Inside NEWSWEEK's Top 100 Books: The Meta-List

These days there are lists for everything, from the mundane (groceries) to the ridiculous (Top 10 Fascinating and Notable Lobotomies). Some lists make us happy (Top 10 Movie Kisses) and some inspire greed (The Forbes 400 List of the Richest Americans). If you Google "lists," you'll even find lists about lists. So, why not a list of the 100 best books of all time?

Some academics, teachers, serious-minded students of literature and intellectual poseurs will, of course, scoff at the idea, calling it preposterous and devoid of any intellectual merit—usually just before they suggest other books that they think should, of course, be included. How can you compare Tolstoy's War and Peace (No. 1) with Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (No. 66)? How do you rate fiction (George Orwell's 1984, say, ranked No. 2) with nonfiction (John Maynard Keynes's The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which clocks in at No. 92)? Can you weigh The History of the Peloponnesian War, No. 34, written in the fifth century B.C. and the oldest book on the list, against Alice Walker's The Color Purple (No. 99, published in 1982 and the most recent book on the list)? And isn't it absurd to rank Gone With the Wind (No. 16) ahead of The Holy Bible (No. 41)?

And yet, the lovers of lists are legion. And their answer to the critics might well be, to quote Rhett Butler's immortal comment at the end of Margaret Mitchell's paean to the Old South, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." For lists—dating back to, say, the Ten Commandments—have an undeniable appeal. And they often serve a useful purpose. They can focus the mind, stimulate discussion, help us make judgments, convey valuable information, and, yes, even encourage us to read books. Confronting the stacks in the public library and the shelves and tables at the local Barnes & Noble, a bewildered but devoted reader could certainly benefit from some guidance. Or to paraphrase Shakespeare's Hamlet (No. 49, just ahead of King Lear at No. 50 and Othello at No. 51): "What to read or not to read, that is the question."

NEWSWEEK's Top 100 Books list is different from many other lists. It's a list of lists, a meta-list. So we didn't put together an "entirely white, predominately male, and somewhat doddering" group of literary types with an average age of 69—which is how the late historian Arthur Schlesinger described the panel of judges for the Modern Library list of the 20th century's best 100 novels. The group, of which he was a member, also included the novelists William Styron and A. S. Byatt, the only woman on the panel. They gathered for lunch in the late 1990s at New York's stuffy, but very literary, Century Club to come up with their selections. But we did benefit from their judgments, as their list was one of the 10 included in our meta-rankings. The other nine, mostly compiled over the past two decades, were taken as a representative but diverse sample. They range from volumes selected for Oprah Winfrey's television book club to a reading list for St. John's College, the well-regarded school in Santa Fe, N.M., and Annapolis, Md., whose curriculum is based on reading the great books of the Western canon, to a list of the 110 books selected by Britain's Daily Telegraph to make up "the perfect library." (A complete list of the lists included can be found in the sidebar describing the methodology.)

No doubt this meta-list has its shortcomings, as does any ranking. For starters, it definitely has a distinct literary and cultural bias. It is decidedly Western (which might account for the absence of such major works as, say, the Qur'an), and all he lists used include only books written in English or translated into English. Consider, for a moment, the magnitude of that omission. A recent report for PEN, the international literary organization, noted that only slightly more than 3 percent of the 375,000 books published worldwide in English in 2004 represented translations from languages other than English. Multiply these annual figures by the many centuries during which works not written in English were not translated into English, and the extent of our literary deficit becomes appallingly apparent.

But why dwell on the negative? There's enough good reading here to enchant a child (Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, No. 35, and C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, No. 37), inspire a budding novelist (74 novels in all), instruct an aspiring politician (Machiavelli's The Prince, No. 31; Marx's Das Kapital, No. 30; and Rousseau's Social Contract, No. 29), or certainly fill up a summer. So, at least for several hours, we'd suggest putting aside your methodological quibbles—excuse the schoolmarmish tone—and try diving into a good book.