Another day, another list. Journalist and author Robert McCrum spent two years compiling a list of the 100 Greatest Novels in English for the Observer and theguardian.com. As with other, similar attempts to define a great book, there has been much debate and outcries of serious omissions and glaring oversights — and all sorts of general, haughty pffts and pshaws. That said, few would argue that Ulysses, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, and The Sun Also Rises don’t deserve inclusion. The earliest work is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and the latest is Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), and of the 100 titles, only 30 were published after 1950.
But what is a great book? “Classics, for some, are books we know we should have read, but have not,” writes McCrum. “For others, classics are simply the book we have read obsessively, many times over, and can quote from. The ordinary reader instinctively knows what he or she believes to be a classic.” And those ordinary readers made their feelings known to McCrum as he was making his choices. “Not only was there a vigorous, sometimes splenetic, discussion of the list and its choices by a dedicated core of well-read correspondents, there was also a surge in subscribers. Some weeks, with titles such as Frankenstein (No 8) or Heart of Darkness (No 32), our virtual audience soared into hundreds of thousands. In total, between 1 and 2 million readers have interacted with the series through the Guardian website.”