If you want to be considered a writer of one of history’s greatest books, it pays to be a Russian.
I recently stumbled across a list of the 100 best books of all time on the website of the Christian Science Monitor (csmonitor.com). It’s actually an older list, compiled in 2002 by the Norwegian Book Clubs.
According to the Monitor, the list was the compiled by 100 authors from 54 different countries. Each was asked to list the 10 best works of fiction.
In presenting the top 100 books compiled, no effort was made to rank them. They are presented on the Monitor’s website in alphabetical order by author.
There was a single exception to this rule. The list declared Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” the “best literary work ever written.” That declaration may prompt some spirited debates, but there is no disputing this is a masterful work, moving, funny and insightful all at the same time.
The international flavor of the list is evident from the first. “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe is a powerful tale of African villagers whose lives are forever changed by the arrival of Europeans.
Achebe is often described as the greatest modern writer Africa has produced. But I am not sure if that many Americans are aware of him.
But flipping through this list of one classic after another, I began to look for repeat names. Interestingly, only one author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, has four books mentioned — “Crime and Punishment,” “The Idiot,” “The Possessed” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” Several writers, such as William Shakespeare, have three, as does Dostoevsky’s countryman, Leo Tolstoy. The list also contains noted Russian writers Anton Chekov, Nikolai Gogol and Vladimir Nabokov.
Another writer with three selections on the list ranks as one of my favorites. Franz Kafka ordered all of his works to be destroyed after his death. Fortunately, a friend knew better. In Kafka’s works, we see the plight of the individual trapped in impersonal and bureaucratic nightmares. Kafka’s stories are warnings to be heeded.
In a sense, the most common name on this list is “Anonymous.” That’s because the authors of many great works are lost to time. And some may be collaborations, told orally through generations before being written down.
Included in this list of works by unknown writers are “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the Bible’s “Book of Job,” “One Thousand and One Nights” and “Njal’s Saga,” an Icelandic story from Medieval times.
Despite this nation’s relatively short history, American writers fared well on this list. Representing the United States are Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. That’s a respectable number when you consider many of the works found here are thousands of years old.
Although I consider myself a reasonably well-read person, I have to confess I had never heard of several of the books on the list. And others, while familiar in name, are works I’ve never looked at. Shame on me.
Anyway, summer has just begun. And if you’re looking for some enjoyable reading during these lazy, hazy days, consider the classics on this top 100 list. Great works of literature are often challenging, but they are also a joy to read.
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