Creating the Greatest Literature of All Time list
The Greatest Literature of All Time is necessarily an amalgam of a lot of opinions, including mine.
Efforts were made to produce a list that reflects as much as possible the consensus of the world's readers, writers, critics and scholars.
But it is not a popularity poll. The intent was also to fairly consider minority assessments that may highlight great works that are not widely known across all categories of readers, writers, critics and scholars.
It was also hoped the list would remain open to revision, as times and tastes change, without abandoning the enduring judgments of the ages.
This may sounds like an impossible task, or even a contradictory one. But read on to see how the work was done to judge for yourself whether the task has been accomplished—at least in part successfully.
In the first place, the compiler of The Greatest Literature of All Time has personally read just over half the works on the completed list. I wish I'd read them all. Believe me, I'm working on it. But there are obviously too many books on this list for one person to read in a few years. Moreover, to get the number of works on this "short list" down to a thousand, one has to consider several thousand works on a "long list" of contenders. This is more than could be read in any one normal lifetime. Also, please don't begrudge me the time to read all the additional books and stories that have caught my fancy—all the worthy and not-so-worthy works that anyone who loves literature ends up reading, regardless of whether they are potential material for any greatest-ever list.
To come up with an initial list of works to consider, I consulted literally hundreds of sources: critical studies, bibliographies, reference books, companions to literature, literary histories, handbooks, catalogues, literary prize lists, school reading lists, university curricula and the like. I noted what others consider the most important works from different parts of the world and from different time periods. I even contacted some experts directly to get recommendations.
This long process resulted in my first Greatest Literature list. I tentatively published it online in 1999. (Actually it had first appeared earlier as a timeline printed on tractor-fed printer paper and plastered across my office wall where I worked at an editorial job in the mid-1990s. But that's another story.)
However, I didn't stop there. Since posting my first list online I have compiled a database of thirty-four other attempts to create "greatest" lists. Some of these lists focused on modern works, some on classic works, some on novels, some on stories, plays or poetry. They ranged in length from ten to more than a thousand items each. They listed "top", "best", "favourite" or "must-read-before-you-die" literary works of various types and from various cultures. Some of the lists were themselves compiled from the votes of many readers or reviewers. Some were the more idiosyncratic product of individual writers and critics. And some were not really lists at all but titles I extracted from published anthologies that purported to pull together the best of complete fields between their covers.
With this database, a complicated algorithm was devised, assigning values to works based on their placement on the lists, as well as on the credibility and breadth of the lists themselves. This yielded a ranked list of, at last count, 2,436 works.
In case you're curious, the top twenty entries in that calculated list are currently as follows:
- Don Quixote
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Nineteen Eighty-Four
- Madame Bovary
- In Search of Lost Time
- Gulliver's Travels
- Anna Karenina
- War and Peace
- Moby Dick
- The Brothers Karamazov
- The Great Gatsby
- Tristram Shandy
- One Hundred Years of Solitude
- The Portrait of a Lady
- Pride and Prejudice
While it's unlikely many would disagree with any of these books appearing on a list of greatest literary works, this sampling may yet give pause.
You may notice that almost all the top-ranked works (Hamlet being the only exception) are novels, the chief literary form of the modern era. Three quarters of the titles are from the past two centuries. Also, almost all are from Europe and the United States. And, even given these skews, it's noteworthy that none of the great works of genre fiction—staples of modern popular fiction—have made the top twenty (with the possible exceptions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is sometimes classed with science fiction, and Frankenstein, sometimes considered an early horror or science fiction work).
More diverse items appear further down the ranked list, but these general trends hold to some degree through the top thousand entries. Despite my efforts to add a wide range of contributing lists to the mix, the consensus seems to have settled on the more narrow modern Western literary canon.
You may also be perplexed by the relative rankings in some cases. I mean, Lolita is a great novel, but the highest-ranked work of the twentieth century? And greater than any of the works of Dickens, Hemingway, the Brontës or Homer, none of whom made the top twenty? All are among the top thousand, but still it makes you think about the failings of seeking only consensus on such matters.
But this consensus list, as it may be called, was never meant to replace the titles on my original research list. Rather, amalgamating the two held out the promise of getting the best of both approaches.
So over several years I modified my originally posted greatest literature list, making judgments about which titles to add and which to cut, based on the consensus list, as well as on the views of individual readers, writers, critics and scholars, whom I continued to consult. It wasn't always an easy decision, especially when the consensus and research opinions differed on works. That's where my own opinions came most into play. I had to judge, for example, whether a work low in the consensus rankings but championed in one corner of experts really is one of the unjustly neglected greatest works or just a few critics' darling with limited appeal.
By 2015 this resulted in a list of The Greatest Literature of All Time that contains all the works that are at this time widely accepted as being among the very greatest, but also the many just-as-great works that may be less known across the broad spectrum but are treasured by respected sources around the world.
I've been inclusive in my decision-making, on the grounds that it is better to err on the side of including a few works that may not ultimately deserve it than to err on the side of excluding any that do. This way readers who use the list as a guide may be encouraged to read the works and decide for themselves what they think, rather than risk missing worthy books not brought to their attention.
The word "greatest" is applied quite liberally also.
Works may be considered great in the traditional sense of having stood the test of time, remaining monuments of intellectual and artistic achievement.
Or they may be called great in the more colloquial sense of "What a great read!"
There are several other ways of using the G-word you may be able to think of. Great in the impact a writer's work has in its time. Great in its influence on other authors. Great in popularity. Great in the insights it gives us into a certain place, time or culture. Great in its use of language. Great in its artistic innovation or technical virtuosity.
No one of these definitions is used as the sole criterion for this list of the "greatest" literature. And none of these definitions are outside the scope of the list. Any or all of the ways people talk of books being great are taken into account for each title.
I don't always agree with them. In some cases, critics and scholars have praised as masterpieces works I dislike. For example, James Joyce's Ulysses is often hailed as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. I have read it five times and have come to the conclusion it is a brilliantly innovative, torturous waste of time (except for the final section, which I do love).
Another book that often places near the top of readers' favourite book lists is Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. In my opinion, this is a dreadfully written novel of cardboard characters and unbelievable narrative, popular mainly due to its rousing message of individualism and its support by followers of Rand's ultra-capitalist philosophy. However, this book too remains on the list and I await the passage of time for the rest of the world's opinion to catch up to mine, at which time the book can be taken off the list.
Similar remarks may be made about George Orwell's Animal Farm, whose critical and popular support may be due more to its political allegory than to its literary qualities. (Not that I am opposed to political content. In fact, I welcome it. But in these latter two examples I don't think it's enough to overcome other shortcomings.)
These works are included, despite my personal misgivings, because large number of others think they're great. "Greatness" becomes applied through historical consensus.
This is not necessarily a list of the "best" or highest quality of literary works. I'm sure there have been written many works that are technically superior to the works that we know well but have never become known outside small circles, perhaps never even published. Or they may have been published and forgotten because they didn't speak to people in a particular way at a particular time; their timing was off. Their authors simply had bad luck.
Whatever the reason, some works' good qualities did not lead them to become widely known.
So, this is not a list of works chosen by an individual as only the best ever. It's a list of works that have become recognized by humanity in general as the greatest ever—whatever criterion of greatness can be applied.
Included on the Greatest Literature list are some works at which scholars and critics usually turn up their noses.
Doesn't this go against what I've said about seeking historical consensus?
Not entirely, as such works I have included are generally those that the public in general—or a good portion of the public—have embraced.
For the most part, these disagreements occur over twentieth-century (or later) works. Many of the more controversial decisions involve what may be considered genre writing: science fiction, detective and mystery stories, romances, horror stories, and so on. It could be argued that Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Daphne Du Maurier and Stephen King have had as great an impact on modern writing and modern life as any authors with greater "literary" credentials. The justification for including the best of their novels—recognizing their greatness, if you will—is that they offer great rewards to their readers. They may be as meaningful to readers of the twentieth century as the gripping stories of Beowulf, Song of Roland, and King Arthur's knights were to people of the Middle Ages, and as the romances of Alexandre Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson were later.
On the other hand, they may eventually turn out to be more like the once-popular novels of James Fennimore Cooper, H. Rider Haggard or Jacqueline Susann, and gradually fade into obscurity. Time will tell.
A weakness of the list is that it still emphasizes Western literature available in English. I have worked hard to include the greatest literature from all parts of the world and in many languages, but evidence of my natural bias (and the biases of many others who put together "greatest" lists) likely remains to a degree. With continued efforts this may be further overcome, though perhaps never entirely eradicated.
The biggest bias evident in the list though is that twentieth-century writing accounts for more entries than all other periods put together. Partly this is because, indeed, more literature has been produced in the past century than in any other era. Partly it is due to the fact that contemporary literature often speaks to us more directly than older works and thus seems "better" to those of us living now. And partly this preponderance of modern lit can be attributed to simple ignorance of older works. This imbalance is expected to be redressed somewhat as we gain longer perspective on recent works.
Until recently the database also had a heavier representation of Canadian literature than an objective evaluation of world literature might justify. I am Canadian and many users of this guide are Canadian. We have a special interest in the literature of our country. Now however I have moved most of these works into a separately accessed list of The Greatest Canadian Literature of All Time, although I have left in the international list those many Canadian books that are recognized as being among the best in the world.
One final bias should be mentioned. Novels are cited more frequently than any other kinds of works (such as short stories, poetry or drama). This reflects the fact that novels constitute the most popular literary form. But this wasn't always the case. At one time the writing that any literate person would know was poetry. Even earlier, stories told orally or recited metrically were the chief entertainment. But for the past century at least, the novel has been far and away the most popular literary form. I am not saying this to excuse any great poems, stories or plays being neglected by the list. The problem is simply that I and others in the modern world are not as familiar with them as we are with novels. This is another oversight it is hoped will be corrected over time.
Drama is an unusual case because plays are usually not written to be read. In the days before movies and television many people were more familiar with drama live on stage than in print. Even today the quality of a play as a play depends on much more than its literary values. In general I have tried to select dramas that offer the greatest rewards as literature—that is, as read on the printed page. The success of a theatrical performance—like the success of a movie or television drama based on a written script—is irrelevant to our literary purposes here. I might even include an exceptional film or TV screenplay if a great one should be published and read as literature.
The Greatest Literature of All Time is an ongoing project. Sources continue to be consulted. New works are read and read about. And, as said before, humanity over time changes its tastes—even tastes as to what constitutes our greatest literature of all time.