100 Great Novels In English

First, an admission: This list is terrible. It misses everything of importance and fully a quarter of these titles don’t deserve to be considered as great at all. “For the love of all that’s holy,” I can hear someone out there yelling, “Stephen King is on it. At least we can be thankful Dan Brown didn’t make the cut. What was this person thinking?”

If you’ll allow me a moment I’ll explain what he was thinking.

Lists of greatest or best or most-worth-reading novels are always atrocious. They always miss ones you think are crucial and they always include ones that you find unbearable. None of them are definitive. I suppose that’s why there are so many of them. This list is the least definitive of them all, which is why I the word I chose isn’t “greatest” but “great”. These are 100 great novels, not the 100 greatest. They all have something to recommend them, be it critical praise, influence, or sheer popularity. Some of them have won national or international literary prizes. Some are simply bestsellers. But they all have this in common: no matter how old they are, they are still being read today.

However, that isn’t why I made the list.

This started out so modest. All I meant to compile was a list of those classic books (most of them pre-20th century) that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. And while I’m ashamed as an English student to say it, I found things snowballing. I knew it would be a long list. I had no idea it would grow to such immense proportions. I kept remembering authors and titles that I had heard mentioned and noted down. And as the list grew so did my embarrassment. That I could have reached my age and the end of a writing degree without reading Ernest Hemingway was not something I wanted to admit in public. (For the record, I read The Old Man And The Sea last month. It was good.)

So to take away the sting somewhat I decided to make it a little more fun and a bit more intriguing. Instead of a list of books I hadn’t read, this would be a list of significant books that told a history of fictional prose literature in the modern age.

It sounds grand, doesn’t it? But you can already hear the limitations in that definition. A work had to be fictional and it had to be prose and it had to be of the modern age. That meant Homer and every classical poet or playwright was out. In fact, it meant poets and playwrights were out altogether. Shakespeare and Milton are wonderful guys and technically within the timeframe. Neither are here.

Why prose only? It has to do with why I was writing down books in the first place. I realized along the way why I was embarrassed by not having read certain authors. It’s because they’re expected to be taught in schools—and I had gone through school without being taught a lot of them. James Joyce, Mark Twain, Mordecai Richler. It took me most of college before I was assigned Dickens, and I had thankfully discovered him already. It’s not much of an excuse, and I know that school curricula have to fit in quite a lot in quite a limited amount of time. But I realized that if I was going to be a writer I had better learn what truly good writing was and why it was truly good. The list became a means to facilitate self-education.

As I said, curricula have a lot to fit in and soon more limitations cropped up. There are two major ones that I have applied to this list:

1) The English language. It seems harsh and extremely conceited. I confess it was largely to make room for other titles I wanted desperately to include but couldn’t because Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were getting in the way. Also, while I was certainly willing to pull a few thousand-page marathons and lift a few weighty tomes to complete the list, I wasn’t so keen on starting with one (which would have been Don Quixote). All of that is somewhat arbitrary and I could pick it apart with a few well-chosen lines of argument, but something I found harder to argue against was the issue of translation. When studying how great writers put words together, it’s probably best to be able to do so with the original sounds and words the writers used. That’s impossible to fully achieve in translation, no matter how faithful or masterful the work of the translator. One day I will pick up those books that I cut off for this reason, but they’ll have to be saved for later.

2) This is a list of novels. Short story collections were originally included, but again there was the issue of space. I also found myself intensely curious about the literary form we call the novel and the different ways we have of defining it—or more precisely the lack of any meaningful definition whatsoever. A novel is what we point to when we say it, and when we call something a novel it becomes one. True, there are a few titles on this list that fall under that even more nebulous classification of “novella”, but give me a break. You didn’t think I’d take a course on the history of English letters and leave out Heart of Darkness or Nineteen Eighty-Four did you? Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, and O. Henry were the major casualties of this rule. They are missed but by no means forgotten.

There are a couple of more minor criteria for this list, all of which have exceptions.

A) Of the writers represented here, few have more than two books on the list and most have been limited to one. Charles Dickens has six, three I’ve read and three I haven’t. Again, my emphasis is on books I haven’t read and I wanted to read more Dickens.

B) If I haven’t read any of the author’s works before, only one of their books is listed. This is so that in the event I hate their writing (it could happen) I only have to suffer through one of their books, ironically the one usually considered their best.

C) An attempt has been made to limit these books to titles which stand on their own rather than as part of a trilogy or duology. But a simple glance will expose a few sequels here. One is even counted as a single entry. I did it usually if the work is best appreciated as a single unifying story. Note: I have never and never will consider The Lord of The Rings as a trilogy. Tolkien wrote it as one book and in fact nearly lost his publisher when he stubbornly insisted that it be published in a single volume (along with what would become The Silmarillion after his death). The division into three books with three titles was forced due to postwar printing costs in England. It’s one book, people. One Book to rule them all…

D) This one isn’t so much a limitation as an allowance. I made the conscious decision to include works of science fiction and fantasy, and even horror and comedy. Call it the indulgence of a geek, but I firmly believe that there are works usually considered “genre” which deserve to stand alongside works usually considered “literature”. All literature falls into a genre, sometimes multiple ones, and everything written is technically literature. The qualities of good literature is a subject I’m saving for a later post. But suffice it to say that all “literary” novels should be allowed to make us laugh, make us cry, make us scared, and make us use our imaginations. Certainly more than a few of them do so. So I made sure that both Stephen King and Terry Pratchett got their fair representation, as well as a couple winners of the Hugo/Nebula awards.

And finally, of course, because I know myself I gave myself some rules to follow while I read through this list. First, there is no timeframe for finishing this list; it’s okay if it takes me more than a year. Second, and as a corollary, it’s okay to read other books in between the ones on this list; there’s no need to torture myself if there’s no deadline. Third, if I’m really struggling with a book it’s okay to put it down unfinished and go on to the next one; the only condition is that I be able to give a good solid reason for putting it down. Fourth, I must write a short review of each title on the list including the ones I don’t finish. Lastly, I’ll be reading A Christmas Carol when it’s Christmas no matter where I am in the list at the time.

As I outlined before, the list is a sort of self-education in the history of the development and evolution of the novel in the English language. It is also not meant to definitively outline which novels are better than others. For both of those reasons, it isn’t arranged by order of rank but by order of chronology. It begins in the late 17th century and ends at the dawn of the 21st. I’m going to start on Sunday, May 1. You are perfectly free to join me at any point along the way.

Enough explanations and dithering. Here’s my personal list of 100 Great Novels In English:

***

1678: The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

1688: Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

1719: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

1722: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

1726: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

1740: Pamela by Samuel Richardson

1749: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

1759-69: Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

1764: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

1794: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

1813: Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

1815: Emma by Jane Austen

1818 (1831): Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

1838-9: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

1843: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

1847: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

1847: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

1847-8: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

1848: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

1849-50: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

1850: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

1851: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

1852-3: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

1854: North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell

1854: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

1855: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

1857: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

1859: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

1860: The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins

1865: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

1868: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

1868-9: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

1870: The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

1871: Through The Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

1871-2: Middlemarch by George Eliot

1876: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

1881: The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James

1883: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

1884: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

1890: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

1891: Tess of The d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

1895: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

1898: The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells

1901: Kim by Rudyard Kipling

1902: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

1903: The Call of The Wild by Jack London

1904: The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton

1908: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

1920: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

1922: Ulysses by James Joyce

1924: A Passage To India by E.M. Forster

1925: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

1927: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

1928: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

1928: Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

1929: The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner

1929: A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway

1930: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

1932: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1934: I, Claudius by Robert Graves

1937: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

1939: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

1940: For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

1940: Native Son by Richard Wright

1945: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

1946: Animal Farm by George Orwell

1949: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1951: The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

1953: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

1953: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

1954: Lord of The Flies by William Golding

1954-5: The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

1955: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

1957: On The Road by Jack Kerouac

1958: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

1959: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

1960: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

1961: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

1961: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

1961: Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

1964: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

1965: Dune by Frank Herbert

1966: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

1966: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

1969: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

1969: Master And Commander by Patrick O’Brian

1970: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

1974: Carrie by Stephen King

1980: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

1984: Neuromancer by William Gibson

1985: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

1987: Mort by Terry Pratchett

1989: A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

1989, 1990: Hyperion & The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

1994: In The Time of The Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

1999: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

2000: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Clay by Michael Chabon

2001: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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5 thoughts on “100 Great Novels In English

  1. An impressive list Steven. I am pleased to say I have read 40 of these novels. There are some that have been on my TBR list for a while now so I guess I better get to them.

  2. I have been reading a lot longer than you so 40 is not that impressive. I have read most of the classics, Austen, Dickens, The Brontes, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Joyce, Feilding, Elliott, Stern, Defoe, James, Wharton, Forreseter, Thackery, Hawthorne, Hardy, Wilde, Woolf, Lawrence, Kipling, Tolkien, Nabokov and more recent Richler, Rhys and Irving to give you an idea.

    My four favorites are there, Brideshead Revisited, Little Women, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird.

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