Most 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 C. S. Lewis once observed that, like fashions, the more up-to-date a book is, the sooner it is out of date.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