During the Christmas and New Year holiday of 2010-11 I spent an inordinate amount of time compiling lists from various sources  of the “best books ever” (or in some cases, best books of the 20th century, or whatever). I wanted to know which books tended to be most recognized in these sorts of exercises and see about coming up with a combined ranking. The list of the top 100 books below is based on twelve other lists, which between them contained over 700 books. The method I used for calculating all of this is described below, and here. However, the overall ranking is only the beginning: having built this database of book ratings, I wanted to see what else it would be possible to get out of it:

International comparisons – how do books by authors from different countries compare? Given that most of the lists were English-language based, this favours the US and UK, but which other countries feature?

Greatest authors – adding up the scores for books by the same author gives an overall author league table.

Timeline of literary greatness – book scores by publication date. I really love this graph. The best literary decade was apparently the 1920s.

Augmented timeline – two updates to the timeline, one showing the top books by decade and the other using an alternative methodology that shows 19th century books tended to score higher.

More on books and list-making:

Some articles and notes on the difficulties of making lists.

The “books” tag on Other People’s Ideas.

I’ll be updating this part of the site periodically with further analysis and discussion.

The top 100 books:

1 Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
2 Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë
3 Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë
4 Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
5 The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
6 David Copperfield Charles Dickens
7 The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
8 The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
9 Ulysses James Joyce
10 Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
11 Catch-22 Joseph Heller
12 Little Women Louisa May Alcott
13 The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien
14 To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
15 Gone With the Wind Margaret Mitchell
16 Tess Of The D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy
17 Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
18 Middlemarch George Eliot
19 Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll
20 Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
21 One Hundred Years Of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez
22 Emma Jane Austen
23 Moby Dick Herman Melville
24 War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
25 Brave New World Aldous Huxley
26 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
27 The Portrait of a Lady Henry James
28 The Count Of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
29 The Bible
30 The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne
31 Great Expectations Charles Dickens
32 Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert
33 Remembrance of Things Past Marcel Proust
34 The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner
35 A Passage to India E.M. Forster
36 Atonement Ian McEwan
37 Crime And Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky
38 On the Road Jack Kerouac
39 Beloved Toni Morrison
40 Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
41 His Dark Materials Philip Pullman
42 Lord of the Flies William Golding
43 Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe
44 Animal Farm George Orwell
45 Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift
46 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe C.S. Lewis
47 Invisible Man Ralph Ellison
48 The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
49 The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame
50 To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf
51 A Prayer For Owen Meany John Irving
52 Mrs. Dalloway Virginia Woolf
53 Frankenstein Mary Shelley
54 Tom Jones Henry Fielding
55 Winnie the Pooh AA Milne
56 Clarissa Samuel Richardson
57 Rebecca Daphne du Maurier
58 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams
59 Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
60 The Hobbit JRR Tolkien
61 The Woman In White Wilkie Collins
62 Inkheart Cornelia Funke
63 The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne
64 The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco
65 Native Son Richard Wright
66 Persuasion Jane Austen
67 Faust Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
68 The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann
69 A Tale Of Two Cities Charles Dickens
70 Charlotte’s Web E.B. White
71 Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut
72 Go Tell it on the Mountain James Baldwin
73 Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh
74 The Trial Franz Kafka
75 For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway
76 The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon
77 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire JK Rowling
78 The Stranger Albert Camus
79 The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler
80 Les Miserables Victor Hugo
81 Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban JK Rowling
82 The Little Prince Antoine De Saint-Exupery
83 The War of the Worlds H. G. Wells
84 Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy
85 The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoyevsky
86 The Color Purple Alice Walker
87 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce
88 USA John Dos Passos
89 As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
90 Sons and Lovers D. H. Lawrence
91 Journey to the End of the Night Louis-Ferdinand Celine
92 The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway
93 The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
94 A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess
95 Bleak House Charles Dickens
96 Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone JK Rowling
97 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
98 Far From The Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy
99 The Hound of the Baskervilles Arthur Conan Doyle
100 Nostromo Joseph Conrad

The original lists and methodology:

The table shows the 12 lists that were included, their country of origin, publication date, coverage and brief methodology. You can also click on any of the lists to see it at the source!

Name Country Date Coverage Methodology
BBC Big Read UK 2003 All time Poll
TIME 100 USA 2005 1923-2005 Critics’ selection
World Book Day poll UK 2007 All time Poll
Norwegian Book Club Norway/International 2002 All time Survey of 100 authors
Observer critics UK 2003 1600 onward Critics’ selection
Modern Library USA 1998 20th Century Critics’ selection
Telegraph UK 2009 All time Critics’ selection
Le Monde France 1999 20th Century Poll based on critics’ selections
Librarians USA 1998 All time Survey of librarians
Radcliffe Library USA 1998 20th Century Critics’ selection
German Big Read Germany 2004 All time Poll based on critics’ selections
New York Public Library USA 1995 20th Century Critics’ selection

For more lists, I can strongly recommend this page by Robert Teeter, which compiles a great many lists of both Western and Eastern classics.

Scoring: Some of these lists gave a ranking from 1 to 100. In those cases, the top book got 100 points, second got 99, and so on all the way down to 1 point for book number 100.  For unranked lists, every book appearing was awarded 50 points. Based on this, every book included in any of the lists was given a total score from across all the lists. I then checked for each book how many of the lists it was eligible for. For example, a book published in 1950 was eligible for all 12, whereas a book published in 1850 was only eligible for the 6 “all time” lists, plus the Guardian’s 1600 onward one. Books published after 200o also had limited opportunity to be included, as many of the lists were compiled in the latter half of the 90s. Therefore, each book’s total score was divided by the number of lists it could have featured on, i.e. Pride and Prejudice’s total score of 523 was divided by 7 to give it 75 overall, while The Great Gatsby’s apparently superior score of 698 ended up at 58 as it was divided across all 12 lists.

Methodology issues: I think the two main issues with the method are the selection of lists and the way the points were awarded. If anything, I should have collected a larger number of lists from a greater variety of sources. If you follow the Robert Teeter link above you’ll see that there are many many lists to choose from and you could argue that my selection is kind of arbitrary. In a rough way, I wanted to include a mixture of academic and popular selections, so I didn’t select lists like the St John’s College one, but you could argue it both ways. Regarding the points, I think I was too mean on the books at the bottom of the ranked lists. According to the methodology, being considered the hundredth best book of all time (1 point) is almost equivalent to being out of the running completely (0 points). To illustrate why this is a problem, take Midnight’s Children versus Slaughterhouse Five. As late 20th century books, both were eligible for all 12 lists; Midnight’s Children appeared on 8 and Slaughterhouse 5 on 4. You’d have thought Midnight’s Children would win by knockout, but two very positive scores from American lists gave Slaughterhouse 5 a decent score for 71st place overall, while Midnight’s Children ended up in 100th place on three separate lists and faded to 128th place. If list rankings had been ignored and points awarded purely for presence on lists, Midnight’s Children would have been in 21st place overall. This is probably an injustice; a future edition of the list may give greater weight to list presence.