What columns of the Greatest Literature of All Time mean


The first column on the charts usually indicates the first year of official publication in book form. So if a long work or part of a long work first appears in a periodical or in some other non-book form and then later is published as a book or as part of a book, the book's date is given preference here.

However, if a short work, such as a story or poem, first appears in a periodicals or another significant non-book form before being collected into a book, usually the earlier date is used.

In rare cases the year of the completion of writing is used, rather than the year of publication. This may be because the work went unpublished for a very long time after it was completed. Or it may be because, as in the case of some very old literature, the work was circulated in a form that we would not today consider book publication—such as on tablets or on scrolls.

Another exception is sometimes made for dramatic works. Shakespeare's plays, for example, are usually listed by the date they were thought to have been first performed because this date is more significant than the often much later year in which the plays were collected for publication.

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.


The book's title is listed as it is generally known in the English-speaking world today. Sometimes this is a translation into English (The Three Musketeers, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) and sometimes the title remains in another 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.

Novels are generally listed individually, but several may be listed under one series title if the series is much better known than any individual work in it (e.g., The Forsyte Saga).

Short stories and short poems are usually listed as selected or collected under one title, although occasionally the outstanding popularity of a particular story or poem makes it worthy of listing on its own.

A title in colour can be clicked to access a commentary on the work, along with any other available material about the work.


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

An author's name in colour can be clicked to access a commentary on the author, along with any other available material about that author and the author's work.


The listed country is the place most associated with the writer. It may or may not be the author's birthplace, country of residence, state of citizenship, or subject of writing.

For example, Michigan-born Ernest Hemingway wrote in and about France, Spain, Africa and the Caribbean, and very little in or concerning the United States—yet, there is no question he is considered one of the most American of writers.

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.


The most common literary forms are listed as Novel, Novella, Poetry, Play or Story.

The term "novel" was accepted into English only in modern times (that is, post-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". In this list, however, we use "novel" for both kinds of fiction today.

Even so, it is debatable when the first great work worthy of being called a novel was produced. We retroactively apply the term to certain longer prose fiction—in some cases before the authors had ever heard of the concept—in any language. For more diffuse works, particularly in ancient and medieval times, we use the label "Prose narrative", or occasionally "Prose and poetry".

"Story" (or "Stories" for collections) designates what are commonly called short stories. Stories are usually under 15,000 words.

"Novella" is a fictional work between a story and novel in length, though the demarcation points are arguable. A novella is usually 15,000 to 40,000 words. Some critics use "novellette" to indicate works shorter than novellas but longer than short stories — about 7,500 to 17,500 words. But really these just seem like long stories or short novellas, so we eschew this complicating term.

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 not meant to be acted but to be read only. (See Plato's Republic).

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

— Eric McMillan