Creating the Greatest Literature of All Time list
Updated: January 2, 2023
The Greatest Literature of All Time is an amalgam of a lot of opinions. It reflects the consensus of the world's readers, writers, critics and scholars, as far as any such consensus may be discerned.
But it is not a popularity poll. The intent is also to highlight great works not widely known across all categories of literature lovers.
The list of greatest works is not engraved 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 short answer to the question of how works were selected to appear on the Greatest Literature of All Time list is they have been chosen from a database of nearly ten thousand works, based on the claimed consensus mentioned above.
However, this leaves open further questions about how this database was created and how the consensus as to the greatest of those works was determined, as well as issues of the biases of the lists' compilers.
To answer these, we'll have to give a bit of 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 only about 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 to under a thousand, 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 and other literary productions 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 "greatest" list. (See "What does greatest even mean?")
More than two decades ago, to come 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, critical and scholarly works, and the like. I even contacted experts directly 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 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 researched list, I set to work putting together a database of thirty-four other lists of "top", "best", "favourite" or "must-read-before-you-die" literary works, as well as reading lists of major educational institutions, anthologies, and 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. This yielded a ranked list of 2,436 works.
In case you're curious, the top twenty entries in that first consensus 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 give you pause. All these top-twenty works, excepting Hamlet, were novels, the chief literary form of the modern era. Three quarters of the titles were from the past two centuries. Also, almost all came from European and American writers.
More diverse items did appear further down that early list, but these general trends—we can call them biases—held throughout.
However, this consensus list was never meant to completely replace the titles on the original researched 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. Titles were added and cut based on the ever-growing consensus list, as well as on the researched views of readers, writers, critics and scholars, who continued to be consulted.
Decisions were not always easy, especially when the consensus and research opinions differed widely. Was a work low in the consensus rankings but championed in one corner of experts an unjustly neglected great work or a few critics' darling with limited public appeal? Was a widely popular book 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 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. Revisions 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.
By about 2010 the list seemed to have settled into something that was relatively stable. 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: a shift away from the old idea of the male and white-dominated "Western Canon" as the backbone of the world's great literature.
This rethinking on a smaller scale had begun in the latter decades of the twentieth century. 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 choices from different cultures, and more writing from different parts of the world.
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. Throughout 2020–2022 the Greatest Literature list experienced its most widespread redactions since the list began as these diverse voices were integrated into it.
Meanwhile, the normal tweaks to the list continued, as more twenty-first century works were added and some older works whose lustre had faded—largely from the over-represented twentieth century—were dropped.
Up to fifteen percent of the list changed in just those three years. 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 of readers, writers, critics and scholars—though in fewer numbers than previously.
Also to be clear, the large number of diverse authors added to the list are there because they deserve to be there—judged as being among the greatest by today's readers, writers, critics and scholars.
All this could change in several different directions, we know. Revision of the list, based on new evidence, goes on. The database from which we draw our choices now features more than nine thousand titles and encompasses 153 other lists, anthologies, curricula, awards and other sources. And it's still growing.
We do not know what 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 to the Greatest Literature of All Time list. 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. It makes a difference.
— Eric McMillan