Creating the Greatest Literature of All Time list
Updated: September 13, 2022
The Greatest Literature of All Time is an amalgam of a lot of opinions. The list reflects the consensus of the world's readers, writers, critics and scholars, as far as any such consensus exist.
But it is not a popularity poll. The intent was also to highlight great works not widely known across all categories of literature lovers.
The list is not engrave on stone. It remains open to revision—as new great works are discovered and as times and tastes evolve—without abandoning the enduring judgments of the ages. That's partly why the list has 999 entries, rather than a rounder number: to indicate it is perpetually incomplete.
The compiler of the Greatest Literature of All Time has personally read just over half the works on the completed list. I wish I could have read them all. I'm 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 under a thousand, several thousand 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 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 candidates for any list.
To come up with an initial list of works to consider, I consulted hundreds of sources: critical studies, bibliographies, reference books, companions to literature, literary histories, handbooks, catalogues, literary prizes, school and university curricula, and the like. I noted what others considered the most important works from different parts of the world and from different time periods. I even contacted 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 in the mid-nineties 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 list, I set to work compiling a database of thirty-four other lists of "top", "best", "favourite" or "must-read-before-you-die" literary works. This has since been expanded to more than 140 lists. Some of these lists have focused on modern works, some on classic works or works from specific periods. Some lists feature all forms of literature while others focus on novels, stories, plays or poetry, all in various genres and cultures. They range in length from ten to more than a thousand items each. Some were themselves compiled from the votes of many readers or reviewers, while others are the more idiosyncratic product of individual writers and critics. And some were not really lists at all but the contents of anthologies that purported to pull together the best of complete fields between their covers, or the comparative reading lists of prominent educational institutions. (See What does "greatest even mean?")
With this database, a complicated 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. This yielded a ranked list of 2,436 works, later expanded to more than 8,000 titles.
In case you're curious, the top twenty entries in that first calculated list were:
- 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 few would disagree with any of these particular titles appearing on a list of greatest-ever literary works, this ranking may yet give pause.
You may have noticed almost all these top-twenty works (Hamlet being the only exception) were novels, the chief literary form of the modern era. Three quarters of the titles were from the past two centuries. Also, almost all were written in Europe and the United States—and most in English. It's also noteworthy none of the great works of genre fiction, staples of modern popular fiction, made the top twenty (with the possible exceptions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, sometimes classed as science fiction, and Frankenstein, often considered an early horror or science fiction work).
More diverse items did appear further down the ranked list. But these general trends—we can call them biases—held to some degree throughout. Despite efforts to add a wide range of contributing lists to the mix, for a long time the consensus seemed always to settle on the more narrow, modern, Western canon of mainstream literature.
You may also be perplexed by the relative rankings in some cases. I mean, Lolita is a highly regarded and provocative novel, but the highest-ranked work of the twentieth century? Higher than the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontës, Homer, or any of the fellow giants of the twentieth century? The ranked listing might make you think about the failings of seeking only consensus on such matters.
However, this consensus list, as it may be called, was never meant to replace the titles on the original research list. Rather, amalgamating the two held out the promise of getting the best of both approaches.
So, over several years the originally posted greatest literature list was gradually modified, with titles added and cut based on the consensus list, as well as on the researched views of readers, writers, critics and scholars, who continued to be consulted. They weren't always easy decisions, especially when the consensus and research opinions differed widely. It was tough to judge, for example, whether a work low in the consensus rankings but championed in one corner of experts is really an unjustly neglected great work or just a few critics' darling with limited public appeal. Or to judge whether a widely popular book is worthy despite the disdain of the experts.
New versions of The Greatest Literature of All Time list continued to appear, containing all the works that at the time were widely accepted as being among the greatest, along with the many just-as-great works that may be less known across the broad spectrum but are treasured by respected sources or beloved by readers in various parts of the world. Revisions continued to be made based on new research and changing consensus, with as many as twenty titles changing each year.
By about 2010 the list had settled into something that seemed relatively stable. Minor tweaking of the list based on new evidence was ongoing, with a few titles changing on the Greatest Literature list annually. But overall it seemed to be a complete and accurate summary of great literature that would endure.
But then we were struck by the biggest change yet: a shift away from the old idea of the male and white-dominated "Western Canon" as the backbone of the world's great literature.
The rethinking had been happening ever since the latter half of the twentieth century, and since the first formulation of the Greatest Literature list we had always made an effort to bring diverse writers and their deserving works onto the Greatest Literature list. But now, in the world at large, came a clamouring for more works by women and from different cultures.
Neglected works from outside the modern and classical Anglo-American-European nexus were being recognized. New and recent writing from around the world was becoming prominent in the public literary conversation. Minority and culturally diverse authors were being heralded as never before in the modern era. This culminated in 2020–2022 with the largest redactions of the Greatest Literature list since the list began.
In addition, the normal tweaks to the list continued, more twenty-first century works were added, some works whose lustre has faded—mainly from the over-represented twentieth century—were dropped.
In total up to fifteen percent of the list has changed. That's the equivalent of about 150 titles.
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 the formerly greatest works of literature are still counted among the currently greatest works of literature—as confirmed in our ongoing surveys of readers, writers, critics and scholars—though in fewer numbers.
Also let's be clear, the larger number of diverse authors have been added to the list over the past two decades because they deserve to be there—judged as great by those same readers, writers, critics and scholars.
All this could change in several different directions, we know. Revision of the list, based on new evidence, continues. We do not know what kind of new writers may gain prominence in years to come, nor how evaluations of past authors may evolve in the future. But we can be sure there will be changes.
As always, if you are citing the list for your own research purposes, be sure to note the date on which the page was retrieved.
— Eric McMillan