In 2005, Time Magazine published its list of the 100 best English-language novels.

The magazine had three filters to the list:

  1. The original publication was in English. No translations qualified.
  2. The book was a work of fiction, even if it was based on a true story.
  3. It was a novel. No short stories or plays qualified.
  4. It was published between 1923 and 2005.

Rule 4 may seem puzzling until you consider that Time Magazine began publication in 1923. These are the 100 greatest English language novels of all Time and this list defines "Time" as the era of Time Magazine's publication, rather than the infinite progress of existence that is usually assigned to that word. Authors like Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain lived too early to make this list. Sinclair Lewis's "Babbit" and "Main Street" were published just prior to this time span, as was James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle". But the list spans 82 years, which is still a lot of novels to consider.

The list was compiled by literary critics Richard Lacayo and Lev Grossman, who made no effort to rank the novels - a book is either on the list or off.

Three of the "books" - "The Lord of the Rings", "A Dance to the Music of Time", and "The Berlin Stories" - were actually series. "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is part of the Narnia Chronicles, but only this volume was included. In each of these cases, I read the entire series. A few of the books, such as "I, Claudius" and "Rabbit, Run", inspired sequels that were not included in the list, and "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" includes characters that appear in other novels by John Le Carre.

Eight Authors appear twice on the list: George Orwell, Graham Greene, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and William Faulkner. No one made the list three times.

Margaret Mitchel, Harper Lee, and J.D. Salinger published only one novel each during their lifetimes ("Gone With the Wind", "To Kill a Mockingbird", and "The Catcher in the Rye " respectively) but those novels all made this list.

Most of the stories are set in the United States or Great Britain and were written by residents of those countries; but there are some Australians on the list and a few stories set in India, the West Indies, the South Pacific, and other locations. African Chinua Achebe's novel "Things Fall Apart" takes place in his native Nigeria. Achebe and Vladimir Nabokov accomplished the impressive feat of writing classic novels in a language that was not their native tongue.

A variety of styles and themes are represented among these 100 items. The list includes a diverse set of topics and genres: detective stories, postmodern stream-of-consciousness ramblings, science fiction, morality plays, satires, character analyses,  political statements, and more. There are books written for young people ("Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret", "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe", "The Catcher in the Rye") and books that feature rape and extreme violence ("A Clockwork Orange", "Tropic of Cancer", "Deliverance")There are stories of dystopian futures ("1984", "Never Let Me Go") and fictionalized histories of real people ("The Confessions of Nat Turner", "The Sot-Weed Factor", "I, Claudius"). There are stories that mock the absurdity of war ("Slaughterhouse-Five", "Catch-22"), stories that shine a light on American race relations ("Invisible Man", "Native Son", "Go Tell It on the Mountain", "To Kill a Mockingbird"), and stories of the effects of colonialism ("A Passage to India", "Things Fall Apart"). Immigrants - particularly Jewish immigrants - making a life in America ("Call It Sleep", "The Assistant", "The Heart is A Lonely Hunter") is a common theme.  Another common theme is the tensions underlying a seemingly mundane life in American suburbia, as in "The Corrections", "Appointment in Samarra", "American Pastoral", "Revolutionary Road", and "An American Tragedy". Drug culture is explored in "Naked Lunch" and "On The Road", while "Under the Volcano", "The French Lieutenant’s Woman", and "A House for Mr. Biswas" detail the main characters' march toward self-destruction. There is even a graphic novel, as "The Watchmen" compiles a 12-issue comic book series.

The thing that almost all of them have in common, however, is tragedy. There are very few happy endings. Great art tends to inspire great emotion and sadness is a powerful emotion.

As with any list like this, there will be some debate. Your favourite author or novel may have been omitted and you may not be a fan of some of the books that were included. As for me, I did not find any bad novels in the list. I enjoyed all of them and I loved some of them.

It took me almost three years, but I managed to power through this entire list.

As I began this list, I marked off books that I had already read. A few I had read recently because they were on NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books - a list I had recently completed. But, as I approached the end of the English language list, I decided to revisit any book that I had not read in the past 5 years. It had been decades since I read "Beloved" and I had not opened "Gone With the Wind" since high school.

I wanted to re-read the old books to see how my impressions had changed, but also to make it easier for me to accurately review the book. My reviews served multiple purposes. Writing about a book forced me to think more about its themes and what I liked or disliked about it, which increased my appreciation of it. I find it easier to remember a book if I go through this exercise; and, if I forget, I have a reference to which I can return. I also enjoy sharing these thoughts with others and exchanging ideas with them about what we have read.

I discovered that I enjoyed every book on the list - some more than others of course. Here are my top 30, in no particular order:

'Ragtime' by E.L. Doctorow
'Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret' by Judy Blume
'Go Tell It on the Mountain' by James Baldwin
'Animal Farm' by George Orwell
'The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
'1984' by George Orwell
'A Clockwork Orange' by Anthony Burgess
'Slaughterhouse-Five' by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck
'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov
'A Dance to the Music of Time' by Anthony Powell
'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
'All the King's Men' by Robert Penn Warren
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Kesey
'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee
'The Sportswriter' by Richard Ford
'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold' by John le Carre
'The War of the Worlds' by H.G. Wells
'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding
'The Blind Assassin' by Margaret Atwood
'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
'Native Son' by Richard Wright
'The Corrections' by Jonathan Franzen
'The Painted Bird' by Jerzy Kosinski
'The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter' by Carson McCullers
'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith
'Ubik' by Philip K. Dick
'Deliverance' by James Dickey
'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
'Watchmen' by Alan Moore

The least enjoyable ones for me were Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity’s Rainbow" and David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest", but I fully admit that the fault may have been mine, as these two novels contain a plethora of characters and subplots that I struggled to keep straight. A re-reading (if I ever have the time) may improve my opinion.

You can find my reviews on various websites, including this one.

Here is the complete Time Magazine list:

Title Author
Neuromancer William Gibson
Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut
Snow Crash Neal Stephenson
1984 George Orwell
A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess
Animal Farm George Orwell
Appointment in Samarra John O'Hara
Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh
The Adventures of Augie March Saul Bellow
The Confessions of Nat Turner William Styron
The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien
Watchmen Alan Moore
The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Judy Blume
Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys
The Day of the Locust Nathanael West
To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf
Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
Red Harvest Dashiell Hammett
Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson
Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston
Mrs. Dalloway Virginia Woolf
The Power and the Glory Graham Greene
Ubik Philip K. Dick
The Painted Bird Jerzy Kosinsky
The Moviegoer Walker Percy
The Assistant Bernard Malamud
The Heart of the Matter Graham Greene
Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis
A Handful of Dust Evelyn Waugh
Deliverance James Dickey
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro
Tropic of Cancer Henry Miller
Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather
White Noise Don DeLillo
The Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles
Ragtime E.L. Doctorow
Revolutionary Road Richard Yates
The Heart is A Lonely Hunter Carson McCullers
Herzog Saul Bellow
Under the Volcano Malcolm Lowry
I, Claudius Robert Graves
White Teeth Zadie Smith
Call It Sleep Henry Roth
The French Lieutenant’s Woman John Fowles
Light in August William Faulkner
The Man Who Loved Children Christina Stead
Possession A.S. Byatt
An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser
Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace
A Death in the Family James Agee
A Passage to India E.M. Forester
American Pastoral Philip Roth
Atonement Ian McEwan
Go Tell it on the Mountain James Baldwin
Invisible Man Ralph Ellison
Naked Lunch William S. Burroughs
Rabbit, Run John Updike
The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark
Loving Henry Green
Falconer John Cheever
Play It As It Lays Joan Didion
At Swim-Two-Birds Flann O'Brien
Under the Net Iris Murdoch
The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
Beloved Toni Morrison
Dog Soldiers Robert Stone
Money Martin Amis
Native Son Richard Wright
The Berlin Stories Christopher Isherwood
The Death of the Heart Elizabeth Bowen
The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood
Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie
A House for Mr. Biswas V.S. Naipaul
The Corrections Jonathan Franzen
The Golden Notebook Doris Lessing
All the King’s Men Robert Penn Warren
Gravity’s Rainbow Thomas Pynchon
The Sot-Weed Factor John Barth
The Recognitions William Gaddis
A Dance to the Music of Time Anthony Powell
Lord of the Flies William Golding
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey
The Bridge of San Luis Rey Thornton Wilder
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold John Le Carre
The Sportswriter Richard Ford
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
Gone With the Wind Margaret Mitchell
Portnoy’s Complaint Philip Roth
The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
On the Road Jack Kerouac
Pale Fire Vladimir Nabokov
The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner
Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy
Catch-22 Joseph Heller
The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe C.S. Lewis