Saturday, September 5, 2009

List: The Observer's 100 Greatest Novels of All Time

In December 2003, the BBC presented its "Big Read" list of the Top 100 favorite books in Britain. Going for a scoop, The Observer published its own list of 100 Greatest Novels of All Time – more precisely defined as "essential fiction from the past 300 years" – in October 2003.

Unlike the Big Read, which was compiled through a months-long people's choice process, The Observer list was put together in-house, after much wrangling over the nature of enduring literature as well as the merits of individual works. The process is analyzed and explained in the companion piece to the list itself.

Those I have read are in red. Those currently on my TBR shelf are in blue. The comments following the titles are the original notes included in The Observer's publication.

1. Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes
The story of the gentle knight and his servant Sancho Panza has entranced readers for centuries.

2. Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
The one with the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair.

3. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
The first English novel.

4. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
A wonderful satire that still works for all ages, despite the savagery of Swift's vision.

5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
The adventures of a high-spirited orphan boy: an unbeatable plot and a lot of sex ending in a blissful marriage.

6. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
One of the longest novels in the English language, but unputdownable.

7. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
One of the first bestsellers, dismissed by Dr. Johnson as too fashionable for its own good.

8. Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
An epistolary novel and a handbook for seducers: foppish, French, and ferocious.

9. Emma by Jane Austen
Near impossible choice between this and Pride and Prejudice. But Emma never fails to fascinate and annoy.

10. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Inspired by spending too much time with Shelley and Byron.

11. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock
A classic miniature: a brilliant satire on the Romantic novel.

12. The Black Sheep by Honore De Balzac
Two rivals fight for the love of a femme fatale. Wrongly overlooked.

13. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
Penetrating and compelling chronicle of life in an Italian court in post-Napoleonic France.

14. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
A revenge thriller also set in France after Bonaparte: a masterpiece of adventure writing.

15. Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli
Apart from Churchill, no other British political figure shows literary genius.

16. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
This highly autobiographical novel is the one its author liked best.

17. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff have passed into the language. Impossible to ignore.

18. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Obsessive emotional grip and haunting narrative.

19. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The improving tale of Becky Sharp.

20. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A classic investigation of the American mind.

21. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (reviewed here)
"Call me Ishmael" is one of the most famous opening sentences of any novel.

22. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
You could summarize this as a story of adultery in provincial France, and miss the point entirely.

23. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Gripping mystery novel of concealed identity, abduction, fraud and mental cruelty.

24. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
A story written for the nine-year-old daughter of an Oxford don that still baffles most kids.

25. Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott
Victorian bestseller about a New England family of girls.

26. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
A majestic assault on the corruption of late Victorian England.

27. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The supreme novel of the married woman's passion for a younger man.

28. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
A passion and an exotic grandeur that is strange and unsettling.

29. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Mystical tragedy by the author of Crime and Punishment.

30. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The story of Isabel Archer shows James at his witty and polished best.

31. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Twain was a humorist, but this picture of Mississippi life is profoundly moral and still incredibly influential.

32. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
A brilliantly suggestive, resonant study of human duality by a natural storyteller.

33. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
One of the funniest English books ever written.

34. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
A coded and epigrammatic melodrama inspired by his own tortured homosexuality.

35. The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith
This classic of Victorian suburbia will always be renowned for the character of Mr Pooter.

36. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
Its savage bleakness makes it one of the first twentieth-century novels.

37. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
A prewar invasion-scare spy thriller by a writer later shot for his part in the Irish republican rising.

38. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
The story of a dog who joins a pack of wolves after his master's death.

39. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
Conrad's masterpiece: a tale of money, love and revolutionary politics.

40. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (reviewed here)
This children's classic was inspired by bedtime stories for Grahame's son.

41. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
An unforgettable portrait of Paris in the belle epoque. Probably the longest novel on this list.

42. The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence
Novels seized by the police, like this one, have a special afterlife.

43. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
This account of the adulterous lives of two Edwardian couples is a classic of unreliable narration.

44. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
A classic adventure story for boys, jammed with action, violence and suspense.

45. Ulysses by James Joyce
Also pursued by the British police, this is a novel more discussed than read.

46. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Secures Woolf's position as one of the great twentieth-century English novelists.

47. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
The great novel of the British Raj, it remains a brilliant study of empire.

48. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The quintessential Jazz Age novel.

49. The Trial by Franz Kafka
The enigmatic story of Joseph K.

50. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
He is remembered for his novels, but it was the short stories that first attracted notice.

51. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine
The experiences of an unattractive slum doctor during the Great War: a masterpiece of linguistic innovation.

52. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
A strange black comedy by an American master.

53. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Dystopian fantasy about the world of the seventh century AF (after Ford).

54. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
The supreme Fleet Street novel.

55. USA by John Dos Passos
An extraordinary trilogy that uses a variety of narrative devices to express the story of America.

56. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Introducing Philip Marlowe: cool, sharp, handsome - and bitterly alone.

57. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
An exquisite comedy of manners with countless fans.

58. The Plague by Albert Camus
A mysterious plague sweeps through the Algerian town of Oran.

59. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This tale of one man's struggle against totalitarianism has been appropriated the world over.

60. Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett
Part of a trilogy of astonishing monologues in the black comic voice of the author of Waiting for Godot.

61. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
A week in the life of Holden Caulfield. A cult novel that still mesmerizes.

62. Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
A disturbing novel of religious extremism set in the Deep South.

63. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
How Wilbur the pig was saved by the literary genius of a friendly spider.

64. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Enough said!

65. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
An astonishing debut: the painfully funny English novel of the Fifties.

66. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Schoolboys become savages: a bleak vision of human nature.

67. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Prophetic novel set in 1950s Vietnam.

68. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Beat Generation bible.

69. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert's obsession with Lolita is a tour de force of style and narrative.

70. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
Hugely influential, Rabelaisian novel of Hitler's Germany.

71. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Nigeria at the beginning of colonialism. A classic of African literature.

72. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A writer who made her debut in The Observer- and her prose is like cut glass.

73. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Scout, a six-year-old girl, narrates an enthralling story of racial prejudice in the Deep South.

74. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
"[He] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."

75. Herzog by Saul Bellow
Adultery and nervous breakdown in Chicago.

76. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A postmodern masterpiece.

77. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
A haunting, understated study of old age.

78. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre
A thrilling elegy for post-imperial Britain. (reviewed here)

79. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The definitive novelist of the African-American experience.

80. The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge
Macabre comedy of provincial life.

81. The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
This quasi-documentary account of the life and death of Gary Gilmore is possibly his masterpiece.

82. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
A strange, compelling story about the pleasures of reading.

83. A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
The finest living writer of English prose. This is his masterpiece: edgily reminiscent of Heart of Darkness.

84. Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
Bleak but haunting allegory of apartheid by the Nobel prizewinner.

85. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Haunting, poetic story, drowned in water and light, about three generations of women.

86. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Seething vision of Glasgow. A Scottish classic.

87. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Dazzling metaphysical thriller set in the Manhattan of the 1970s.

88. The BFG by Roald Dahl
A bestseller by the most popular postwar writer for children of all ages.

89. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
A prose poem about the delights of chemistry.

90. Money by Martin Amis (reviewed here)
The novel that bags Amis's place on any list.

91. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
A collaborator from prewar Japan reluctantly discloses his betrayal of friends and family.

92. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey  (reviewed here
A great contemporary love story set in nineteenth-century Australia by double Booker prizewinner.

93. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
Inspired by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, this is a magical fusion of history, autobiography and ideas.

94. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
In this entrancing story Rushdie plays with the idea of narrative itself.

95. LA Confidential by James Ellroy
Three LAPD detectives are brought face to face with the secrets of their corrupt and violent careers.

96. Wise Children by Angela Carter
A theatrical extravaganza by a brilliant exponent of magic realism.

97. Atonement by Ian McEwan
Acclaimed short-story writer achieves a contemporary classic of mesmerizing narrative conviction.

98. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass in America)
Lyra's quest weaves fantasy, horror and the play of ideas into a truly great contemporary children's book.

99. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
For years, Roth was famous for Portnoy's Complaint. Recently, he has enjoyed an extraordinary revival.

100. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
Posthumously published volume in a sequence of dream-like fictions spun from memory, photographs and the German past.

Updated last on December 28, 2022.

(If you would like to be listed here, please leave a comment with your links to any progress reports or reviews and I will add them here.)


  1. I've read a grand total of two of those books. Does it make me a bad reader if I am not a particular fan of classic lit?

  2. Not reading classic lit doesn't make you a bad reader, of course. But some "classics" reach that status because they are really enjoyable!

    There are some books on this list, for example, that are personal favorites because they were incredibly entertaining -- Money and LA Confidential, for instance. Great reads.

  3. I'm very excited to note that I see no reference to anything with DaVinci...Potter...or Twilight!

    Usually the greatest of all time lists have DaVinci code at #2 or #3.


    By the way - I've probably only read 10% of those. I'm ashamed.

  4. I love lists! I've read 25 of these books but this list has many more of the books I plan to read. And I agree with Letters ... so glad to see actual classics and not ultra-modern books that haven't stood any test of time yet.

  5. Letters & Kristen -- I agree about the modern stuff showing up on lists. That is my big gripe with the BBC Big Read list and some others. I generally like to give books some time before I even read them, let alone consider them to be a "classic."

  6. What I especially like is seeing "The Periodic Table" there. I've never seen it on any list of greatest books of all time (I'm also hesitant to call it a novel seeing as all but three or so stories are autobiographical... and it's still comprised of short stories, so... uh...) but it truly is one of the best books I've ever read and sadly does not receive the fame it deserves...

  7. If I counted correctly, I've read less than 30. Gotta keep reading!

  8. Child -- Interesting to read about Periodic Table. Not a book that comes across my radar often. I confess that the Observer's description doesn't make me want to run out and read it. But your recommendation does.

    RR -- We can all look forward to your reviews as you work through more of these!


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