Top 100 Greatest Novels Ever Written! Books that Made the List, and Those that Didn’t, Will Surprise You. Did Your Favorite Novel Make It?

Craig Allan TeichFiction, Novels, ReadingLeave a Comment

Vintage Woman Typing - Top 100 Best Novels Ever Written

Today I was searching through some old writing files on my computer, stuff I’d not looked at since about 2001. In searching the dark, dusty shelves of my hard drive, I re-discovered an old Excel spreadsheet I’d made called “The 100 Best Novels of All-Time.” Upon opening the spreadsheet all these years later, it looked like some arcane code which made not a bit of sense to me now, even though I was the one who made it. Ahhh, how time ravages the memory.

A bit of context…when I first embarked on my dream of becoming a published novelist, around 1999, I had just sold my investment firm. As a fugitive from the world of finance, my tool of choice was still the spreadsheet, therefore, the entire world, literature included, seemed ripe for numerical analysis. Old habits and all that.

Below you can see a screenshot of the digital antique.

Top 100 Best Novels All-Time - A List By Craig Allan Teich

Deciphering my old spreadsheet took about 30 minutes. The acronyms in the headings — MLB, MLR, Rad, UKGO, and 4-List — meant nothing to me at first. I had to google “100 Greatest Novels of All Time” as a way to hopefully stumble on a clue to their cryptic origins. I was soon rewarded with links to a page on the Modern Library website that had two lists, one from their Board (MLB = Modern Library Board) and one from their readers (MLR).

Okay, two riddles solved. What about the rest?

Turns out that “Rad” was an abbreviation for the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s Rival List of the 100 Best Novels of All-Time.

Three down.

Another check of Google’s returned links sent me over to a similar list compiled by the UK’s Guardian/Observer media outlet (UKGO), which they had since updated in October of 2003.

Four mysteries solved, one to go.

Alas, I wasn’t able to Sherlock Holmes my way to an answer as to what “4-List” referred. Based on the data, I know it wasn’t a summary of the other four lists; it was, in fact, a fifth list, but I’m unable to decipher it’s origin. If you have any ideas, please post them in the comments. It’s probably pretty obvious to many of you, but not to this old soldier.

Any way, I see what I did with these five lists and my handy spreadsheet: I listed every book that appeared on at least one of the five lists (a total of 316 individual books) along with their respective rankings for each list they appeared. I then totaled the scores and ranked the 316 books based on their cumulative score from the five lists. Obviously, any book that appeared on a greater number of lists stood a better chance of scoring high in my Über ranking.

Interestingly, and evidence of the immense subjectivity of the question itself, only eleven books appeared on all five lists, another twelve books made it on four of the five lists.

Lastly, I ranked all the books based on their total score to determine my Five-List Über Ranking of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. Without further ado, here they are:

100 Greatest Novels of All-Time: The List

1The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald
2UlyssesJames Joyce
31984George Orwell
4Brave New WorldAldous Huxley
5Catch-22Joseph Heller
6LolitaVladimir Nabokov
7Lord Of The FliesWilliam Golding
8Catcher In The RyeJ.D. Salinger
9The Grapes Of WrathJohn Steinbeck
10The Sound And The FuryWilliam Faulkner
11Animal FarmGeorge Orwell
12Slaughterhouse FiveKurt Vonnegut
13A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young ManJames Joyce
14To Kill A MockingbirdHarper Lee
15On The RoadJack Kerouac
16To The LighthouseVirginia Woolf
17Invisible ManRalph Ellison
18The Lord Of The RingsJ.R.R. Tolkien
19The Sun Also RisesErnest Hemingway
20The Call Of The WildJack London
21As I Lay DyingWilliam Faulkner
22A Passage To IndiaE.M. Forster
23BelovedToni Morrison
24Native SonRichard Wright
25Gone With The WindMargaret Mitchell
26A Clockwork OrangeAnthony Burgess
27Heart Of DarknessJoseph Conrad
28A Farewell To ArmsErnest Hemingway
29Charlotte’S WebE.B. White
30The FountainheadAyn Rand
32The Good SoldierFord Madox Ford
31Under The VolcanoMalcolm Lowry
33I, ClaudiusRobert Graves
34The Age Of InnocenceEdith Wharton
35U.S.A. (Trilogy)John Dos Passos
36All The King’S MenRobert Penn Warren
37The World According To GarpJohn Irving
38The Color PurpleAlice Walker
39The Heart Is A Lonely HunterCarson McCullers
40Sons And LoversD.H. Lawrence
41Tender Is The NightF. Scott Fitzgerald
42One Flew Over The Cuckoo’S NestKen Kesey
43Stranger In A Strange LandRobert Heinlein
44Song Of SolomonToni Morrison
45My AntoniaWilla Cather
46Winesburg, OhioSherwood Anderson
48Of Human BondageW. Somerset Maugham
47Their Eyes Are Watching GodZora Neale Hurston
50Howards EndE.M. Forster
51The Old Man And The SeaErnest Hemingway
50Tropic Of CancerHenry Miller
52Go Tell It On The MountainJames Baldwin
53The Prime Of Miss Jean BrodieMuriel Spark
54Women In LoveD.H. Lawrence
55An American TragedyTheodore Dreiser
56The Wings Of The DoveHenry James
57Sister CarrieTheodore Dreiser
58The Handmaid’S TaleMargaret Atwood
59A Room With A ViewE.M. Forster
60Sophie’S ChoiceWilliam Styron
61Winnie-The-PoohA.A. Milne
62Of Mice And MenJohn Steinbeck
63The AmbassadorsHenry James
64Darkness At NoonArthur Koestler
65Atlas ShruggedAyn Rand
66The Golden BowlHenry James
68The Maltese FalconDashiell Hammett
69NostromoJoseph Conrad
67The Naked And The DeadNorman Mailer
70Ethan FromeEdith Wharton
72RebeccaDaphne du Maurier
71The Way Of All FleshSamuel Butler
73Lady Chatterley’S LoverD.H. Lawrence
74DuneFrank Herbert
75The RainbowD.H. Lawrence
76The JungleUpton Sinclair
77Farenheit 451Ray Bradbury
78Light In AugustWilliam Faulkner
79Portnoy’S ComplaintPhilip Roth
80The MoviegoerWalker Percy
81Henderson The Rain KingSaul Bellow
82Portrait Of A LadyHenry James
83Appointment In SamarraJohn O’Hara
84From Here To EternityJames Jones
85Brideshead RevisitedEvelyn Waugh
86Angle Of ReposeWallace Stegner
87The Studs Lonigan TrilogyJames T. Farrell
88Death Comes For The ArchbishopWilla Cather
89The Wonderful Wizard Of OzL. Frank Baum
90A Handful Of DustEvelyn Waugh
91The Good EarthPearl S. Buck
92The HobbitJ.R.R. Tolkien
93Mrs DallowayVirginia Woolf
94The Bridge Of San Luis ReyThornton Wilder
95Absalom, AbsalomWilliam Faulkner
96Rabbit, RunJohn Updike
97Look Homeward, AngelThomas Wolfe
98Wise BloodFlannery O’Connor
99Wide Sargasso SeaJean Rhys
100A Tree Grows In BrooklynBetty Smith

Some Additional Observations

Even 15+ years after compiling this work of staggering analytical genius (read: mostly a big waste of time and yet another way to procrastinate from actually writing), I’ve still only read eleven of the books in the Top 20 of my own Über list.

It also strikes me that lists like this, especially in the literary world, are varnished with copious amounts of intellectual bluster and snooty-nosed nonsense. The list is chock-a-block full of novels that I have tried to read but found to be more effective at sleep inducement than pulling the shades, turning on the Weather Channel, and tossing back a handful of Ambien. So called great literature is often a long way from entertaining. But, again, maybe my own literary palette is just a bit too lowbrow and blue collar. Oh well, guilty.

That said, the list does contain some of my all-time favorite novels, books that I’ve read multiple times, both for their sheer pleasure, as well as the treasure trove of good writing lessons crammed into them. Literary goldmines like The Great Gatsby (#1), Brave New World (#4), Catcher In The Rye (#8), To Kill a Mockingbird(#14), A Clockwork Orange (#26), Winnie-The-Pooh (#61), and The Hobbit (#92).

But a lot of my favorite books didn’t make the top 100, but where listed among the 316 books found amongst the five lists. Some exceptional books (read: personal favorites of mine) that didn’t make the Top 100 are listed below. Let’s calls these my Honorable Mentions, or…

How Did These Books Not Make the List?!

102A Prayer For Owen MeanyJohn Irving
103DeliveranceJames Dickey
106Lonesome DoveLarry McMurtry
111The Secret AgentJoseph Conrad
114Don QuixoteMiguel De Cervantes
116Robinson CrusoeDaniel Defoe
122Tom JonesHenry Fielding
128Dangerous LiaisonsPierre Choderlos De Laclos
1372001: A Space OdysseyArthur C. Clarke
145The Count Of Monte CristoAlexandre Dumas
157RootsAlex Haley
175The StandStephen King
176Huckleberry FinnMark Twain
182The Lion, The Witch & The WardrobeC. S. Lewis
196Schindler’s ListThomas Keneally
222JazzToni Morrison
232Starship TroopersRobert Heinlein
235Something Wicked This Way ComesRay Bradbury
236Bonfire Of The VanitiesThomas Wolfe
263The Hunt For Red OctoberTom Clancy
273The War Of The WorldsH.G. Wells
275V.Thomas Pynchon
302The GodfatherMario Puzo

What's It All Mean?

What should be noted about these lists is the wildly different world of Great Fiction and Great Selling Fiction. In once again consulting my very brainy friend, Google, I was lead to several different lists of the best selling novels of all time, and how different that list is than ours. Yes, many books appear in both worlds — The HobbitCatcher in the RyeTo Kill a MockingbirdGone With The WindThe Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, to name a few. But most of the best selling books of all time don’t make the cut for “great literature.”

So what’s the take away? For me, as a writer, I had to decide what my goal is as a writer: write great literature, or write popular fiction? The answer for me is not so much an either/or question, but more a matter of priorities. For me, job one is writing the best (read: most entertaining) stories I can, stories that readers love. Stories that keep the pages turning and the reader engaged. Priority number two is to write well, to develop the best skills and the highest form of the craft as I can, but never at the expense of the reader’s enjoyment. Put another way, I’d rather sell a hundred million copies while I’m alive than make the 100 Greatest Novels of All-Time list after I’m dead, and I’d rather entertain millions today than educate 8th grade English classes tomorrow. But that’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself, and there’s no wrong answer.

A Different Kind of List

I need your help. I can’t stop wondering what a list like this would look like if we changed the question slightly. When asked “What’s the greatest novel ever?”, you’ll invariably get people giving you their highbrow, intellectual answers, so the classics will dominate, whether most people actually enjoy then or not. But what if we asked people, anonymously if needed, “What’s your favorite novel ever, the one you’d take with you to a deserted island if you could only take one book?” I think this list would be a lot different, and probably more useful for readers, and for authors aspiring to put food on the table with their writing.

For me, I’ll give you a few books that are among my all-time favorite reads, and each worthy of inclusion on my deserted island packing list:

#1 is Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. I just loved this book and have read it three times, no small accomplishment as it weighs in at about 700 pages. It’s got everything from humor to shoot outs to heartache. It even has a blue duck.

#2 is The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. Like Lonesome Dove, this book is both an incredibly fun read, but also long on craft. Movies are never as good as the book, and The Godfather movie is consistently listed as the best movie ever made. So how awesome must the novel be? Just saying.

#3 is a guilty pleasure from my youth, Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. I may have grown out of this book a bit at this point, or maybe not, but it was one of the books I read early on that sparked in me a desire to be a writer. I found the characters fascinating, especially the insider access to what it is to be different. Before Rice, monsters were one dimensional. Interview turned the genre on its head and made people want to actually be Vampires — that was its genius. Too bad Vampires have been done to death (forgive the pun) of late.

#4 Lastly, pretty much anything by Pat Conroy.

What Are Your Favorite All-Time Novels?

I’d like to know what is your favorite novel of all-time, the book that just gives you bunches of raw pleasure? Good writing, bad writing, doesn’t matter. Just that it was super fun. Post your choices in the comments below and let’s see if we can start our own list of the Top 100 Best Reads of All-Time.

Wishing you health, happiness, peace, and hours of pleasurable reading,

Craig Allan Teich

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