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What Makes Novels Great

Updated on August 7, 2021

Greatest Novels

What are your greatest books?
What are your greatest books? | Source

What Makes a Great Novel?

Have you ever compiled a list of your Top Ten Novels? This list took me about two weeks to complete. I compared several Top One Hundred Novels lists that are found in many different literary websites.

As I complied my list, I thought about what criteria I would use to make my decisions. I chose books which I read that had altered my views about life or influenced my worldview in some way.

This got me thinking about what criteria others used when choosing their list of greatest novels. So I started to explore what other criteria that may be used in selecting great novels. I have included comments of and criteria used by three men to choose great works of literature:

  1. Mortimer J. Adler (Author, Educator, Philosopher)

  2. Thomas Jefferson (President, Renaissance Man)

  3. W. Somerset Maugham (Author - Of Human Bondage)

Mortimer J Adler

Scholar, Author, Historian, Philosopher  Mortimer  J Adler
Scholar, Author, Historian, Philosopher Mortimer J Adler | Source

Mortimer Adler's Criteria

Mortimer Adler was an American author, educator, and philosopher who was influential in popularizing the idea of reading and compiling great literature.This scholar authored or edited more than fifty books. This included editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He wrote How to Read a Book (1940) which I found profitable in my personal study of history and literature. Along with Robert M. Hutchins he edited the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World (1952).

Adler listed three criteria for putting a book on the List of Great Books:

  • The book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times.
  • The book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit.
  • The book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.1

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson | Source

Thomas Jefferson's Criteria and List

Thomas Jefferson wrote letters to several friends and included lists for them to read in history, philosophy, religion, and literature.

"These by no means constitute the whole of what might be usefully read in each of these branches of science. The mass of excellent works going more into detail is great indeed. But those here noted will enable the student to select for himself such others of detail as may suit his particular views and dispositions. They will give him a respectable, a useful and satisfactory degree of knowledge in these branches."

p.426 The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 11 By Thomas Jefferson2 (free on Google play).

Jefferson's Library

Thomas Jefferson collected literary works voraciously throughout his life. A fire in his home in 1770 cause him to lament most for his beloved books. During the 1780's, Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his library at Monticello. Jefferson's library was always critically important to him. His reading and collecting of books acquainted him with a broader knowledge of the contemporary and ancient worlds than most of any world leader in his time. He sold his book collection the the United States government after the British burned the Capitol. His library formed the foundation for what we became the Library of Congress.

Homer's "The Odyssey"

The Odyssey of Homer - Easton Press Edition
The Odyssey of Homer - Easton Press Edition | Source

Jefferson's List of Great Literature

A resource that I discovered has compiled and organized a list of Jefferson's great literature. We have to remember that he did not have the benefit of the writings we have from the 19th Century until today.

I've included a partial list below. The complete list of history, philosophy, religion, and literature can be found here.3

Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey

Virgil: The Aeneid

John Milton: Paradise Lost

Sophocles: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus (Oedipus trilogy) Ajax, Trachinian Women, Philoctetes, Electra

William Shakespeare: Plays, Sonnets, Other Poems

Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels , A Modest Proposal, A Tale of a Tub, The Drapier's Letters

Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham  - Author
Somerset Maugham - Author | Source

Somerset Maugham's Criteria

Another resource I found was the Literary Tourist blog written by Nigel Beale. The blog summarizes a list made by Somerset Maugham in his introduction to a book he wrote called Great Novelists and their Novels. It is a collection of essays about authors and their novels.

The complete list culled by Nigel Beale has been removed from his blog.

I have condensed four from the list of the nine criteria that Beale summarized from Somerset Maugham's book.

Somerset Maugham's Criteria

1) The book's theme should interesting to men and women of all sorts. The novel has to have broad appeal, read by people of all ages, both men and women, young and old.

2) The story needs to be coherent and persuasive and have a beginning, middle and end. Plot structure should be clear and produce a satisfying effect on the reader.

3) The writing should be simple enough that it can be read it with ease by anyone of ordinary education.

4) The novel should be entertaining.

As I read this list, I feel confident that the Top Ten novels I have selected fit the criteria listed by Somerset Maugham.

Tom Jones Title Page

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749)
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) | Source

William Somerset Maugham Top Ten Novels

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal
  4. Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
  5. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  6. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  9. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky
  10. War and Peace by Tolstoy

Ten Novels and Their Authors is a 1954 work of literary criticism by William Somerset Maugham

Have You Ever Considered Your Greatest Novels?

Have You Ever Made A List of Your Greatest Novels?

See results

To Kill a Mockingbird


To Kill a Mockingbird

My Top Ten List

Top Ten Greatest Novels:

  1. Harper Lee ~ To Kill A Mockingbird

  2. Fyodor Dostoevsky ~ Crime and Punishment

  3. Charles Dickens ~ Great Expectations

  4. Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ The Scarlet Letter

  5. Charlotte Bronte ~ Jane Eyre

  6. John Steinbeck ~ The Grapes of Wrath

  7. Ernest Hemingway ~ The Sun Also Rises

  8. Frank Herbert ~ Dune

  9. J. R. R Tolkien ~ The Lord Of The Rings

  10. Herman Melville ~ Moby Dick

Great Expectations Trailer

Summary of the Greatest Novels Of All Time

The selection of the Greatest Novels Of All Time are based on various criteria that are probably different for each one of us. I have presented evaluations of great literature used by two authors and one book collector.

After reviewing the criteria some great writers and thinkers have used as a measure for great novels, what do you think? Have you ever thought about why you like the novels you do? What criteria would you use when choosing certain literary works to be among your greatest?

Whatever criteria you decide upon using, I hope you compile a list and share with me in the comment section.

© 2013 ajwrites57
A Long

© 2013 AJ Long


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