Readers of books love lists. That’s why book-review editor J. Peder Zane asked 125 writers — everyone from Norman Mailer to Jonathan Franzen to Margaret Drabble — to pick their very favorite books of all time. Out of all the books in the world, here are the 10 most selected by Zane’s illustrious group.
1. “Anna Karenina,” by Leo Tolstoy
There are a significant number of readers who consider Tolstoy’s 1876 story of a Russian society woman who leaves her loveless marriage for a dashing paramour the single greatest novel ever written. Of course, there’s plenty of room for argument but one thing is for sure: If you’ve never read this book, you really should.
2. “Madame Bovary,” by Gustave Flaubert
“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert once declared, meaning that he’d put that much of himself into the bored, beautiful housewife at the center of his 1857 tale of provincial adultery. The story is now 150 years old, but readers of both sexes continue to find themselves and their neighbors in its pages.
3. “War and Peace,” by Leo Tolstoy
Isaac Babel is said to have proclaimed, after reading Tolstoy’s 1869 masterpiece about a network of aristocratic Russian families and the Napoleonic invasion, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” The book’s length (more than 1,000 pages) may intimidate some readers, but many of its fans swear that they wish that it would never end.
4. “Lolita,” by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s 1955 novel about a middle-aged literary scholar who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl is at least as infamous as it is famous. Considered pornography by some, it remains nonetheless at the core of the canon of great books of the 20th century. Nabokov himself was said to have considered the book his favorite creation.
5. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain
Twain’s 1884 story of a boy traveling down the Mississippi River by raft in the company of a runaway slave is considered by many to be the greatest masterpiece of American literature. (Ernest Hemingway once proclaimed that “All modern American literature comes from” this book.) The novel’s language (in particular its use of an ugly racial epitaph) also make it one of the works whose place is most frequently challenged in U.S. libraries and schools.
6. “Hamlet,” by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s tragic tale of the crown prince of Denmark who suspects that his uncle has murdered his father yet hesitates before seizing his revenge contains some of the playwright’s best known speeches and turns of phrase, making it one of the most quoted works in the English language.
7. “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald himself called his 1925 portrait of the Jazz Age and story of obsessive love a “consciously artistic achievement” and a “purely creative work.” The novel’s enduring popularity is such that the upcoming Baz Luhrmann movie version will mark the seventh time in a little over 80 years that “The Great Gatsby” has been turned into a film.
8. “In Search of Lost Time,” by Marcel Proust
This magnum opus of French novelist and critic Marcel Proust — in which an unnamed narrator grows up, falls in love, and struggles with relationships — weighs in at seven volumes and more than 3,000 pages. This work is considered so challenging that numerous guides have been published to help readers through it. But Proust enthusiasts quote the master who said that, “Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees.”
9. “The Stories of Anton Chekhov,” by Anton Chekhov
Many believe Chekhov to be not only one of the greatest dramatists of all time but also an absolute master of the short story. Examining both Russian life and the human condition, Chekhov learned to convey his meaning with a minimum of stylistic fuss and yet a maximum of force. There may be no happy endings in Chekhov but there is the beauty of language put to its best possible use.
10. “Middlemarch,” by George Eliot
Virginia Woolf called this Victorian masterpiece and detailed portrait of provincial English life “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have both cited it as perhaps the greatest novel in the English language.
By Christian Science Monitor staff | Published Mon, May 23 2011 4:00 pm