Whose “Best Books” List?

reading awardsMost readers recognize significant differences exist between British and American literature.

Not only do our literary tastes often differ, there are more than a few differences in the English we use . . . for example, whether we include our punctuation inside, or outside, of “quotation marks.”

With that caveat, it’s interesting to ponder the 2008 list of favorite books in the United Kingdom, as reported in The Telegraph. I’m unsure right now whether there’s a more recent list, but it would probably remain fairly stable a lustrum later. (It would, however, be interesting to see how Rowling’s works rank in fifty or seventy years. Not to mention Pullman’s Gnostic series.)

In their balanced compendium of passages from C.S. Lewis’ works, Martindale and Root point out the transitory nature of literary fads.

A book that is number one on the New York Times Best-seller List for several weeks may be all but forgotten a decade later. Popularity in a moment of history does not guarantee that a book will endure beyond its own time. C. S. Lewis once observed that, like fashions, the more up-to-date a book is, the sooner it is out of date.

One of the peculiarities of the list is that only a single book by any particular author was allowed in the top twenty-one titles.

I read somewhere that the average reader had only read an “average” of six of the books. I’m not sure how that is calculated, since I know a fair number who have not read—if they’re being honest—a single book in the survey (those assigned for coursework included).

And, now that I’ve made that seemingly judgmental statement, I need to be particularly truthful in my own list. That means I can’t check off a title because I saw the movie or read the Classics Illustrated edition . . . even though I think it would be fair to get partial credit for either of those options.*

I’ll reproduce the entire British classics canon in a moment, but since everyone will get distracted while they read it (assessing which titles they themselves have read), I’ll share my brief list first.

I’m not too embarrassed by its brevity, since 80% of my reading is nonfiction, and the list is decidedly not that. Also, I can honestly say that there are another ten or so titles here that I have begun to read, without being sufficiently interested to finish.

The truth is that just as less than a quarter of my reading is devoted to fiction, most of that focuses on my favorite genre, alternative history. And, for some reason unknown to me, none of those titles made the list!

Here is my humble account of British must-reads that I have actually finished.

 1) The Lord of the Rings (Ranked #2).

 2) The Bible** (#6)

 3) Nineteen Eighty-Four (#8).

 4) Catch 22 (#13).

 5) The Hobbit (#16).

 6) The Great Gatsby (#22).

 7) The Chronicles of Narnia (#33).

 8) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (#36)

 — Isn’t that a tad redundant (in the American, not the British, sense)?

 9) Winnie the Pooh (#40).

10) Animal Farm (#41).

11) Lord of the Flies (#49).

12) Dune (#52).

13) Brave New World (#58).

14) Moby Dick (#70).

15) Dracula (#72).

16) A Christmas Carol (#81).

17) Charlotte’s Web (#87).

18) Heart of Darkness (#91).

Interesting—I thought it would be shorter. Their presence on this short list, by the way, doesn’t indicate my recommendation of all of these. Some were assigned reading. I’ve also read some of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, of course, but neither in their entirety.***

The full list follows. Enjoy going through it yourself to see how you stack up. And, don’t be intimidated if the books you favor keep you too busy to read what others deem the most significant.


* Just joking. I would never consider seeing a movie as the equivalent of reading a book; some of them bear little resemblance to their source. That acknowledged, sometimes the cinematic adaptations are better than the books.

** I know it only has a single Author, but shouldn’t this count as 66 books?

*** My lovely wife, who I sometimes compel to proofread for me, could not resist mentioning that she was able to check off many more titles on this list than I did. I chalk that up to her sharp intelligence (valedictorian, 4.0 in college and grad school, etc.), general perfectionism, speed-reading skills, tolerance for boring literature, and “compulsive” personality. All of that, plus her consuming love of reading.

Here’s the British list.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal – Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Alborn

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

23 thoughts on “Whose “Best Books” List?

  1. How British that alternative history isn’t included?
    What a great list – (thanks). Wonder if they have a list of children’s books ( although some included here).
    Always fascinating which books endure – not always the ones that sell a lot when published.

  2. How strange. I got only 50 but even some I did read I didn’t rate very high in my estimation such as The Lovely Bones or The Five People You Meet in Heaven and The Faraway Tree which was probably too English for me or something…did not like it at all…. Why is Hamlet listed separate from The complete works of Shakespeare and likewise The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe separate from The Chronicles of Narnia? Strange list.

    1. Fifty? Good heavens you’re one avid reader! Speaking of Hamlet, my wife checked that one off and I asked her “why didn’t that list include Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Henry V (or was it the IVth or VIth that I read…)?”

      As for the peculiarity of the list, I’d have to defer to you for an explanation, since you’re the expat currently dwelling in Great Britain.

      1. Well my only guess is that since it was a reader’s poll, that is the way the titles were submitted. I wish George Macdonald was more well known. Sadly it is Americans who seem to know of him more than the Brits here. Several of his books would have made it in my top 100.

      2. Your comment about MacDonald reminds me of the oft-cited stats about Lewis’ popularity in States as contrasted with the U.K. What’s lost is the fact that there are waaaay more people over here to be potential fans. Plus the percentage of the population that actually practices (e.g. attends services) the Christian faith. What bothers me is snobby folk who “dismiss” Lewis as rather pedestrian because so many common folk (like us) admire him.

  3. I’ve managed 58 of these, although I’m not really sure it should count as 58 because of the already mentioned duplicates. I believe I must share some personality traits with your wife, such as the tolerance for boring literature (Have you ever read “Clarissa” by Samuel Richardson? It was…awful) and the compulsive behavior. Probably related- I’ve charged myself with reading every book on this list: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jan/23/bestbooks-fiction. I’m only about 20% of the way through but how can I call myself a librarian when I have read so few of the classics?!?

    1. I can tell you are a fine librarian with those traits. Best of luck on reading the other 80% of that list. (Hope you read fast.) Take my advice though, and if any of the works strike you as similar to “Clarissa,” resist the temptation to continuing read them to the end. (You’ll be just as good a person and librarian… and won’t have wasted your time.)

  4. I love the list of great British works. I think that Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery is a Prince Edward Island book. She is my wife’s great, great Aunt. The Brits can’t take that, even though we are a colony!

  5. I’ve read 39 of them. I noticed that Jane Austen got several mentions; I’ve read all of her books and most of them more than once. In my book she’s one of the greatest authors of all time! I’m sure I score much higher on the British list than I would on the American one. I’ve always preferred British lit ever since high school! :)

    1. Many people I know like Austen. I have to confess the subject matter doesn’t interest me sufficiently to invest much time in that direction. As for British lit… my two favorite authors are British, and you don’t have to struggle to guess who they are.

  6. I’ve only read thirty-five of the list so I probably don’t have the credentials to say this, but imho Les Miserables should be at the top of the list rather than the bottom…

    1. I’m sure the book is much better than the movie. (A musical… even lower on my list of preferences than comedies. Although there have been several I liked, including Fiddler on the Roof, in which I had a role while in high school.)

  7. 47! Not quite 50%, but then I wouldn’t want to read all of them, anyway… There are some more I would like to read. As a side-note, though, can the Bible really be considered British? I don’t see other translations counted (of the books I am familiar with, anyway) and To Kill a Mockingbird most certainly isn’t…

  8. Pingback: C.S. Lewis & Roald Dahl « Mere Inkling Press

Offer a Comment or Insight

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.