Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Great Books

We were recently asked if the library had a list of the greatest books ever written—a recommended reading list spanning all of human history. The short answer was “No”.

Such a list would be difficult to compile. No one person could really have the knowledge to compile an authoritative list, and no two people could completely agree on what to include. This has not stopped people from trying. Robert Teeter, a librarian by trade, has collected many such efforts. His personal home page features a fairly comprehensive and well annotated list of lists of great books.

A Time Magazine article, written in 1946 about a Great Books course offered by the University of Chicago, ends with one of the instructors stating, “The Great Books program ends only in desertion or death." Though the comment makes perfect sense—one could spend a lifetime reading—it hardly sounds like an invitation to get started.

Thankfully, there are a few best-of-the-best lists out there that are not quite as intimidating. Most of them concentrate on the last 100 years.

Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Best Novels
Despite its title, this list only covers novels published after 1923, the year Time was first published.

The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
Compiled in 1998 by the Modern Library’s editorial board, this list is limited English-language books. A list of non-fiction is also available, as well as a rival list compiled by the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course).

BBC’s Big Read – 100 Favorite Books
A list of Britain’s favorite books based on a nation-wide survey conducted in 2003

The Guardian’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time
Another British offering, this one published just before the BBC’s Big Read. The newspaper also published a defense of their choices.

New York Public Library’s Books of the Century
A list of titles included in the book of the same name. Published in 1996.

A Unified List of the Best 100 Novels
Some of the lists mentioned above, plus several more, merged into one.