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The Greatest Books of All Time, As Voted by 125 Famous Authors

Why Tolstoy is 11.6% better than Shakespeare.

“Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work,” Jennifer Egan once said. This intersection of reading and writing is both a necessary bi-directional life skill for us mere mortals and a secret of iconic writers’ success, as bespoken by their personal libraries. The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books asks 125 of modernity’s greatest British and American writers — including Norman Mailer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Joyce Carol Oates — “to provide a list, ranked, in order, of what [they] consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time– novels, story collections, plays, or poems.”

Of the 544 separate titles selected, each is assigned a reverse-order point value based on the number position at which it appears on any list — so, a book that tops a list at number one receives 10 points, and a book that graces the bottom, at number ten, receives 1 point.

In introducing the lists, David Orr offers a litmus test for greatness:

If you’re putting together a list of ‘the greatest books,’ you’ll want to do two things: (1) out of kindness, avoid anyone working on a novel; and (2) decide what the word ‘great’ means. The first part is easy, but how about the second? A short list of possible definitions of ‘greatness’ might look like this:

1. ‘Great’ means ‘books that have been greatest for me.’
2. ‘Great’ means ‘books that would be considered great by the most people over time.’
3. ‘Great’ has nothing to do with you or me — or people at all. It involves transcendental concepts like God or the Sublime.
4. ‘Great’? I like Tom Clancy.

From David Foster Wallace (#1: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis) to Stephen King (#1: The Golden Argosy, a 1955 anthology of the best short stories in the English language), the collection offers a rare glimpse of the building blocks of great creators’ combinatorial creativity — because, as Austin Kleon put it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.”

The book concludes with an appendix of “literary number games” summing up some patterns and constructing several overall rankings based on the totality of the different authors’ picks. Among them (*with links to free public domain works where available):

  1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  4. Ulysses* by James Joyce
  5. Dubliners* by James Joyce
  6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  7. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  8. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  9. The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor
  10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
  1. Anna Karenina* by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Madame Bovary* by Gustave Flaubert
  3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  5. The stories of Anton Chekhov
  6. Middlemarch* by George Eliot
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  8. Great Expectations* by Charles Dickens
  9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  10. Emma* by Jane Austen
  1. William Shakespeare — 11
  2. William Faulkner — 6
  3. Henry James — 6
  4. Jane Austen — 5
  5. Charles Dickens — 5
  6. Fyodor Dostoevsky — 5
  7. Ernest Hemingway — 5
  8. Franz Kafka — 5
  9. (tie) James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf — 4
  1. Leo Tolstoy — 327
  2. William Shakespeare — 293
  3. James Joyce — 194
  4. Vladimir Nabokov — 190
  5. Fyodor Dostoevsky — 177
  6. William Faulkner — 173
  7. Charles Dickens — 168
  8. Anton Chekhov — 165
  9. Gustave Flaubert — 163
  10. Jane Austen — 161

As a nonfiction loyalist, I’d love a similar anthology of nonfiction favorites — then again, famous writers might wave a knowing finger and point me to the complex relationship between truth and fiction.

Published January 30, 2012




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