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Creating the Greatest Literature of All Time

What's different about our listsHow works were selectedThe biggest shiftFor all the rest of our lists

Updated: April 3, 2024

What's different about our lists

I like to say our Greatest Literature of All Time lists are handcrafted.

That is, our lists aren't just the product of popularity polls, aggregations or blind algorithms as many are. Those kinds of lists can be fun and interesting in their way, but they are usually less than comprehensive. They may also leave you with the feeling that the people (or machines!) who put them together don't really know the literary works they are listing, nor their history, significance or culture context.

To be fair, our Greatest Literature lists are also informed by polls, aggregations and algorithms. But also by discussions with readers. By consultations with literature experts. By curricula reading lists. By reviews. By sales. By critical studies. By literary awards. By authors' views. And, of course, by personal reading. Lots and lots of reading.

All these criteria—and more—have helped us as we've delved into every form of writing, every genre, every local literature, every era and every culture we can think of.

The result is that The Greatest Literature of All Time is an amalgam of a lot of different perspectives. Somehow we've shaped all this information and opinion into lists that reflect—as well as possible—the consensus of the world's readers, writers, critics and scholars.

Differences from other best literature lists may quickly become apparent.

While others claim to be "of all time", most are overwhelmingly focused on the modern or postmodern era with a few obvious classics from earlier times thrown in.

Many claim to deal in "world literature" but are often stuck on the Western canon, especially on works written in English.

Many disdain writing outside the literary mainstream, ignoring works of supposedly inferior genres except for a couple of widely known titles.

On the opposite hand many lists are really popularity contests, focused only on bestselling and famous titles, bypassing great works not widely known across all categories of literature lovers.

Don't get me wrong. Our Greatest Literature of All Time lists do present plenty of modern, English-language, mainstream and popular titles. But they also offer many more titles that may be less known, or unknown, in any given reading circles but are worthy of the "greatest" accolade.

Of course, one person's greatest-ever book may be another's not-so-great work. (See "What does 'greatest' even mean?") Despite our efforts to get the widest possible consensus, literary evaluations are always partially subjective. So if you see a title on one of our Greatest lists that you consider terrible, be aware it is on the list because a substantial number of readers, writers, critics and scholars think it's terrific. You are free to disagree with them. I often do.

Note also, The Greatest Literature of All Time is not engraved in stone. Actually some of it is—literally—but the point I'm making here is that the Greatest list remains open to revision.

New great works are always being discovered and assessments of older works continue to evolve—without abandoning the enduring judgments of the ages.

That's partly why our flagship list has 999 entries, rather than a rounder number. It implies the list is perpetually incomplete.

How works were selected

We'll start with that flagship list. The short answer to the question of how works have been selected for The Greatest Literature of All Time is that they have been chosen from a huge database of works, based on the claimed consensus mentioned above.

But that answer may be less than helpful. To get a better idea, let's look at the history of the list's creation and its development over time.

As the main compiler of The Greatest Literature of All Time, I have personally read less than half the works on the completed list. I'm still working on it. There are obviously too many books on this list for one person to know well. Moreover, to get the number of works on the list down to 999, many thousands of works had to be assessed—more than could be read in any one person's lifetime. And please don't begrudge me the time to read all those other books, stories, plays, poems and other literary productions that can catch a reader's fancy—all the works that anyone who loves literature ends up reading, regardless of whether they are potential candidates for a "greatest" list.

More than two decades ago, in coming up with an initial list of works to consider for the list, I consulted hundreds of sources: critical studies, bibliographies, companions to literature, literary histories, handbooks, catalogues, literary prizes, reviews, scholarly works, and the like. I even directly contacted experts and other readers to get recommendations. I sought what well-read people considered the most important works from different parts of the world and from different time periods.

This long process resulted in my first Greatest Literature list. I published it online in 1999. (Actually it had appeared earlier as a timeline on tractor-fed printer paper, plastered across an office wall where I worked. But that's another story.)

After posting that first researched list online, I set to work putting together a separate database of other lists of "top", "best", "favourite" or "must-read-before-you-die" literary works, as well as reading lists of major educational institutions, appearances in anthologies, and results of literary awards. Some of these sources focused on modern works, some on classic works and some on works from specific periods. Some featured all forms of literature while others focused on novels, stories, plays or poetry. They ranged in length from ten to a thousand-plus items each. Some were themselves compiled from the votes of many readers or reviewers, while others were the more idiosyncratic product of individual writers and critics.

With this database, an algorithm was devised, assigning values to works based on their placement on the contributing lists, as well as on the age, breadth, credibility and other factors of the lists themselves.

In case you're curious, the top twenty entries on that first consensus list were:

  1. Don Quixote
  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  3. Lolita
  4. Nineteen Eighty-Four
  5. Madame Bovary
  6. In Search of Lost Time
  7. Gulliver's Travels
  8. Anna Karenina
  9. Middlemarch
  10. Ulysses
  11. War and Peace
  12. Moby Dick
  13. Hamlet
  14. The Brothers Karamazov
  15. The Great Gatsby
  16. Tristram Shandy
  17. One Hundred Years of Solitude
  18. The Portrait of a Lady
  19. Frankenstein
  20. Pride and Prejudice

While few would disagree with any of these titles appearing on a list of greatest-ever literary works, this initial ranking may give you pause. All these works, except Hamlet, were novels. Most were from the past two centuries. Almost all came from Europe and America.

However, this consensus list was never meant to completely replace the titles on the original researched list. Rather, amalgamating the two held the promise of getting the best of both approaches.

So, over several years the posted Greatest Literature list was crafted and re-crafted. Titles were added and cut based on the ever-growing consensus database, as well as on the researched views of readers, authors, critics and academics, who continued to be consulted.

Decisions were not always easy, especially when the consensus and research opinions differed widely. Take a work low in the consensus rankings but championed in one corner of experts. Was it an unfairly neglected great work or was it just the darling of a few critics or academics with limited public appeal? Or conversely, was a widely popular book worthy despite the disdain of professionals?

Judgments were made and revised editions of The Greatest Literature of All Time continued to appear, containing all the works that at the time were widely accepted as being among the greatest, along with many just-as-great works that may have been less known across the broad spectrum but were treasured by respected sources or beloved by readers in various parts of the world. Updates continued to be based on both new research and changing consensus, with as many as twenty titles (about two percent of the list) changing each year.

The biggest shift

By about 2010 the list had settled into a state of relative stability. Minor tweaking was ongoing, but overall it seemed to be a complete and accurate summary of great literature that would endure.

But then we were struck by an earthquake.

For some time a shift away from the old idea of the male and white-dominated "Western Canon" as the backbone of the world's great literature had been occurring. Since the first formulation of the Greatest Literature list in the 1990s we had always made an effort to bring in diverse writers and their deserving works.

But now from the world at large came a clamouring for more works by women, more voices from different cultures, and more writing from different parts of the world.

Previously overlooked works from outside the modern and classical Anglo-American-European nexus were being recognized. New and recent writing from around the world was rising to prominence in the public conversation. Minority and culturally diverse authors were being heralded as never before.

Accordingly, the Greatest Literature list (and its offshoot Greatest lists) began to change and grow more rapidly year by year, culminating in in the early 2020s with its most widespread redactions since the list began.

Meanwhile, the normal tweaks to the list continued, as more twenty-first century works began to be recognized and a few older works whose lustre had faded—largely from the over-represented twentieth century—were dropped.

In all, up to fifteen percent of the list changed in a three-year period. That's about 150 of our 999 titles. And the trend continues.

Now, to be sure, "dead white guys" are still well represented on the list. They probably still make up the majority of authors. Most of the formerly greatest works of literature are still counted among the currently greatest works of literature—as confirmed in our ongoing surveys—albeit in reduced numbers.

Also, to be clear, the large number of diverse authors added to the list are there because they deserve to be—so judged by today's readers, writers, critics and scholars.

The database from which we draw our choices for the Greatest Literature list now comprises about twelve thousand titles and incorporates more than 220 other lists, anthologies, curricula, awards and other sources—as well as countless individual suggestions from avid reading fans and experts. And it's still growing.

We do not know what new writers may gain admiration nor how evaluations of past authors may develop in the years to come. But we can be sure there will be changes to the The Greatest Literature of All Time. If you are citing the list for your own research purposes, be sure to note the date on which the page was retrieved.

For all the rest of our lists

At some point during the continual revisions to our Greatest Literature of All Time list, it became apparent many readers were interested primarily in novels. Others were fans mainly of short stories. A subset of readers loved poetry or drama.

So we set about making our patented handcrafted lists to provide guidance to readers in each of the literary forms. They could just pick their favourite types of writing from the 999 entries on the Greatest Literature list, but we wanted to offer them something more.

So, we went back to our extensive database to get additional recommendations and we sought new sources focusing on specific literary forms. More titles for our growing database of great works. We came up with more titles in each category than could be found on the original Greatest list.

Using the same criteria that shaped that first list, we created The Greatest Novels of All Time. This was eventually followed by Greatest lists for novellas, stories, plays, poetry and other kinds of publications. All were crafted using both our previously accumulated research and widely sought new sources.

Inevitably, using the same approach, we moved on to creating Greatest lists for genre writing, starting with historical fiction, crime and mysteries, science fiction and fantasy fiction.

And then we began crafting Greatest lists for individual countries and regions. This particular extension of our mandate probably required the biggest investment of time and the biggest expansion of our literary knowledge since the Greatest Literature site was founded. Again we were not satisfied to simply pluck the relevant titles from our already established database. We investigated the literature of each area anew—to find many more works that are acclaimed by the readers, writers, critics and scholars of the world's diverse people and cultures. Twenty such place-specific lists have been published to date and more are to come.

Several other kinds of lists have also appeared on the Greatest Literature of All Time site and more are scheduled. Yours to discover.

Together these lists present way, way, way too many works for any one reader to handle. But we hope they offer you enough choices of great literature for you to appreciate the rest of your life, whatever your reading interests.

— Eric