Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Why don't you include great children's literature?
Because the list is for adults.
Usually people ask this question if they are plumping for a Doctor Seuss story or some other remembered favourite from their own or from their kids' childhoods.
Some stories written to entertain the young do end up becoming classics for all ages. The Alice in Wonderland books, for example, or Grimm's Fairy Tales. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Anne of Green Gables are twentieth-century examples, though we'll see how long into the twenty-first century they last. Tolkien's fanciful epics, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, may be considered works for adolescent and adult readers alike.
Sometimes adults enjoy reading certain kids' books, like Seuss's Cat in the Hat, to their children and feel the books should therefore be considered as important literature as weightier adult fiction. But my criterion for the Greatest Literature list has been the work being read by adults as adults for their own enjoyment and edification. Reading to entertain children is not enough.
Right away some reader is going to protest, "But I like to read Green Eggs and Ham for myself!" Yes, and I get a kick out of going back and looking through the Hardy Boys and the Enid Blyton adventure stories I devoured as a youth. But that's nostalgia—a delightful wallowing in a since-discarded naïve worldview. It may be fun and it may even be healthy to regress in this fashion now and then. But it's not reading as an adult. It's pretending to be a child.
The children's books that do eventually make it onto the mature list, like Lewis Carroll's works, usually offer a level that goes over the head of kids.
Another factor to consider is the ongoing impact the work has. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are embedded in our culture, almost as much as adult standards like Hamlet and the Bible. They are continually referenced by serious writers and artists in other media. The situations and expressions are part of our everyday conversation. An adult has to have some familiarity with Alice to understand much of what's being said and written around him or her. When Green Eggs and Ham reaches that status, I'll add it to the list.
As always, there are some tough judgment calls. I've included Winnie-the-Pooh as approaching this status, but I have to admit I wonder about that decision.
Same with the Anne of Green Gables books by Lucy Maude Montgomery: they've been adored by several generations of young girls and are still revered by at least the Canadian public at large. Enough to keep at least the first book of the series on the list.
On the other hand, I've kept out The Secret Garden—another one I've agonized over, consulting countless other sources as I have with all works. In the end, I've determined to my own satisfaction this story has faded. It's got a fussy, old quality that isn't wearing well—at least not with new readers—laying its chin-up sentimentality too bare, with little of enduring interest. You can argue this, but my judgment of the general consensus now is that it's not one for the ages.
But stick around. It may be rediscovered by a future generation and its charms come back into fashion, proving it has enduring qualities that I and others don't see now.