(LONG) Introduction to the 100 Greatest Books Challenge — The What, Why, and How

A year and a half ago, I finished the most significant chapter of my imaginary autobiography to date: my studies. I planned to enter the workforce, figure out this whole adulthood thing, and only revisit academia if and when I could find a PhD supervisor willing to let me research sleep—while asleep. Armed with degrees in Linguistics, French, and Comparative Literature, I marched into the world a full-blown, higher-educated, loan-repaying adult.

It was the first time in my life that I didn’t have an enormous stack of reading assignments on my desk. I had no history textbooks to skim, no American fiction to peruse, no French novels to analyze, no JSTOR articles to highlight. It felt freeing, and exhilarating, and bewildering, and unsettling. I had no idea where to begin—couldn’t even remember how—to select a book to read, out of ALL THE BOOKS EVER. Part of me worried that without any motivation to challenge myself with works of literary genius, or at least minimal historical/social/political/philosophical significance, I would reach lazily, and exclusively, for Fifty Shades of Twilight or the many narcissistic celebrity memoirs on the Bestseller shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Since reading the newspaper or getting a Forbes subscription was out of the question, my next move was obvious: I gave myself a reading assignment. I found a list of classic literature online called thegreatestbooks.org that would give me the opportunity to catch up on all the literary references and authors that had fallen between the cracks of my studies. It lists The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, from Don Quixote to Midnight’s Children.

Many of these lists exist. The Observer, the Modern Library, the BBC, and TIME magazine have all produced similar ones, with varying quantities of Faulkner and differing judgments on whether or not to include Shakespeare’s plays. I’m not sure now why I picked this one; it certainly wasn’t the easiest to find on the Internet, as I discovered once when my Excel version inexplicably disappeared from my desktop and I forgot the idiot-proof URL. I actually regret picking this list now, because of all the Faulkner included (no less than four of his books are apparently just that GREAT). But perhaps Faulkner is an acquired taste, like olives, and I will learn to love him, like in an arranged marriage. We shall see.

Overall, though, this list suits my project well: Its compiler has drawn from forty-three “Best Books of All Time” lists and fed them into an algorithm, and even designed the site as an application to allow readers to tick off books as they finish them. My goal is, of course, to read all 100, as eventually as it takes. This will be a space for me to provide notes and commentary for anyone who is interested in sharing my journey from one end of the bookshelf to the other, or in taking on a related challenge.

My commentary here is meant to provide one non-expert opinion, one interpretation, among the many more and less important ones tucked away in libraries and various corners of the Internet. This is not intended as academic research, SparkNotes, or a literature lesson. Before all of you haters gather your vicious wit to pick apart my carefully chosen words and crush my soul to Oreo crumbs, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you are being CONSTRUCTIVE or being a DOUCHE. If you <3 me, let me know. Otherwise shut up. One day the Internet will kick you off and the rest of us will LOL and sing Kumbaya together over FaceTime.

I am fully committed to telling the brutal truth about these books, since the whole endeavor sounds pretty pretentious and, well, literature snobs make reading unsexy. And anyway, my reading taste isn’t very elitist. As long as a book has avoided a giant public eye roll, I am willing to give it a go. I do not have anything against particular genres, bestsellers, or beach reads. One of my favorite books (and movies, for that matter) is Bridget Jones’s Diary. After I finished Madame Bovary last year, I reread the fourth Harry Potter and then picked up The Hunger Games. Indeed, I consider a mental rest both necessary and welcome in between authors like Steinbeck and Dickens.

By that same token, I also refuse to approach literary criticism like we’re in a snob-pocalypse, no matter how “great” or significant the classic. I recognize that highly esteemed literature does not necessarily have the entertainment value of The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was just as baffled as everyone else when Mr. Rochester’s lunatic wife showed up in the middle of Jane Eyre. I’m not going to falsely defend a book I dislike or polish my opinions with any patronizing insistence on stylistic necessities or symbolism or the author’s intent, especially if it appears to me that the author’s intent was to suck.

These posts are, of course, essentially a long series of detailed *SPOILERS*, so be warned.

The rules of the Challenge are as follows:

  1. I must read all 100 books on The List in their entirety (duh).
  2. I must read all volumes of each work, if the author considered the volumes to make up one book. (This, unfortunately, is the case for The Lord of the Rings—Tolkien, three volumes—and In Search of Lost Time—Proust, six freaking volumes.)
  3. I do not have to reread any books I have previously read. (Before beginning this List, I had only read 16/100 in full, despite my undergraduate Major in Literature. In all fairness to the American education system, however, I have read many of those sixteen multiple times, and numerous other books by the same authors. And I have read part of another eighteen books from The List, which must count for something. In any case, this rule is mainly my way of saying that nothing could compel me to reread The Grapes of Wrath. Ain’t nobody got time for that.)
  4. If I cannot remember whether I’ve already read the full length of any of the books on The List (e.g., The Odyssey, The Wind in the Willows), I have to read/reread them.
  5. I can read the books in whatever order I wish, I am not constrained to any time limits, and I can read multiple books at once. I can also read other books in between or alongside The List. This is a LONG-TERM goal. And I am optimistic about my lifespan.
  6. I am fluent in French, so I have to read the French books in French.
  7. As for other books originally written in another language, I am allowed to choose any suitable translation.

I don’t anticipate enjoying every minute of this self-inflicted assignment. Indeed, there have already been a few moments of struggle throughout the first nine books I’ve undertaken in the last eighteen months. But I also like a challenge, and what is a lengthy reading list if not that?

Finally, I believe that we read bookseven classicsquite differently when we’re not being forced by someone else to read them. And I am setting out to test that theory.

So here we go, in order of greatness, The 100 Greatest Books of All Time:

  1. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
  2. Ulysses, James Joyce
  3. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  5. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. 1984, George Orwell
  7. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  8. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
  9. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  10. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  11. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  13. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  14. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  15. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  16. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
  17. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
  18. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
  19. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
  20. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  21. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  22. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  23. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
  24. The Iliad, Homer
  25. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
  26. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
  27. Native Son, Richard Wright
  28. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
  29. The Odyssey, Homer
  30. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  31. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
  32. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  33. The Trial, Franz Kafka
  34. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  35. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  36. Emma, Jane Austen
  37. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  38. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  39. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  40. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  41. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
  42. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
  43. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
  44. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  45. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  46. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  47. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  48. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  49. The Aeneid, Virgil
  50. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
  51. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass
  52. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
  53. The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  54. The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
  55. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
  56. Animal Farm, George Orwell
  57. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  58. Oedipus the King, Sophocles
  59. Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
  60. U.S.A., John Dos Passos
  61. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu
  62. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
  63. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  64. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  65. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
  66. Clarissa, Samuel Richardson
  67. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  68. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  69. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  70. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
  71. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  72. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  73. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
  74. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  75. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  76. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
  77. Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence
  78. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
  79. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
  80. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
  81. Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
  82. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  83. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
  84. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  85. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
  86. Light in August, William Faulkner
  87. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
  88. The Stranger, Albert Camus
  89. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  90. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
  91. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  92. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  93. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  94. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  95. King Lear, William Shakespeare
  96. Dangerous Liaison, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  97. Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline
  98. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  99. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Looking at The List, I am struck by several things:

  • Where is Beowulf? Why the $*#% did I have to read that in high school?
  • There is a terrifying number of books on this List that approach or exceed 1,000 pages, and none of them are by J. K. Rowling. Thank God for my Kindle.
  • I have never even heard of The Magic Mountain or Herzog. I hope they’re not 1,000 pages long.
  • I am most looking forward to reading Jack Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, and Gabriel García Márquez.
  • I am least looking forward to reading James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Marcel Proust, based on rumors and previous attempts.

So here I go, off into parallel universes where ANYTHING can happen. I hope you enjoy the postcards.

Happy reading to me, and to you.

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9 thoughts on “(LONG) Introduction to the 100 Greatest Books Challenge — The What, Why, and How

  1. This is an admirable goal – some of these are definitely beasts and will be challenging, so good luck. Out of curiosity I counted and I’ve read 55 of these books. My personal favorites are Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, Pilgrim’s Progress, Great Expectations, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t envy you having to read Finnegan’s Wake & Ulysses by Joyce. I love book lists too. Have you heard of “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die?” Many of these are on that list, so once you’ve finished these 100, you can jump to that one! Now I’m going to look and see if you written any reviews on the books you’ve completed!

    • Haha WOW you should do this challenge since you’re already halfway done! I have heard of the 1001 books list, actually, but I can’t decide whether I’ll ever be THAT ambitious. :) I thought Time had an interesting take, listing the 100 greatest books since Time was first published (around 1923, I think). I just finished The Lord of the Rings (YAWN) and I’m on The Sound and the Fury now (ABSTRACT), with The Canterbury Tales up next… so we’ll see how the adventure goes!

      • I will definitely keep this list in mind, but I believe life is too short to waste time reading books that are neither enjoyable nor profitable in some way, so I will probably skip a few of these. Better yet, I will wait until you read and publish a review on them and then decide!

  2. Pingback: The Greatest Books vs. The Most Beloved Books | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

  3. I have a quick question – love the blog and the list. The list (top 100) you have looks different from the list the site currently has. Do you think they’ve refreshed it since you have started the project or did you do some rearranging of things out of preference.

    • Great question. It actually changes over time — my list is exactly how the top 100 appeared in 2011. Because the list is generated by feeding other “greatest books” lists into an algorithm (with some lists counting more than others), I’ve always assumed it changes as new “greatest books” lists are published/discovered.

      I did a post on this a while back in case you’re interested. The list has changed a lot more than I would’ve guessed in a small handful of years!

      • So helpful. Thank you!

        I have to say, the 2011 list is WAY more appealing than the 2015 list. I may stick to that one!

        About to embark on this journey myself.

        Have you finished and how long did it take you? I think I’m most nervous about Proust.

      • Haha. So many options to choose from!

        It’s been about 5 years, but I’m going strong at 93 books. I only read a few classics a year for the first couple years and then ramped up to around 25/year more recently. My best estimate for completion ATM is spring/summer next year.

        I’m working on Proust right now actually! I’m almost done with volume 3. His writing style isn’t as difficult as I was expecting — he’s actually easier to read than several other authors on the list — but the sheer length obviously demands considerable stamina.

  4. Pingback: #7 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

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