In 1996 the book shop chain Waterstones launched a poll of the reading public asking for views on the greatest books of the 20th century. They published a list of the top 100 as a pamphlet The Books of the Century, invited Germaine Greer to review them for the house magazine and offered customers the chance to buy titles from the list at four for the price of three. The Waterstones survey was based on an idea from the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century, a list produced in 1995, and perhaps not surprisingly the two lists shared 50 titles.
Since 1996 a steady trickle of similar Lit Lists has come to my attention. In 1999 the French retailer FNAC collaborated with Le Monde in a survey that asked the question “Quels livres sont restés dans votre memoires?” and published a list of the top 100 (this book listing exercise seems pretty much always to produce a list of 100). Of the 16 lists I have before me the BBC tops the charts with four, starting with The Big Read Top 100 and now 100 Books Everyone Should Read, the 50 Greatest Books Of All Time and the top 100 Books You Need To Read Before You Die. Newspapers and periodicals like the genre: Time Magazine’s All Time 100 Novels is joined by offerings from the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Times Education Supplement and Reader’s Digest.
Who gets to choose? Crowd-sourcing has been popular: typical is the Daily Telegraph’s poll of its readers to suggest a top 100 books for World Book Day 2007 and the Modern Library request of its readers to nominate both 100 best books and 100 best novels. Experts aren’t as disdained as you might imagine: Norwegian Book Clubs asked 100 noted writers from 54 countries; in 2002 the Times Education Supplement asked teachers and on the same theme the Guardian in 2014 asked contemporary writers to suggest set texts for English school children. The Modern Library asked its editors as well as its readers and Time magazine asked two of its resident critics for a list, idiosyncratically suggesting titles only from 1923 to the present. The Guardian has published the list of just one person (Robert McCrum) and in 2013 David Bowie published his own list of 100 must-read books later made the basis for an online book club launched by his son Duncan Jones.
The criterion for inclusion in these lists is not fixed – good reads, great books, all-time great books, 20th century books only. Most consist only of works of fiction although Waterstones original list included two nonfiction books – Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk To Freedom and Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. The Bible appeared along with 99 novels in the in the Telegraph’s top 100 books.
The cinema has a role to play and accounts for some of the more implausible entries. Jurassic Park? Trainspotting? Really? The film link probably also explains why Gone With The Wind features on more than one list including Le Monde’s. On the other hand some famous films were made of books that were already widely read and would have been here anyway – Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books, Catch-22, Rebecca. Film doesn’t account for all the outliers: I wonder how many people really voted for Jacques Lacan’s Écrits?
Two entries made me laugh out loud. The teachers list for TES was utterly persuasive and included Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and the Very Hungry Caterpillar. And in the writers’ suggestions for school set texts I enjoyed Hanif Kureishi’s proposal of his own book the Black Album. I awarded it a Schwartzkopf prize (for which it is the only contender from all the lists) named for the famous soprano who in her appearance on Desert Island Discs nominated seven of her own recordings.
Does a consensus emerge? Nine of the top ten books in the list of Most Begun but Unfinished Books Ever from the Goodreads website also feature in at least one of the 16 best books ever lists. Even so certain books and authors feature across several lists: Jane Austen , George Eliot, the Brontës – you can guess the other recurrent appearances in a predominantly Anglo-centric portfolio.
It is tempting to try and merge all the listings to produce an outright winner but heterogeneity among the lists makes it difficult to manage a pooling exercise. If you are keen to pick a short list you could choose books on the lists that have been written by Nobel Prize winners or that have won the Man-Booker prize; you could go with the wisdom of crowds and select books from the lists that also feature in the best sellers of all time lists, in which case you’re likely to be reading Tolkien, Rowling, Blyton and Dan Brown; you could remove the arrivistes, the fashionably popular, and stick with those that have proved enduring – leaning on the wisdom of crowds without much money or perhaps crowds that use lending libraries.
I’ll save you the trouble. There is only one book that appears on all 16 lists that I have collected. It is a novel, a good read, published in the 20th century, approved by teachers, literary critics, rock stars and the reading and book-buying public. It has been made into a film more than once. It touches on some of the great themes of the long 20th century – identity; the relation between money, social class and respectability; the treatment of women. It is The Great Gatsby. Who knows if it is the book of books but it is the undisputed book of book lists.