Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Why so few nonfiction books? They're great literature too, aren't they?
Yes, they can be. But The Greatest Literature of All Time includes very few nonfiction titles, mainly memoirs and mythological writings that have drawn a literary following.
The short answer to this question is that readers looking for the "greatest literature of all time" are seeking diversion in classic fiction, poetry or drama. They are not looking to labour through old scientific, political or historical documents, however great their influence has been.
Personally I do appreciate the great nonfiction books, works that have had a great impact.
Take one of the most important books ever written: The Origin of Species. Not only did Charles Darwin's work set off a scientific revolution in the mid-nineteenth century but its ramilfications continue to felt on all aspects of our lives and our thought. Anyone curious as to exactly what Darwin said back then or wanting to get some historical context for the continuing debate over evolution should definitely look into The Origin of Species.
But if you want to know the current state of scientific knowledge, evolutionary theory and thinking about humankind's place in nature, you're better advised to consult recent books and articles. While The Origin of Species is still largely valid, its science has several times been advanced far beyond what Darwin proposed, especially by genetic discoveries in the twentieth century. Today Darwin's books are valued as documents in the history of science.
Now take another book that came out the same year as Origin, namely A Tale of Two Cities. The Charles Dickens novel has had, I think most would agree, a less profound effect on intellectual history. Nonetheless, people in greater numbers continue to read it and it continues to be adapted into other art forms, including movies.
When most of us read or watch A Tale of Two Cities, we are not accessing an historical document to evaluate the context surrounding the author's creation of the work, nor to determine the facts about life in revolutionary France and England as originally propounded by Dickens. Rather, we are engaging in something that seems vital to us today. We're reliving the events, feelings, hopes and fears that afflict the characters in the novel. We work out with them what we—I mean, they—should do to cope with our—their—lives.
Even the oldest stories we have available in literature—from several thousand years ago—can appeal to us in this fashion. They can still fascinate us because they deal with human experience analogous in some ways to our present human experience. The feelings, ideas and moral issues they raise are largely still the feelings, ideas and moral issues we face today.
In general the literature that embody these universally human qualities is poetry, drama and prose narrative. A few memoirs, a few stories purporting to be history, and several other nonfiction works have also acquired these characteristics and have come to be known as the literature "of all time".