Posted by: Matt | April 9, 2007

Reading the Best Books

Each time my interest in reading builds to a fever pitch, I feel it almost necessary for me to read those books that are considered classics. I normally focus on novels written in the 20th century, and now, I suppose, the 21st century. But other than that qualification, what makes a book a classic? I really could not tell you, which is why I defer to lists created by experts. And who are the experts? A quick search in Google for “best novels” comes up with two lists of a hundred each. These lists have been compiled by the Modern Library and Time Magazine. The Modern Library list was created by the Modern Library editorial board and claims to span the 20th century, however it was released in July of 1998 so it excludes the last two and a half years of that century. The Time Magazine list, on the other hand, was compiled by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, two book critics I assume write for Time. They each formulated their own lists of 100 novels and those books contained on both lists were automatically included. The rest were chosen after discussion between the two critics. This list only includes books written since 1923 and has a copyright of 2005 which I assume is the final year considered. Why 1923? That’s the year Time was first published.

At any rate, I spent some time today looking over each of these lists. The first thing I did, and I think it would be the same for many of you, was to check off the books I have read. Turns out I’ve read 13 novels on each list; that is to say I’ve got a long way to go. By my count, 44 novels are on both lists, which means there is a total of 156 different novels named. Nine of my 13 were the same on both lists. After perusing both lists I found myself more interested in the Time list; it seemed to have more contemporary titles. The website for the Time Magazine list has a synopsis of each novel. Inspired by my desire to read the “classics”, I read through every single synopsis and placed those titles I was interested in on my TBR list. This Time Magazine derived list now contains 32 books, 7 of which I had previously placed on my list. This little project added 25 books and thousands of pages to my already considerable TBR list.  Looks like I’ve got quite the road ahead of me.

The question I’m left to ponder is: how valid are these two lists? Unfortunately, that’s a question I don’t feel qualified to answer. I admit there are people infinitely more qualified to determine these things than me. I just hope, and quite frankly assume, the Modern Library editorial board, and Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo are some of those people.

Have any of you looked at these lists? Do you feel they have any literary merit? And does it matter as long as you find a book you enjoy?



  1. I always think of these kinds of lists as a genreal guideline. It is impossible to ever come up with anything concrete and by limiting the length of the list there are always going to be books that should be included left off. I think even “expert” lists are also personal. But to answer your last question, I don’t think it matters as long as you enjoy what you read.

  2. I agree with Stefanie…as she says, even the expert lists have to be personal…and I always check off what I’ve read when I see those lists!

  3. Thanks for the input Stefanie and Gentle Reader. I think you’re both correct about it being personal or subjective. I don’t think objectivity is possible in anything deliberated upon by humans.

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