Books Ranking Lists: How far can you trust them?

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I am on a quest to read the best books of all time,and there is no better way to discover classics than by checking ranking lists.However those lists all differ greatly,and by greatly,I mean the disparity is very baffling.

I have no doubt about the credentials of ‘The Times’,’The Guardian’,’The Modern Library’ and other such critics.They have always been accurate in their reviews of books,be the latter classics or post-modern novels,and I even wish I had their vocabulary at my disposition to put the exact words on the abstract peculiarities of a book.But still,I don’t understand why they decide to leave out some great novels out of their lists.Yes,they cannot include all classics in a list,and books that have been left out probably were ranked 101st,102nd and so forth.But questions arise when one considers that a book which has not made it in one list is ranked highly in another!Take the following novels for examples:

Note: I am assessing the ranks of the books below not as a reader,but as an observer.

1.To Kill A Mockingbird.

  • 1st by the British Librarians
  • 74th by The Oberserver
  • 4th by Radcliffe
  • 5th by The Telegraph
  • 7th by The Waterstones
  • Nominated by Time
  • Goes missing in the respective lists of The Modern Library,The Guardian and The World Library.

The disparity couldn’t be more intriguing.The book regularly features among the top 10 of some lists,yet doesn’t even make the Top 100 of others.Even if we turned a blind eye on this book’s status as a huge fan-favourite,its respective positions in the different ranking lists wouldn’t still make sense!

2.Midnight’s Children

  • 90th by The Modern Library
  • 100th by Radcliffe
  • 69th by The Telegraph
  • 25th by The Waterstones
  • Nominated by The Guardian
  • Listed in The World Library
  • Nominated by Time
  • Doesn’t make the lists of 101 Great Novels 

Midnight’s Children is not only a Booker Prize Winner;more than that,it is the Booker of Bookers! In short,among all the Booker Prize Winners-which are far from being ordinary books-Rushdie’s book stands out.Thus I don’t understand why such a novel barely makes it in the Top 50 of any list it featured in.

3.The Brothers Karamazov

  • 2nd in The 101 Greatest Novels
  • Selected by The Guardian
  • Listed in The World Library
  • Not nominated by Times because it was published well before 1922.
  • Not nominated by The Telegraph,The Modern Library,Radcliffe and The Waterstones.

Franz Kafka,Sigmund Freud,Albert Einstein and other eminent intellectuals called this book ”one of the supreme achievements in literature” ;it leaves anyone who reads it in awe.In this respect,it is all the more surprising when this novel is featured in only three lists! This is the kind of book that one expects to see in the top 10 of every ranking list,so I’m really puzzled as to why ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ was denied a nomination by so many critics,let alone a place in their top 10!

4.Anna Karenina

  • 30th in The 101 Greatest Books
  • 31st by The Telegraph
  • Nominated by The Guardian
  • Listed in The World Library
  • Not nominated by Time because it was written well 1922
  • Doesn’t make the lists of The Modern Library,The Waterstones,and Radcliffes.

Fyodor Dostoevsky called it ‘flawless’,Nabokov hailed the ‘flawless magic’ of its author’s style and Faulkner described it as ‘the best ever written’.For the two centuries following its publication,Tolstoy’s masterpiece has never ceased to mesmerise laymen and intellectuals alike.Yet this very book failed to make it to the top tier of the very few lists which included it.

5.Don Quixote 

  • Listed in The World Library and called ‘the best literary work ever written’.
  • 5th in the 101 Greatest Novels
  • Nominated by The Guardian
  • Not included in Time’s list because it was published well before 1923
  • Doesn’t make it into the lists of The Modern Library,Radcliffes,The Telegraph and The Waterstones.

The 100 authors from 54 different countries who proposed the best books of all time in The World Library agreed that all books chosen were ”on equal footing”,with the exception of Don Quixote which had the distinction of being ”the best literary work ever written”.I can’t fathom why a book deemed ‘the best of the very best’ didn’t make the lists of 4 critics.There can be only one explanation behind this incoherence: the 100 authors have all grossly overrated the book-which for me seems unlikely.

The disparity between the above books’ rankings and intrinsic value clearly illustrates my point: ranking lists do not do any justice to the hundreds of classics involved.Thus I opine that we should not stick to only one specific list to discover unheard classics,because the list in question has certainly left out some literary gems that we wouldn’t get to discover.It also goes without saying that no ranking list should be used as a benchmark! Maybe reviewers and critics should rank books by genre instead of audaciously making lists which comprise of the ‘best’ books of all time.In this way,there would be fewer great books left out and readers will finally know on which criteria are the books being ranked!

The World Library
The Modern Library
The Telegraph
The Guardian
The Waterstones
The 101 Greatest Novels

*It is ironic that TIME claims to have listed the best books of all time,when it excludes those published before 1923!


11 thoughts on “Books Ranking Lists: How far can you trust them?”

  1. I guess the “problem” with this is that, as with all “Best of” lists everywhere, these Best Books lists are substantially influenced by taste. I know you’d expect some classics to pretty much show up on all these lists, but I guess the list compilers are only human themselves, and things get overlooked unintentionally or simply don’t match their tastes to the degree that they do other peoples’. Out of the books you mention, I didn’t particularly like The Brothers Karamazov, though I’d really loved Crime and Punishment prior to it. I guess it just caught me at a not particularly Karamazov-friendly time.

    But I am by no means in the position to compile “Best Books Ever” lists myself, and I must admit I have used the ones around (Guardian’s list is my go to one) for ideas on what to read next. So I can see their usefulness, but I would probably not base my literary approach on them entirely.

    What Best Book are you thinking of reading next?

    1. Yep! You’re right! 😀

      While I do agree that taste plays a great role for the formation of such lists,I can’t really understand why some books aren’t even ranked at the 100th place.

      Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been constantly praised by intellectuals ever since its publication.Given that its literary superiority is uncontested,I suppose that its ‘grandeur’ lies in the author’s technique&style,and the storyline itself.Thus the fact that it has been omitted from some lists means that the ENTIRE board of critics have either forgotten(which sounds unlikely) or disliked the book.If the second assumption is indeed true,then we are forced to ponder over the criteria on which those ranking lists are based: ok,they might not have loved the book,it happens to all of us,but have they turned a blind eye to the author’s style and techniques?-the book’s originality?
      This is exactly what intrigues me about such lists: some books could have ranked at the 100th place even if only their techniques and style were being assessed.The critics could have been a little more objective,because there are thousands of people who regularly check their lists.There are books whose ‘class’ you can’t deny: I didn’t really like Crime and Punishment,but I could feel why it ranks so highly in some lists!For instance,Dostoevsky’s intelligence and way to evoke pathos are simply ‘unparalleled’!

      But yeah,you’re right on everything you say.I too find them very useful.In fact they are the only way for me to discover unheard great books! And…the great book I’m actually reading is ‘Amerika’! Would I recommend it to you? Yes! It is a very nice read.Although you feel it is Kafka’s first novel,’Amerika’ enjoins all the elements found in Kafka’s universe.I think you will like it!(It is more humorous than The Trial!)

      Thanks for commenting!
      And sorry for replying so late! I was bit taken up. 🙂

  2. I’m one with lndngeek on this – there are some classics that keep on recurring but to much extent the lists of bests and firsts are inevitably a question of the compiler’s taste.

    I’m lucky to have had a great secondary school literature teacher, who simply by teaching us the world’s universally most acknowledged literature pointed me in direction of the books to read. I still benefit from her teaching and it’s very likely that her urging us to read and to keep reader’s journal influenced me in my choice to study literature.

    I’m not really qualified to making any book lists either, except for English literature and even more specifically, Scottish literature. Should anyone need any tips in this particular area, I’m here 😉 !

    1. ..and like Indngeek you’re right! 🙂

      I concede that those lists all boil down to the tastes of the compilers.However I couldn’t get why some really great books couldn’t make it to the 100th place.Don’t the critics take into account the author’s style,techniques and originality?

      Don Quixote was deemed ‘the best literary piece ever written’ by 100 authors,while the other great books were said to be ‘on equal footing’.Judging by such a statement,I believe that there must be something really exceptional about Don Quixote.Yet this very book goes missing in 4 lists! While these critics are entitled to their opinions and tastes,they could have taken a look at the very features of the book that the 100 authors considered before hailing it as one of the best.Thus the book might have made it to the lower tier of the list.

      Because of such disparity of rankings between those lists,I believe that one should check multiple lists instead of sticking with only one.- I wrote this post as a response to a girl who swears by one list only and who tends to shun books that don’t feature on it.

      On a different note you intrigue me!
      1.Kafka is your countryman.
      2.You live in America.
      3.You’re very acquainted with English and Scottish literature.
      4.And I always thought you had Mexican ancestors.(Because of ‘Mara’ and your profile-thumbnail.) ….

      As always your comment was very much appreciated!
      …and sorry for replying so late.I was bit taken up! 🙂


      1. The Don Quixote omission is slightly shocking. What other book can pride itself on having contributed to the language: “quixotic” is a word and “tilting at windmills” is an idiom, both inspired by the book. It is short-sighted to use one list only.

        I’m so sorry to intrigue you! Let me explain:
        1) Kafka was born and lived in Prague, so the Czech people claim him as their own, even though he didn’t write in Czech.
        2) Did I imply I lived in America? I must have been drunk.
        3) I do love Scottish literature, that’s right, and I consider myself an honorary Scotswoman. (This clearly doesn’t explain anything, sorry.)
        4) Haha!! You see how misleading appearances are! I’m of a Czech family as far as our collective memory reaches, though it wouldn’t much surprise me if we had Jewish ancestors, too.

        Sorry for writing about myself and not explaining anything.

  3. Well, you can’t rust any single list to give you the straight scoop, particularly *not* publishers’ lists (such as Modern Library’s) because publishers’ lists are dictated by several things that have nothing to do with the inherent value or timeless quality of a work, such as the availability of rights to publish in a certain language, the editions already out there in the market–AND individual editors’ tastes. It’s the recurrence of titles on lists that is the best key to this puzzle 😉 I’ve found, that and trusting certain literary critics whose taste mirrors my own…!

    1. Yep!! Recurrence tells more about a book than do rankings.

      And I never really thought about what you said on publishers’ lists!
      You’re right about it. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by and putting an insightful comment!
      It’s much appreciated!

    1. Thanks a lot!
      As for my personal list,in order to make one,I will have to read more than 100 books first in order to compare them with one another.

      So there’s a long way to go before I’ll be able to make my own ranking list.

  4. In the industry, you would look at sell-through data from Nielsen. This shows you at a glance what the most popular books are and if you work in publishing, more importantly where yours sit. Most of the industry is covered by these figures.
    The newspapers take data from this source for all their book lists but use it in different ways. Therefore they always get different results. A rolling weekly chart is published each week in the Bookseller magazine.
    The other chart is the amazon top 100 books which is current also.

    1. Oh,I didn’t know about that.Come to look at it this way,it does make some sense now!
      Thanks a lot for sparing some of your time to post such an insightful comment! 🙂

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