The other day I was minding my on business, enjoying the latest results of my Google news-feed’s culling under my “shark attacks” heading (go Truro!), when a side-bar box caught my eye. It said “The 100 Greatest Books of All Time,” and when I clicked on it, I sprang down the rabbit hole into a world of such appalling aesthetic relativism that the list in question contained Samuel Beckett – Samuel Beckett. Knowing that Samuel Beckett wouldn’t even make the top 100 list of “authors named Samuel Beckett,” I realized at once that something was very wrong. Wrong, and dangerous – what would happen, I thought, if some impressionable reader (young or young at heart) stumbled upon that list and actually believed it? It had links to many other, similar lists, and I quickly found the conceptual rot to be discouragingly widespread.

Clearly, a corrective is in order. Hence:

Before we get started, a few clarifications: a) this list of course countermands all other lists, no matter where you might find them – there are only about six people in the world who’ve read more than I have, and I know for a fact that not one of them has made a competing list; b) this list necessarily uses a somewhat loose definition of ‘book’ – trusting that conceptual validity will trump pickiness; and c) this list offers no apology for that rococo term ‘greatest’ and estimates it according to the three R’s – rectitude (even if only to its own compass), relevance (in the eternal sense), and above all rereadability. A classic you’ve always been meaning to read is your failing; a classic you’ve always been meaning to re-read is the classic’s failing.

No real attempt at chronology here, and no dickerings about competing merits of English translations. Plenty of time for all that later – this is just to lay the ground rules:

1. The Iliad - Homer

2. The Odyssey – Homer

3. The King James Bible

4. Oedipus Rex – Sophocles

5. Lysistrata – Aristophanes

6. Electra – Euripides

7. The Oresteia – Aeschylus

8. The Annals – Tacitus

9. The Histories – Herodotus

10. History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides

11. The Aeneid – Virgil

12. The Metamorphoses – Ovid

13. The Ethics – Aristotle

14. The Koran

15. The Republic – Plato

16. The Lives – Plutarch

17. The Mahabharata

18. The Ramayana

19. The Shahnameh – Ferdowsi

20. The poems of Li Po

21. The poems of Horace

22. The Arabian Nights

23. Njal’s Saga

24. The Confessions – St. Augustine

25. The Divine Comedy – Dante

26. The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

27. The Riverside Shakespeare - 2nd edition

28. Paradise Lost – Milton

29. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Gibbon

30. The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin

31. The Novum Organum – Francis Bacon

32. The Essays of Montaigne

33. The Praise of Folly – Erasmus

34. The Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith

35. On Liberty – John Stuart Mill

36. Faust – Goethe

37. Vanity Fair – Thackeray

38. Middlemarch – George Eliot

39. Moby-Dick – Herman Melville

40. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – William Shirer

41. The Odes of John Keats

42. Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

43. Boswell’s Life of Johnson

44. The Roman Revolution – Ronald Syme

45. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

46. The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu

47. Notre-Dame de Paris – Victor Hugo

48. A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

49. Orlando Furioso – Ariosto

50. Candide – Voltaire

51. Eichmann in Jerusalem – Hannah Arendt

52. The Heimskringla

53. Leviathan – Hobbes

54. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – Rebecca West

55. Democracy in America – de Tocqueville

56. The Diary of Samuel Pepys

57. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

58. The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine

59. Arcadia – Philip & Mary Sidney

60. War and Peace – Tolstoy

61. The French Revolution – Carlyle

62. The Poems of Catullus

63. Religio Medici - Thomas Browne

64. Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman

65. Walden – Henry David Thoreau

66. Don Quixote – Cervantes

67. Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

68. The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser

69. The Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton

70. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding – John Locke

71. Capital – Marx

72. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

73. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

74. The Variety of Religious Experience -William James

75. The Education of Henry Adams – Henry Adams

76. The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

77. The Once and Future King – T.H.White

78. The Ring and the Book – Robert Browning

79. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

80. The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

81. Portrait of a Lady – Henry James

82. The Poems of John Donne

83. The Oxford Book of English Verse – the Helen Gardner edition

84. Biographia Literaria - Coleridge

85. U.S.A. – John Dos Passos

86. Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset

87. Look Homeward, Angel – Thomas Wolfe

88. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume

89. Shakespeare’s Lives – Samuel Schoenbaum

90. The Poems of William Butler Yeats

91. The Decameron – Boccaccio

92. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – T. E. Lawrence

93. The Summa TheologicaSt. Thomas Aquinas

94. Wuthering Heights -Emily Bronte

95. The Poetic Edda

96. Africa – John Reader

97. Animal Liberation – Peter Singer

98. The Tain

99. History of the World – J. M. Roberts

100. The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien

  • Asher

    Yo, this list is wack.

  • Jim

    Keeping to these criteria, I’d just add Descartes’s Meditations and Spinoza’s Ethics.

  • Greg

    No Alice Munro?

  • Rohan

    “A classic you’ve always been meaning to read is your failing; a classic you’ve always been meaning to re-read is the classic’s failing.”

    That’s a great line.

    I’m interested in your choice of A Christmas Carol as the only Dickens — unless I missed another one somewhere. At first I thought you were crazy! His best novel is obviously Bleak House. But the more I think about it, the more I just might agree–it certainly wins on two of those three Rs, anyway.

  • Craig D

    Glad to see T.H. White on here!

  • Mrinal Bose

    One book I greatly miss: Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.

  • Steve Donoghue

    Jim: the reason why Descartes will never be on any list of mine should be obvious, but I thought long and hard about Spinoza!

    Greg: I’m working on a very different, and Alice Munro features prominently on it

    Rohan: I stand by “A Christmas Carol”! It has far, far less of the shameless pandering and mugging that mars all the rest of Dickens and makes it such an ongoing mystery to me why so many people like his books

  • Jim

    Not obvious to me. Can you explain?

  • Arun

    Excellent list!!
    This is the only top-100 list where I can see Thomas Browne, Robert Browne, Boccaccio. Really happy about this. However, it is sacrilege that you missed Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais.

  • Arun

    Damn! I misspelled Robert Burton.