The Greatest Books vs. The Most Beloved Books


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.


13 thoughts on “The Greatest Books vs. The Most Beloved Books

  1. I love this! I’m especially curious about the fact that some books appear on the most loved AND most hated lists…what is it about those books that make people react so strongly but in different ways? Could it even be that because some people absolutely LOVE those books that others’ dislike of them grows stronger as a result? (If that makes sense.)

    • I wondered the same thing! Like, if everyone around me LOVED a book and I didn’t, and I had to keep defending my reasons for being underwhelmed, I might go from thinking the book was only OK to hating it outright because I’ve now spent so much time thinking up/arguing the reasons I didn’t like it. I think that actually happened to me with LOTR. And Divergent. It starts to get really annoying when we feel that public opinion vastly exaggerates the merits of a given book, so we dig our heels in further and further at the other end.

      • Jumping in on this convo. :) That’s a really good point about having to defend your opinion. It’s probably also that the more you have to hear about something you dislike, the more you dislike it, simply because you’re so annoyed at having to constantly hear about it. I also feel this strange compulsion to “balance” things, I guess. If everyone’s singing the praises of a certain book, and I have strong feelings to the contrary, I want people to hear the other side of the story.

      • I KNOW I am guilty of this. I think it goes along with your last comment, too, about a sense of disillusionment. We’re expecting to read a great book because everyone raved about it, but instead we feel like we wasted our time. We probably wouldn’t have bothered to pick it up or stick with it if not for everyone INSISTING it was amazing. There’s definitely an interesting psychology at play.

  2. *takes deep breath after previous note*

    I imagine what happens is that a book that becomes wildly popular gets more notice, so more people pick it up on a whim. Since not every book is made for everyone, it’s bound to receive some negative feedback, but because of all the praise and recommendations it got, those readers feel “duped” and so feel extra hateful of the book, when otherwise they might have just dismissed it without another thought.

    So, in a waaaay, Gone Girl being on the most-hated list is a sign of how much it’s loved?

    • Haha! None of the books I hate the most appeared on the Most Hated Books list, and many of them DID appear on the Most Beloved Books list. I’ll stand by my hatred anyway. And my love.

      I wonder, also, whether some books would shift between my own love/hate lists at different points in my life? For example, The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most hated books. I loved it as a teenager, but maybe I’d hate it if I read it today?

      • It’s become very popular to hate on Catcher, I’ve noticed. I adored it as a teen too, AND I re-read it as an adult. While I wasn’t falling all over myself with love for Holden like I might have as a teen, I still liked it! I hear people complain that Holden is whiny. Yeah, true. He’s disillusioned, for sure. But it just didn’t… bug me? Someone was actually trying to get me to hate it. They insisted that I only liked it the first time because I was a teenager, and that as an adult I would come to my senses. So I re-read it. But unfortunately for them, I still liked it. *shrug*

  3. Pingback: #8 In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

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