In October of 2003, The Observer released a (highly controversial) list entitled “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time.” The list was written in response to the rumors circulating about a BBC top 100 list of “favorite novels,” generated by a large-scale poll. Its authors claim to have written it mostly to cause debate, and they succeeded admirably. The difference between the Oberver’s and BBC’s lists is that the latter is a poll of the nation's favorite books.

On the other hand, the Observer’s list is not a list of most-loved books. It was created to serve as a list of one hundred essential novels, making the list “less sentimental, and probably less contemporary” than the BBC’s. It was written in chronological order, so therefore does not determine a “best” book. Still, the list inevitably reflects the age and education of its creators. Nominations for the top ten novels of the list were originally given in an e-mail sent throughout the Observer’s office.

The regulations applying to which books were allowed are highly subjective. Although the list is fundamentally English, it includes novels that were originally written in foreign languages. Due to the large amount of interest that Britain has typically had throughout the centuries in foreign literature, translated novels were allowed on the list. It is, however, restricted to novels; no poetry or plays were allowed. As such, important contributors to English literature, including Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Eliot were excluded along with Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, and the Odyssey. Also, selections were limited to one novel per author, encouraging variety.

Personally, I believe that the list is fairly weak. While a large number of the choices should be included, for obvious reasons, there are a number of books where one has to ask themself “what were they thinking?” The Wind in the Willows, LA Confidential and The Call of the Wild make the list over works by Steinbeck, Ballard, Pynchon, Burgess, Vonnegut and Voltaire? I have a hard time believing that Roald Dahl’s literary contributions to history have been more important than Victor Hugo’s. I love Roald Dahl as much as the next guy, but I would not rate his works among the top 100 literary achievements in history. At the very least, the list shouldn't be named The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time.

Still, the list is, at the worst, a recommended reading list from the guys over at the Observer. There’s a surprisingly large number of books included that I’ve never heard of (and a much larger amount of books I’ve never read). If I ever run out of things to read, I suppose I would look here…

Here’s the list.

  1. Don Quixote -- Miguel De Cervantes
  2. Pilgrim's Progress -- John Bunyan
  3. Robinson Crusoe -- Daniel Defoe
  4. Gulliver's Travels -- Jonathan Swift
  5. Tom Jones -- Henry Fielding
  6. Clarissa -- Samuel Richardson
  7. Tristram Shandy -- Laurence Sterne
  8. Dangerous Liaisons -- Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
  9. Emma -- Jane Austen
  10. Frankenstein -- Mary Shelley
  11. Nightmare Abbey -- Thomas Love Peacock
  12. The Black Sheep -- Honore De Balzac
  13. The Charterhouse of Parma -- Stendhal
  14. The Count of Monte Cristo -- Alexandre Dumas
  15. Sybil -- Benjamin Disraeli
  16. David Copperfield -- Charles Dickens
  17. Wuthering Heights -- Emily Bronte
  18. Jane Eyre -- Charlotte Bronte
  19. Vanity Fair -- William Makepeace Thackeray
  20. The Scarlet Letter -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
  21. Moby Dick -- Herman Melville
  22. Madame Bovary -- Gustave Flaubert
  23. The Woman in White -- Wilkie Collins
  24. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland -- Lewis Carroll
  25. Little Women -- Louisa M. Alcott
  26. The Way We Live Now -- Anthony Trollope
  27. Anna Karenina -- Leo Tolstoy
  28. Daniel Deronda -- George Eliot
  29. The Brothers Karamazov -- Fyodor Dostoevsky
  30. The Portrait of a Lady -- Henry James
  31. Huckleberry Finn -- Mark Twain
  32. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde -- Robert Louis Stevenson
  33. Three Men in a Boat -- Jerome K. Jerome
  34. The Picture of Dorian Gray -- Oscar Wilde
  35. The Diary of a Nobody -- George Grossmith
  36. Jude the Obscure -- Thomas Hardy
  37. The Riddle of the Sands -- Erskine Childers
  38. The Call of the Wild -- Jack London
  39. Nostromo -- Joseph Conrad
  40. The Wind in the Willows -- Kenneth Grahame
  41. In Search of Lost Time -- Marcel Proust
  42. The Rainbow -- D. H. Lawrence
  43. The Good Soldier Ford -- Madox Ford
  44. The Thirty-Nine Steps -- John Buchan
  45. Ulysses -- James Joyce
  46. Mrs Dalloway -- Virginia Woolf
  47. A Passage to India -- E. M. Forster
  48. The Great Gatsby -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
  49. The Trial -- Franz Kafka
  50. Men Without Women -- Ernest Hemingway
  51. Journey to the End of the Night -- Louis-Ferdinand Celine
  52. As I Lay Dying -- William Faulkner
  53. Brave New World -- Aldous Huxley
  54. Scoop -- Evelyn Waugh
  55. USA -- John Dos Passos
  56. The Big Sleep -- Raymond Chandler
  57. The Pursuit Of Love -- Nancy Mitford
  58. The Plague -- Albert Camus
  59. Nineteen Eighty-Four -- George Orwell
  60. Malone Dies -- Samuel Beckett
  61. Catcher in the Rye -- J.D. Salinger
  62. Wise Blood -- Flannery O'Connor
  63. Charlotte's Web -- E. B. White
  64. The Lord Of The Rings -- J. R. R. Tolkien
  65. Lucky Jim -- Kingsley Amis
  66. Lord of the Flies -- William Golding
  67. The Quiet -- American Graham Greene
  68. On the Road -- Jack Kerouac
  69. Lolita -- Vladimir Nabokov
  70. The Tin Drum -- Gunter Grass
  71. Things Fall Apart -- Chinua Achebe
  72. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie -- Muriel Spark
  73. To Kill A Mockingbird -- Harper Lee
  74. Catch-22 -- Joseph Heller
  75. Herzog -- Saul Bellow
  76. One Hundred Years of Solitude -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  77. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont -- Elizabeth Taylor
  78. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy -- John Le Carre
  79. Song of Solomon -- Toni Morrison
  80. The Bottle Factory Outing -- Beryl Bainbridge
  81. The Executioner's Song -- Norman Mailer
  82. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller -- Italo Calvino
  83. A Bend in the River -- V. S. Naipaul
  84. Waiting for the Barbarians -- J.M. Coetzee
  85. Housekeeping -- Marilynne Robinson
  86. Lanark -- Alasdair Gray
  87. The New York Trilogy -- Paul Auster
  88. The BFG -- Roald Dahl
  89. The Periodic Table -- Primo Levi
  90. Money -- Martin Amis
  91. An Artist of the Floating World -- Kazuo Ishiguro
  92. Oscar And Lucinda -- Peter Carey
  93. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting -- Milan Kundera
  94. Haroun and the Sea af Stories -- Salman Rushdie
  95. La Confidential -- James Ellroy
  96. Wise Children -- Angela Carter
  97. Atonement -- Ian McEwan
  98. Northern Lights -- Philip Pullman
  99. American Pastoral -- Philip Roth
  100. Austerlitz -- W. G. Sebald

For similar lists:
Modern Library's 100 Best Books: Fiction
Modern Library's 100 Best Books: Nonfiction
ABR's 100 Best Books
BBC Big Read Top 100
And for fun Fifty works of English Literature we could do without

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