Gimbling in the Wabe – The Top Ten Books of All Time

by Sharon Browning


Writer and editor J. Peter Zane has done a most wonderful thing:  he’s come up with a list of Book and coffee 2the Top Ten Books of All Time.

Now, wait.  I can hear you scoffing all the way over here.  “Who does he think he is, to come up with a Top Ten Books of All Time?” I hear some of you saying, while others are clearly other are protesting that it is impossible to come up with a Top Ten Books of All Time list, because such lists are way too subjective to be considered definitive.  (And yes, I do hear voices in my head, sometimes.  Don’t we all?)

To answer those objections, first off, Mr. Zane is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and has worked at The New York Times and The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina.  Author of Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology and Social Organization and editor/contributor to two other books, he has won several national awards including the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

So there.

To answer the other objection regarding the absurdity of such lists:  yes.

Mr. Zane himself addresses this:  “The definition of great books will never be settled by competing arguments. There are no objective criteria that can establish the qualities possessed exclusively by a small handful of works deemed classics.”  But he does postulate that discussions of “what makes a classic” and “what books are classic” have left out one important factor:  data.

To address this lack of data, Mr. Zane asked leading British and American authors to send him their lists of their ten favorite fiction works of all time, regardless of length or format.  From the over 150 responses he received back (including authors such as Michael Chabon, Jodi Picoult, Stephen King,  Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Tom Wolfe, etc.), he then set the following formula:

To get a bigger picture, I used a simple point system for my analysis – awarding 10 points to a first place pick and one point to a tenth place pick. Results at the summit reflected the common view most readers have of classic books: excellent works that have stood the test of time. Seven of the top ten vote getters are from the golden age of the novel, 1850 to 1899, including the top three: “Anna Karenina,” “Madame Bovary” and “War and Peace.” Only one book published after 1950, “Lolita,” made the top ten; none were published after 1975. These results reinforce the traditional idea that classic/great books are revered works imbued with the ageless wisdom of the aged.

He discovered some interesting trends, however, when digging deeper into the lists, and, especially when applying the constructal law to the lists.  Constructal law posits that that everything that moves generates designs in shape and structure that facilitate their flow.  According to Mr. Zane, “Lightning bolts are designs that facilitate the flow of electricity from the cloud to the church steeple; river basins facilitate the flow of water from plain to the river’s mouth; books (and magazines, newspapers, websites, etc. ) facilitate the flow of information – think how much harder it would be to share information without those mediums.”

Therefore, in a hierarchical system brought about by a flow of information, classical books become the larger channels based on availability, capacity and how far they are “spread across the landscape”.  It’s a fascinating and thought provoking read.  Also highly entertaining are the individual author’s lists, which can be found on his website.

But enough about that already!  Have I teased you long enough?  Here is J. Peter Zane’s list of Top Ten Books of All Time:

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
  10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

Now, I will say that I feel this list is somewhat skewed.  When you look at the authors who contributed to the list, the vast majority of them are white literary writers.  Although there are many women representing, there are very few genre writers (Stephen King, Lev Grossman and Alice Hoffman are among the exceptions) or writers of color (admittedly, they are specifically American and English writers).  (On the other hand, who’s to say that many other authors were asked to contribute but didn’t respond?)  So there’s bound to be some stricture there.  But it’s still terribly interesting.

It made me think of what I would list as the Top Ten Books of All Time.  This is slightly different than the “Ten Greatest Books of All Time” (which seems to me more pleasure based than a more scholarly aesthetic) or “Most Influential Books of All Time”, and way different from “My Favorite Ten Books of All Time”.  But if I had to come up with a Top Ten list of books, based on pleasure, influence, and fitting the definition of “classic”, this is what I come up with, which is completely unscientific and sans virtually all data save what’s in my head:

  1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  4. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  5. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  6. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  7. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  8. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  9. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  10. Collected Poems by Edna St Vincent Millay

At least that’s what I come up with today, but it’s kind of cloudy out and my coffee is a touch bitter.  Tomorrow, especially if the sun is shining, who knows?  After all, I don’t have a lot of data to base my list on, just a heckuva lot of subjectivity.

What about you?  You got a list for me?  Um, sorry…. would you have a list for me, perchance?

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1 comment

tstate74 2 February, 2015 - 10:18 am

Gotta be honest. I much prefer your list. 🙂

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