What the columns of the Greatest Literature lists mean

First column: Dates

The first column on the charts usually indicates the first year of a work's official publication in book form.

Exceptions include short works, like a story or short poem, that first appeared in a periodical or another significant non-book form before being collected in a book. If known, the earlier publication date is used.

In rare cases the date that the work's writing was completed is given. This happens when a work went unpublished for a significantly long time after it was written.

Another exception is made for dramatic works that are produced on stage before they are printed. Plays are usually listed by the date they were thought to have been first performed.

A range of years, such as 1951–1955, usually means the work was published in sections over a period of time. This is especially common with book series, such as trilogies.

A "c." before a date stands for circa, which means "about" and indicates the date is approximate.

Second column: Titles

The book's title is listed as it is commonly known in the English-speaking world today. Usually this is a translation into English (The Three Musketeers, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), though sometimes the title is better known as given in its original language (Le Morte Darthur, Les Miserables).

Excess words are often removed from the titles, especially in works prior to the twentieth century. For instance, The Personal History of David Copperfield is universally known as David Copperfield and is therefore listed as such here.

Works are generally listed individually, but may be listed under a series title if the series is better known than any individual work in it. (See The Forsyte Saga or the Foundation "trilogy".)

Third column: Authors

Authors' names are listed as they are generally known to English-speaking readers of the works. Thus, the Russian writer Lev Nikolajevic Tolstoj is listed as Leo Tolstoy.

Fourth column: Countries

The listed country is not the place of publication but rather the place most associated with the author. The country may be difficult to determine when writers have moved around. We take into account:

• where the writer was born and raised,

• the writer's professed nationality,

• where the works were written,

• the writing language,

• where the works were published, and

• the works' settings.

But it's a judgment call, and we don't claim scientific accuracy in determining what place is most associated with any given author. Some samples of the decision-making process:

Michigan-born Ernest Hemingway lived in, wrote in and wrote about America, France, Spain, Africa and the Caribbean—yet, there is no question he is considered one of the most American of writers. Thus he is placed in the United States.

V.S. Naipaul was of Indian heritage, was born in Trinidad, moved to England and wrote about Trinidad, Africa, England and elsewhere, without becoming known as a Trinidadian, African, English or other denomination of writer—so it's a judgment call to list Trinidad as Naipaul's country.

Malcolm Lowry was born and died in England, but his most famous novel took place in Mexico and was written in Canada where much of his other writing was also done. But that is not enough for Canada to claim him, although many Canadians try to, and he remains essentially an English writer—another judgment call.

Fifth coiumn: Forms

The most common literary forms are listed as Novel, Novella, Poem, Play or Story. Significant series and collections are listed as such (e.g. "Novel series", "Poetry collection", "Story collection").

The term "novel" was accepted into English after the Renaissance, adapted from an Italian word for fictional prose narratives with a cohesive theme and story. For several centuries, this word was reserved for realistic depictions of contemporary life, as opposed to imaginative, historical stories, which were considered "romances". Today, however, we use "novel" for both kinds of fiction.

We also retroactively apply the term "novel" to certain longer prose fictions—in some cases before the authors had ever heard of the concept. For more diffuse works, particularly in ancient and medieval times, we use the label "Prose narrative", or occasionally "Prose and poetry".

"Story" designates what is commonly called a short story. They are usually under 17,500 words.

Between the story and the novel is the "novella", usually 17,500 to 40,000 words.

A "play" is a fictional work meant to be presented theatrically.

However, we also use the category of "dialogue" for any work consisting nearly entirely of characters' speeches but, unlike a play, is meant not to be acted but to be read only. (See Plato's Republic).

Other anomalous categories include "biography" and "memoir", for the very few nonfictional works that have achieved status as great creative literature.

— Eric McMillan