The Greatest Books vs. The Most Beloved Books

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Here’s something you probably didn’t know, because why would you:

Sometime in September, or November, or something, on probably a Wednesday, or a Friday, or whatever, I will be able to celebrate lament the five-year anniversary of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.

Yep, you read that right. Five years. Half a decade. Half my twenties! Five whole years’ allotment of free time spent, largely, reading this kind of crap.

Why me?

I mean, obviously, the why is me. The Challenge has been, all along, both self-imposed and self-regulated. But whenever I imagine myself, on a parallel couch in a parallel universe, stretched out reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or About a Boy, or The Princess Bride, I think, That me sounds cool. That me sounds sane. That me sounds like she eats enough vegetables, and gets enough sleep, and NEVER cancels social engagements in favor of Netflix and wine.

But that universe isn’t this one, and that me isn’t me. So here we are.

Thanks to a clever Thought Prompt from my spectacular blogger friend Shannon Noel Brady, I’ve been wondering for the last few weeks what another Reading List might look like, in this universe or the next. (I have, in bygone fits of boredom, taken a peek at alternate “Greatest Book” lists, resulting in a surprising and irrational surge of loyalty toward my own—but never considered other themes. There are so terribly, startlingly, humblingly many.)

Shannon suggested that, post-Greatest Books, I read my way through this list of the most beloved books of all time. And while that sounds like a fun project—much more fun than buying up every copy of Rabbit, Run I can find and locking them all into a pre-paid storage unit with a maniacal laugh (which is what I had planned)—I’m done with reading projects. I’ve learned my lesson re: Challenges by now, roughly 91 books over.

Still, the Beloved Books list makes for a fascinating skim—especially when you consider where it overlaps with the Greatest Books List. A cursory glance tells me that among the Greatest and Most Beloved books are:

  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • 1984
  • Jane Eyre
  • Catch-22
  • Wuthering Heights
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • The Wind in the Willows
  • Great Expectations
  • Little Women
  • War and Peace
  • Gone With the Wind

In other words, over half of the world’s Britain’s 20 most beloved books are also considered some of the greatest works of literature ever written. (Well done, Britain. You have casually expert taste, and excellent sausages.)

There are, of course, differences, too. The Harry Potter books are all over the Beloved list—but probably too young to have cultivated “classic” status and the wrinkles that come along with it. Numbers 3, 4, and 7 (His Dark Materials, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Winnie-the-Pooh) are not among the “Greats,” despite their obvious Greatness. And, if you’ll notice, the Brits have an ever so slight enormous and embarrassing bias toward their own literary canon—while the Greatest Books jump from Spain to Ireland to the U.S. to Britain to France to Russia and back, all within the Top 10.

Even more interesting is the overlap between the Big Read’s list of Best-Loved books and this survey of the world’s Book Riot readers’ Most Hated. The Catcher in the Rye is, apparently, one of the most loved and hated books of all time, as are:

  • The Great Gatsby
  • Moby-Dick
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Lord of the Flies
  • Heart of Darkness
  • Great Expectations
  • The Old Man and the Sea
  • Pride and Prejudice

A handful of books, including but not limited to Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code, Atlas Shrugged, Gone Girl, and Eat, Pray, Love, appeared only on the Most Hated list. But I’d be willing to stand up for The Da Vinci Code, Gone Girl, and Eat, Pray, Love to the bullies on the literary playground, so they must not be all bad.

Here’s something you probably did know, because of course you did:

The value of any book comes down to the individual—to their preferences, their taste, their mood, even, and their interest (or lack thereof) in mockingbirds, or old men and the sea, or eating, praying, and loving. Don’t believe what the algorithms tell you; there’s no such thing as an objectively Great book, or an objectively terrible one. We all get to decide.

And I—here, in this universe, still tackling The Challenge nearly five years later—have always liked it that way.