Generating a list of Best 100 Novels

This post describes how I came up with a list of Best 100 Novels, which I posted recently. Unsurprisingly this has generated a wide range of comments, from people who think it’s a great list, and others who think it’s hopeless.

What? and Why?

I wanted a list of “100 novels you should read”. Whenever I used to see such lists I would always get a pitifully low score. I read a lot, but it felt like I was missing some of a reader’s cultural context. I was in a reading group for a year or so, and liked the fact that I ended up reading quite a few books that I otherwise wouldn’t have read. Quite a few I didn’t particularly enjoy (Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller sticks in my mind) and certainly wouldn’t recommend, but the group broadened my reading horizons.

I was given The Big Read book, and decided to work my way through the books in the Top 100. I’m currently on my 80th book. The Big Read top 100 is a mixed bag – some feel ‘worthy’ and others don’t. It was an attempt to create the nation’s (UK’s) favourite books, so includes a good number of children’s books. The list was based on popularity, voted by the general public. There are quite a few books which wouldn’t be on a personal top 100.

So while I’m continuing on my Big Read odyssey, I wanted a better list.

A better list?

Some playing with google quickly turned up a number of ‘top 100 books’ lists. I decided to create a meta-list, by aggregating selected lists. Some of the lists are based on popularity votes, and others are based on supposed literary merit, selected by book reviewers or voted on by authors. I guessed that a merging of both types of lists would result in a list made up of ‘heavyweights’ and books which stand out as cultural reference points.

I created a spreadsheet, and added all the books from 10 different lists. For each list every book is given a score:

  • If the book is in the list, and the list is ordered, the score is the position in the list (so Lord of the Rings scores 1 point for the Big Red.
  • If the list isn’t ordered, all books on the list get a fixed score (at the moment I use 50).
  • All books not on the list also get a fixed ‘penalty’ score. I tried various values for this, and found that it didn’t change the overall result very much. Right now it’s 500. Given I was looking for books which people agreed were good, it seemed sensible to give a stiff penalty for not appearing in a list.

So the lower the overall score for a book, the better the book.

The Lists

The first list I included was The Big Read Top 100: the BBC ran a TV series around this in 2003, and a lot of people had voted, plus it was the list that started me off.

The Waterstone’s bookstore chain ran a poll to find the hundred greatest books of the 20th Century.

Modern Library, an imprint of Random House publishing, published the Modern Library’s Best 100 Novels list. They also ran a reader poll; both lists are on the linked page. I used the board’s list. Hmm, should I factor in the readers’ list as well?

The Telegraph newspaper (in the UK) published their Top 100 books list; this was based on a poll of top books, for world book day, in 2007.

Time magazine published a list of all-time 100 novels from 1923 onwards, as selected by two critics.

The Guardian (a UK newspaper) published a list of the top 100 books of all time, as “determined from a vote by 100 noted writers from 54 countries”. This is a serious list, and isn’t biased towards the English language. Don Quixote was named as the top book in history, but the list was otherwise unordered. Writing this, I’ve realised I should have given Don Quixote 1 point instead of 50. I’ll have to regenerate the list when I’m done writing this, and see what affect that has. I’ve read 12 off this list.

In 2004, Australian TV station ABC ran a poll to find Australians’ 100 favourite books. There are some non-fiction books in there, but I left them in, as I figured they wouldn’t make it into the top 100. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton was the highest scoring book by an Australian author. If you like John Irving (the Garp and Hotel New Hampshire period) then I reckon you’d enjoy Cloudstreet.

Canada.com published Canadians’ 100 Best Books of All Time, based on a Canadian readers’ poll.

best100novels.com is a website dedicated to a list of the best 100 novels. Anyone can vote for their top 10, and these votes go into the overall tally. The site also has reader reviews for the books. There is a lot of overlap between my generated list and this one.

The final list was The Novel 100, taken from a book written by a literature professor.

Conclusion

The process described produced an interesting list, many of which I want to read. It was tempting to edit the list, and drop books that I felt didn’t belong. Mostly these are books that I don’t think would feature in a reader’s poll in 10 or 15 years time: Harry Potter, the Da Vinci Code, Gone with the Wind, and others. But that’s not the list I was trying to create.

Please pass on any other relevant lists you come across – I’ll regenerate the list if I get enough lists to add.

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6 Responses to Generating a list of Best 100 Novels

  1. Tk says:

    Hi Neil,

    Cool idea blending all the different lists together. I am actually the publisher of best100novels.com and I know what you mean about the temptation to be bias. I too wanted to 86 The Da Vinci Code. On my list it is currently #48(53 in my database and nearly ready to be updated) but I also decided that it was best to keep an accurate unbiased record of the actual results. Keep up the good work.

    Tk

  2. Scott McLeod says:

    Of the Novel 100, I’ve read seventeen. On another, 14, another more. I’m an English Lit major, and i’m sure i’m gonna be reading more and more of these at the university, Pitt, but all in good time.

    The only real struggle with these list is the wonder of how to rank them. For example…Delilo’s “White Nose” is great, but is it really top 100? (I’m not actually done with it yet) And somehow Charles Dickens is grossly underrepresented on most of these list. For that note, so is “The Razor’s Edge.”

  3. Scott McLeod says:

    I’ve read 19 of your list, for record.

  4. donstuff says:

    You did a great job in putting this together. Thanks.

  5. Nick Barnes says:

    This is an excellent list. There are hardly any books on it which don’t seem to belong. I’ve read (I think) 43 out of the top 50, and at least 35 of those definitely belong near the top of any list of good books.

    See also my remarks about lists of movies, from which DRJ sent me here.

  6. Nick Barnes says:

    Also: you can easily improve this list by removing everything published in the last 10 or 20 years. It’s possible you will remove one or two actually good books, but you will also get rid of a lot of trendy rubbish.

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