The List’s Biggest Surprises


In literature, as in life, our expectations don’t always align with reality. We’re all a little wary of books that seem over-hyped and/or universally praised, and we’ve all found ourselves reeling with pleasure from a book we had every intention of loathing.

The 100 Greatest Books of All Time are full of surprises—at least, in my experience—despite their (mostly) familiar names and (often) widespread reputations. And even when so-called “Great” books leave me feeling disappointed, I’m thrilled that after all this time they’re still, in a sense, waiting to be discovered… by me, and by anyone else willing to try them out for ourselves.

98 books later, these are the classics that most took me by surprise.

Books I Thought I’d Love and Didn’t:

Books I Thought I’d Hate and Didn’t:

Books I Assumed Would Be as Great as They Are Famous, and Weren’t:

Books I’d Never Heard of but Ended Up Loving:

Miscellaneous Surprises The Challenge Had in Store for Me: 

  • The animal narrators were animal badasses.

Gone are the days when I presumed animal narrators were synonymous with schmaltzy maudlit. The Wind in the Willows is a hilarious romp, but there’s wisdom and wonder in the Wild Wood, too. The Call of the Wild is starkly gorgeous and startlingly provocative. Animal Farm is, I’m convinced, how all history should be told—briefly, and in allegory. And Charlotte’s Web is a quiet assault on the emotions, profound in its simplicity.

  • The big, bad books used to terrify adolescents aren’t as tough as they’d like to think.

In Search of Lost Time is monstrously long, sure—but it’s more than readable if you’ve got the time. The same goes for Anna Karenina and MiddlemarchThe scariest classics are the ones you’ve never heard of, lurking in the shadows of our literary closets: Tristram Shandy comes to mind, as does Absalom, Absalom! and Malone Dies.

On the other hand, The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses, and Moby-Dick have earned their infamy (and then some).

  • To a certain extent, the classics are more alike than they are different.

Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and The Awakening all have essentially the same plot: Depressed woman has an affair and then kills herself. The suicide methods differ, at least. But if there’s a formula for “classic” status, I suspect it would look something like Social Criticism + Religious Criticism + Adultery + Suicide, with liberal references to other classics.

Gold, silver, and bronze medals for the Most Unique Classics go to Malone Dies, Things Fall Apart, and The Trial, respectively. Finnegans Wake wins first prize in Most WTF, a separate category in which Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is runner up.

And, finally, the Greatest surprise of all:

I didn’t think he had it in him.

If books this old and this well-known still manage to surprise me, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the lit world is waiting to reveal. Here’s to 98 books and many more surprises, for you and for me. Happy reading!

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.

50 Books! a.k.a. Halfway There! a.k.a. Nap Time!


It’s a day of celebration here at The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. I just finished my 50th book off the List, marking the halfway point in my Challenge. In other words, I deserve half a trophy, and half a pie party. Preferably gold, and preferably pumpkin, respectively.

I feel obliged to acknowledge that this was the “easy” half of the List. I had read 16 of the books prior to officially undertaking the 100 Greatest Books Challenge — meaning that, since 2011, I’ve really only read 34 books from the List. (Of those, I read 16 in 2014 alone.) And while I have tackled a handful of lengthy, challenging works over the last three years (Vanity Fair; Middlemarch; Anna Karenina; all three volumes of Lord of the Rings), I have yet to touch Proust and the six volumes that make up his infamous In Search of Lost Time… except for that stint in college that still makes me shudder to this day. Over half of the books left on my List are 400+ pages in length, and several were written by James Joyce or William Faulkner, my literary archenemies.

Anyway. Let’s focus on the positive: 50 books finished, and many of them so, so Great. Here are some mini-lists about my experience pursuing literary fame and glory a slightly maniacal to-do list, each and every one created exclusively for your my entertainment:


My favorites (so far) among the 100 Greatest Books of All Time:

1. Anna Karenina

2. Beloved

3. To Kill a Mockingbird

4. Vanity Fair

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude

6. The Catcher in the Rye

7. Pride and Prejudice

8. The Age of Innocence

9. Slaughterhouse-Five

10. Dangerous Liaisons


Books that are not among my favorites, but still undeniable works of genius:

1. The Divine Comedy

2. The Canterbury Tales

3. Hamlet

4. 1984

5. To the Lighthouse


Books that made me go “Wait, why is this famous, again?”

1. The Sun Also Rises

2. A Passage to India

3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

4. Wuthering Heights

5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


Easiest reads:

1. The Wind in the Willows

2. The Catcher in the Rye

3. The Call of the Wild

4. Brave New World

5. On the Road


Most difficult and/or boring reads:

1. The Grapes of Wrath 

2. The Sound and the Fury

3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

4. Women in Love

5. Heart of Darkness


Biggest surprises:

1. Hemingway had no discernible talent. Yes, that Hemingway.

2. The Call of the Wild was incredibly interesting and not at all cloying, despite being narrated by a dog.

3. Wuthering Heights: blithering idiots.

4. Anna Karenina was a piece of cake, and a tasty one at that. I’m actually looking forward to the remaining Russian classics, as long as I can get my hands on the Pevear & Volokhonsky translations.

5. I’d be embarrassed by any personal attempt to articulate how amazing Beloved is. Even this one has left me cowering with shame.


Next up: Don Quixote, supposedly the Greatest Book of All Time. And then maybe I’ll tuck into the winter with some Proust.

#10 Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary is the story of a woman who wishes she were the protagonist of a perky, British Austen novel. Instead, she finds herself written to life by a cynical Frenchman. Emma Bovary is 230 pages of miserable, from the day her bumbling idiot of a husband walks into her life to the day she kills herself with arsenic.

The movement towards literary realism, popularized in the 19th century by the likes of Honoré de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot, was based on the assumption that readers have a huge appetite for the banal. Why anyone needed to be reminded that life sucks, and would choose to escape into a parallel world that is pretty much just as sucky, is unfathomable to me. Madame Bovary’s high points are Emma’s numerous affairs. Its low points are when she bankrupts her doctor husband and names her daughter Berthe.

The absence of a likable protagonist was mildly refreshing, right up until I realized there are no likable characters in this novel whatsoever. Emma determinedly seeks out romantic drama but appears incapable of real affection. Charles is as dull as he is incompetent, and way too clueless to be sympathetic. (Note to men: If your wife attends endless “piano lessons” but never sits down to play you even one Jingle Bell, she may be covering up an affair.) (Or a Pac-Man addiction.) (But probably an affair.) The only character my heart went out to was Hippolyte, the club-footed man Charles endows with gangrene. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you… an amputee.

When Madame Bovary was published, Flaubert was put on trial for obscenity, which everyone knows is the highest honor the French public can bestow. His crime lay in his neutral depiction of Emma’s marital infidelity—a clear endorsement! Flaubert essentially took the stand and said, “While I may love prostitutes and sodomy, I would never think of applauding adultery.” He was acquitted, and naturally the book became an instant sensation.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

For the plot, no, but for the style, yes.

Favorite Quotes:

Elle ne pouvait s’imaginer à present que ce calme où elle vivait fût le bonheur qu’elle avait rêvé.L’avenir était un corridor tout noir, et qui avait au fond sa porte bien fermée.

Charles n’était pas de ceux qui descendent au fond des choses.

Read: 2011

(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 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.