Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 18, 2015

A 100 Greatest Books List … Agree or Disagree?

Recently the BBC published one of those lists: “The 100 Greatest British Novels.” CLICK HERE to see the list. I encourage you to click it open and take a look (it’ll open a new browser window and you won’t lose this spot), because that’s the subject of today’s article.

Whenever an editor needs to fill space in a newspaper or magazine (or blog!), she can always throw out this timeworn chestnut and see what happens.

Such lists are always interesting. The fun is — of course — that there are no right or wrong answers, and the debate is eternal and ever-changing.

In this list, one immediately notices that nearly one-third (31) of the 100 were published before the 20th Century. 61 were published before I was born. That’s not surprising. Defoe, Dickens, Eliot, Austen, Thackeray, Fielding and that crowd are fixed in the British literary firmament, and there they’ll stay.

Here are the first 10. For the rest, please open up the BBC page:

  1. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1874)
  2. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927)
  3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925)
  4. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861)
  5. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847)
  6. Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853)
  7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847)
  8. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens, 1850)
  9. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
  10. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848)

Middlemarch? A quick show of hands, please: Who’s read it? As I thought. Well, perhaps this will motivate you more than your high school literature instructor did.

I do note that 6 of those top 10 are by women.

I’m gratified to see one of my all-time favorites, The Good Soldier, at number 13 (not to mention F.M. Ford’s massive Parade’s End at #57), as well as to find that Bertie and Jeeves just made the list at #100. Dear old Lucky Jim is there, too, at #48, god bless him.

It’s irresistible to see how one scores. I do pretty well in the first quarter of the list except for Frankenstein. Never read it. I saw the movie, though. I’ve read slightly more than half of the books on this list. My “yesses” skew heavily to books published before WWII. I’ve not read a single one of the books published since 1990. Clearly, I have a lot of catching up to do. How about you?

Two years ago we got interesting responses from readers who weighed in on the perennial favorite subject of “what 10 books would you take to a desert island?” CLICK HERE to see that one, if you’re curious. Feel free to suggest your 10 books you couldn’t live without.

How about this BBC list? What is overrated, underrated, doesn’t belong here or is missing? I’d love to hear from you. If, like me, you have catching up to do, your local public library is waiting.

© 2015 Brad Nixon



  1. a quick look at the list shows i’ve read 4 of that list
    62, Animal Farm
    26, Lord of the Rings
    12, Ninteen Eightyfour
    4, Great Expectations
    not a particularly good show, considering where i work.
    oh well, i’m REALLY bad on the Russian authors!


    • Do you have a little tag on your name badge at the bookstore that reads, “Don’t ask me about any Russian novels!” ?
      Just so the rest of UWS readers know, you tear through several dozen books a year … but they trend toward books published, um, now.


  2. Ouch – As an old English Lit. major I’ve only got 35 of them, but 9 of the top 10. There’s the keepers of the canon for you. It seems they don’t value DH Lawrence much, either. I’m re-reading him now, and saw your Vence pictures.

    Anyone else an Anthony Powell fan?


    • John, thanks. Ours is a household in which A Very Long Dance to the Music of Time hasn’t caught on. I’d welcome hearing more about it from you and our knowledgable readers.


  3. Brad, may I *STRONGLY* encourage you to read “Wolf Hall”, a Man Booker prize winner, by Hilary Mandel (number 44 on the list). Also the second part of the trilogy “Bring Up The Bodies”. A third novel “The Mirror And The Light”, covering the final 4 years of Cromwell’s life, is due be published in 2016.

    The series relates the life of Thomas Cromwell, a base-and-ignoble commoner who arguably became the greatest statesman England has ever known. Cromwell was intimately associated with many of the major events in the reign of King Henry VIII, and due to his high public profile, there are a substantial amount of his own words still extant, as well as quite a lot of commentary about him by his contemporaries.

    Mandel’s writing in Wolf Hall is engrossing at every level. The work to date has also been very successfully dramatised as a stage play, and as an excellent 6 part BBC mini-series. The BBC has been given a preview of the work in progress on the third novel and has already committed to a second mini-series once the third book has been published.

    As for the list, I threw it into a spread sheet – I’ve read 63% of the titles and 71% of the authors over a long reading life. At least part of this is due to coming from a family that “read a lot”, plus passing through an education system that highly valued the study of literature and drama. A number of the titles were set-texts which I may not have otherwise read at the time, but nonetheless have grown to appreciate and revisit as an adult. Not bad for an engineer…..


    • Bill, thank you for the recommendation of “Wolf Hall.” It’s now on the “to read” list. I love the angle of considering authors one’s read. I have a spreadsheet, too. I’ll see how I do. “Set texts” isn’t a term I’m familiar with, but I assume it means “assigned” as in school texts. Well, I have a lot of the 19th-Century novels thanks to that, otherwise I’d have a much shorter list. Keep reading!


  4. And the No. 1 voted novel was by . . . a woman, in male-dominated Victorian England no less. Better clean your reading glasses and settle into a comfortable chair. Middlemarch was published originally in 8 volumes, and is over 1,200 pages.

    Me, I’m a lightweight reader. I like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a semi-autobiography very different from his better-known 1984 and Animal Farm.


  5. Thanks for the great list. Nope, no Middlemarch for me but I am with Bill and happy to see Wolf Hall on the list. I was a bit disappointed with Bring Up The Bodies but after Wolf Hall it was a must read. I can claim the other 3 of the top 4 and a total count of 18 from the list, with Nostromo the toughest one to plow through. Plenty of highly regarded books yet to be read.


    • Two big thumbs up for Wolf Hall, so that’s a clear must-read.


  6. Okay –

    I’m certain I’ve read 37 – but I am also certain I can no longer do a basic plot summary and rudimentary character list on all of those I’ve read. (e.g. Middlemarch)

    My real problem here is there’s no Sherlock Holmes! I would also agree with John and move DH Lawrence up the list and likely Conrad as well.


    • If a requirement of choosing books for the list depended on providing a plot outline and list of major characters, everyone’s list would be much shorter.


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