Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Are there really so many modern books that should be ranked with the greatest of all time on your list?

I know what you mean. Is Get Shorty really in the same category as Hamlet? Is Douglas Adams really up there with Cervantes and Dickens?

The short answer is: "I don't know."

Nobody knows what modern works will stand the test of time. Shakespeare in his own age was a popular playwright but no one back then put him in the same class as the great ancient writers they respected—and no one expected that four hundred years later we would count him the greatest writer ever in the English language, possibly in any language.

Still the predominance of relatively recent literature on the list of The Greatest Literature of All Time may seem odd. The last time I counted, the eras break down as follows:

Ancient times (about 25 centuries): 48
Middle Ages (about 10 centuries): 46
16th–17th centuries: 69
18th–19th centuries: 207
20th century: 622

This pattern makes sense to an extent. The ancient classics are revered while the Middle Ages are usually (and mistakenly) considered a period of stagnation, after which a rebirth led to an accelerating increase of literacy, learning and the arts. Today, claims about the death of books to the contrary, far more people than ever can and do read.

More books were published in the twentieth century than all the previous centuries combined, and so it may be predicted that alongside the dross a higher number of great works might have been produced. But are the past hundred years' books really better?

Let's put it this way: they seem so to us who have lived in this period. Contemporary books seem more relevant, more connected to our lives, than works from prior centuries. This is to be expected of any period.

Also, consider the possibility that modern literature—in the novel form especially—may actually be better than literature of the past. More sophisticated, more lively, more complex.

It is certainly more diverse than literature from any century before the twentieth that you could name. Read Dashiell Hammett, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Douglas Adams, Erich Maria Remarque, Maxim Gorky, Ursula Le Guin—is there any sampling in any earlier period that can come close to this multiplicity in styles, themes, philosophies and psychological treatments? And this great diversity appears to be continuing into the twenty-first century, regardless of whatever publishing formats literature is adopting. We could be living in a golden age of writing right now.

Whether or not we accept this, we can fully anticipate that many recent titles will be dropped from this list as we turn our attention to the growing new works of the twenty-first century (and then of the century after that, ad infinitum). Works from yet earlier centuries may also be reappraised upward over time. It's happened before—for example, when the ancient Greeks and Romans were rediscovered during the Renaissance.

But in general I would guess the older any given work is, the more likely its evaluation will remain stable. I wouldn't be surprised if the list fifty years from now is ninety percent identical for works up to the eighteenth century but reduced by about a quarter for the nineteenth century and cut in half for the twentieth century.

This list today is a current assessment of the greatest works of all time. There's no such thing as a once-and-for-all determination of the greatest works of all time. Until, of course, the end of time—after which who will care?

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