Looking at a List of the Best Books of All Time
Today’s guest post comes from Katie Duggan, a writer for Reedsy, which is a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers for self-publishing. Katie is originally from New Jersey and currently completing a master’s degree in film studies in Cambridge, UK. When not working or studying, she enjoys watching movies and writing musicals.
Reedsy was founded in 2014 and has since helped authors self-publish over 10,000 books in over 30 countries. Reedsy Discovery is our platform that centers on readers and reviewers, providing book recommendations and spotlighting new releases. And while we’re always eager to share our top picks of contemporary works and indie gems, we also realized that we had quite a few recommendations from literary history to share.
Thus, Reedsy’s content team decided to create a list of some of literature’s most enduring titles — resulting in the 115 best books of all time. Tackling such a mammoth project was no easy task… but I can walk you through how we managed to come up with the final list!
Making the timeline
Knowing the post’s title would refer to the “best books of all time,” we wanted to follow through on that promise by reflecting the vast history of the written word since the beginning of time. We decided to structure our list chronologically and divided it into four time periods: Ancient civilizations, Post-classical literature, Literature in the modern age, and Contemporary literature.
Our list starts with the ancient Egyptian poem The Story of Sinuhe, from 1800 BC, and ends with the contemporary novel Station Eleven from 2014. As the list travels through time, it also journeys through literary trends, tracing the early influence of oral tradition and historical epics to the present-day dominance of the novel. In compiling together this particular collection, we sought to show all the different forms the “best books” have taken over time, and how our storytelling methods have evolved with the ages.
Determining what makes an enduring classic
When it came to actually selecting which titles to include and winnowing down centuries of literature to relatively few choices, we had a few key criteria. We sought out enthralling adventures, compelling characters, and beautifully written prose. We strived to identify stories that entertained and impressed readers in their historical moments, but also tackled timeless themes like love or survival that have proven to move modern-day readers just as profoundly.
For example, the Arabic-language folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights possess an enchanting magic that transcends time and space. Similarly, while Richard Wright’s Native Son is atmospherically rooted in its 1930s Chicago setting, its examination of racial divides and Black oppression remains relevant today. We’ve also included a number of contemporary works that we feel are destined to become classics of their genres, such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Khaled Hossini’s The Kite Runner.
Ensuring diversity in our representation of literature
Another ambition of our list was to accurately represent the diversity of literary history. We didn’t want our list to just rehash the typical array of “classics” that tend to be extremely Euro-centric and dominated by works originally in English.
Instead, we included texts from around the world written in countless languages — from the legendary Russian novel Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Senegalese story So Long a Letter to The Real Story of Ah-Q, a pillar of modern Chinese literature. These stories examine varied cultural and historical contexts to weave a rich tapestry of the literary past.
With works like the 15th-century The Book of the City of Ladies that interrogates the objectification of women in literature, or the 20th-century play Angels in America that is an astonishing look at gay identity and the AIDS crisis, we wanted to cover both recognizable tomes and lesser-known masterworks to represent a diverse array of authors and identities.
Looking back on the list and having now gotten some feedback from readers, we see there were countless other books we could have included, or alternative approaches we could have taken to our selections. For instance, we might have incorporated a wider assortment of genres, with more fantasy, sci-fi, and nonfiction titles. But we believe this list will still give you at least a solid range of literary masterworks to check out next (and provide some inspiration for your reading challenges).