defied their families—the feuding Capulets and Montagues—and ended their lives tragically. Romeo and Juliet is a play with something for everyone: romance, intrigue, sword-fighting, wonderful.... Romeo and Juliet

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Comedy light and dark

To appreciate Molière's comic genius you should probably see the plays performed. Reading them, you can get the idea they're lightweight, not much above the average episode of Three's Company, but with fewer jokes. You've got to see actors taking full advantage of the satiric nuance in the lines.... Molière

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Where the dark comes from

You think you know Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness even if you haven't read it in years, or ever. It's been widely taught in school, so its most famous lines ring with musty familiarity. Its plot has been adapted for all manner of media, though usually in wildly divergent stories or in parody. It's part of.... Heart of Darkness

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The great sea change

After having read so much Joseph Conrad—some forced upon me as a student, some for pleasure—I still find it hard to tell whether I like his writing. I gather other readers have a similar reaction. "Like" doesn't quite describe our appreciation of Conrad. There are certainly Conrad stories and parts of Conrad novels you become.... Joseph Conrad

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At the middle of the world

What's incredible about Middlemarch, George Eliot's masterwork, is how engrossing it is. I mean, this is a novel that deals with issues of art, education reform, scholarly research, medical science and provincial British politics of the early nineteenth century—hardly the stuff of page-turning popularity. Oh, yes, and also.... Middlemarch

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The worlds of George and Marian

Calling her a great female writer—even the greatest—may be an insult to George Eliot. Eliot distanced her own work from that of other writers of her sex, deriding "silly novels by lady novelists", purportedly even criticizing the celebrated Jane Austen for dealing with trivialities. It is often suggested Eliot took.... George Eliot

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After the fall

For a time, I thought of James M. Cain as an also-ran of American writing. On the third or fourth pillar below the greats in the literary pantheon. In the less exalted gallery of crime writers, he would come well after the holy trinity of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald—a commercial writer.... James M. Cain

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The original crowd pleaser

This one has it all. The Odyssey is not only a great romantic, adventure epic, but it's terribly realistic in its depiction of human nature and a brilliantly crafted narrative. Authors today could learn from how Homer lays out his plot and plays the characters off against each other for maximum.... The Odyssey

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Butterfly who became self-conscious

Before Francis Scott Fitzgerald died at age 44, he thought he was a failure. His obituaries described him as an obscure writer who never fulfilled his early promise. The second printing of The Great Gatsby sat unsold fifteen years after the book's publication. Twenty-odd years later, Fitzgerald was.... F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Writing may be an even harsher mistress

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has much—maybe too much—to appeal to followers of all Robert Heinlein's diverseinterests. For science fiction fans, with an emphasis on science, Earth's moon may be set up and how communication and transportation may be arranged—not mention the story of a computer.... The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

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But you think about it nonetheless

When they made a movie of "The Killers" in 1946 they spent only about fifteen minutes telling Ernest Hemingway's entire story from two decades earlier. The rest of the screen time they devoted to fleshing out the narrative, showing at great length how the situation depicted in the story came about.... The Killers

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Strangers in their own land

Death Comes for the Archbishop is often considered Willa Cather's masterpiece and is on several lists as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century—which may be surprising if you read it alongside other American literature that came out around the same time. Consider, Fitzgerald's.... Death Comes for the Archbishop

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The human mystery

It's the most political of Charles Dickens's novels, it's the least political—even anti-political—of Dickens's novels in some ways. But its position on politics, revolution, mob rule, democracy and reformism has tended to dominate the discussion of A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read the novel, it was a.... A Tale of Two Cities

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Still 'relevant'

Willa Cather is one of those quietly achieving American writers, whose works are quietly appreciated in the shadow of the era's Great Writers...but, going on a century later, are still being quietly appreciated when many of the once great ones are no longer read. She did have a spell of.... Willa Cather

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Daughter dearest

If your exposure to James M. Cain was his earlier short novels, like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, or if it came via the 1945 Joan Crawford film adaptation of this novel, then you may be pleasantly surprised by Mildred Pierce. For although those other books and that movie are terrific.... Mildred Pierce

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The great joke

"Science split the atom and Joyce split the word." This summary of progress in the first half of the twentieth century has often been stated in reference to Finnegans Wake. Joyce chops up words and fuses the syllables together again in new ways that supposedly uncover the links made by the subconscious.... Finnegans Wake

John O'Hara pic

Interim status report

John O'Hara is the Rodney Dangerfield of American literature: he's never got the proper respect and he spent much of his career complaining about it. At best, he's been called a "first-rate second-rate writer" in a clever phrase that seems to nail his literary reputation. I'm here to change that.... John O'Hara

Alfred Bester pic

Odd man out

Other giants of science fiction who emerged during the genre's Golden Age were notoriously prolific. Isaac Asimov counted over five hundred books in his output, plus hundreds of stories and articles. Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein and others produced novels, stories and.... Alfred Bester

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The critic of superficiality

The Misanthrope reads at first like one of those overheated old Russian novels in which everyone talks and talks, all very excitedly, while the action happens elsewhere. It's certainly Molière's most reflective play. No wonder it has taken so long to becom recognized as the great work it is: it doesn't include any.... The Misanthrope

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Small but punchy

It has always seemed like the perfect little American novella. A poignant and disturbing story told seemingly effortlessly, involving simple folks on the fringe of society who turn out to be quite complex. But read Of Mice and Men a second or third time and its clever structure becomes.... Of Mice and Men

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