20th Century's Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction

This is one of the 305 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

    The novel is a unique blend of fiction, commentary, and poetry, presented as a 999-line poem written by a fictional poet, followed by an extensive commentary and foreword by his neighbor and academic colleague. The novel blurs the line between reality and fiction, as the commentator's notes reveal an alternative narrative, one of exile, intrigue, and murder. The book is a playful exploration of authorship, deception, and the nature of art.

    The 90th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Ulysses by James Joyce

    Set in Dublin, the novel follows a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman, as he navigates the city. The narrative, heavily influenced by Homer's Odyssey, explores themes of identity, heroism, and the complexities of everyday life. It is renowned for its stream-of-consciousness style and complex structure, making it a challenging but rewarding read.

    The 3rd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

    Set during the end of World War II, the novel follows Tyrone Slothrop, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, as he tries to uncover the truth behind a mysterious device, the "Schwarzgerät", that the Germans are using in their V-2 rockets. The narrative is complex and multi-layered, filled with a vast array of characters and subplots, all connected by various themes such as paranoia, technology, and the destructive nature of war. The book is known for its encyclopedic nature and its challenging, postmodernist style.

    The 182nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Public Burning by Robert Coover

    "The Public Burning" is a historical fiction novel that focuses on the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during the Cold War era. The narrative intertwines factual events with fictional elements, including the character of Uncle Sam, who serves as one of the narrators. The book explores themes of political power, justice, and the media's role in shaping public perception. It is a satirical critique of American society and politics in the 1950s.

    The 5816th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

    The novel is a complex exploration of the tragic Compson family from the American South. Told from four distinct perspectives, the story unfolds through stream of consciousness narratives, each revealing their own understanding of the family's decline. The characters grapple with post-Civil War societal changes, personal loss, and their own mental instability. The narrative is marked by themes of time, innocence, and the burdens of the past.

    The 21st Greatest Book of All Time
  • Molloy by Samuel Beckett

    "Molloy" is a complex and enigmatic novel that follows the journey of its eponymous character, an elderly, disabled vagabond, who is tasked with finding and killing a certain person. The narrative is split into two parts: the first is told from Molloy's perspective as he navigates his way through a strange and often hostile world, while the second follows a detective named Moran who is assigned to find Molloy. The novel is renowned for its challenging narrative structure, its bleak and absurdist humor, and its profound exploration of themes such as identity, existence, and the human condition.

    The 241st Greatest Book of All Time
  • Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett

    "Malone Dies" is a narrative that delves into the mind of an elderly man who lies in a decrepit room, slowly dying. Throughout the novel, the protagonist grapples with his impending demise, while reflecting on his past. He also creates characters and stories within his mind to cope with his solitude and despair. The novel, characterized by its stream-of-consciousness style and bleak outlook, is a profound exploration of the human condition, mortality, and the nature of existence.

    The 355th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

    "The Unnamable" is a complex, stream-of-consciousness narrative that explores themes of existence, identity, and the nature of reality. The protagonist, who lacks a clear identity, is trapped in a void and continually questions his existence and reality. As he grapples with his own consciousness, he attempts to tell his story, but constantly doubts and revises it, creating a cyclical, fragmented narrative. The novel is known for its challenging, abstract prose and its exploration of existentialist themes.

    The 470th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein

    "The Making of Americans" is an experimental novel that explores the concept of identity and the human condition through the lens of two American families. The author uses repetitive and complex prose to delve into the intricacies of family dynamics, social status, and personal development. The narrative is less about plot progression and more about the philosophical exploration of what it means to be an American, offering a unique perspective on the cultural and psychological tapestry of the nation.

    The 994th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs

    "The Soft Machine" is a surreal and experimental novel that employs a non-linear narrative and the cut-up technique, a method of rearranging or juxtaposing text to create new meaning. The book explores themes of control, conformity, and corruption in society, using a variety of characters and settings, including a junkie, a time traveler, and various dystopian societies. The narrative is marked by its explicit content and its critique of traditional societal structures, making it a notable work of the Beat Generation.

    The 5636th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Nova Express by William S. Burroughs

    In this experimental novel, the protagonist, a detective, navigates a dystopian world where control systems manipulate human behavior. The narrative is a complex interweaving of hallucinatory landscapes and seedy characters, punctuated by the author's unique 'cut-up' technique. The book is a critique of societal control mechanisms, exploring themes of addiction, sexuality, and the human condition. It is part of a larger series that uses science fiction and satire to challenge conventional narrative structures and societal norms.

    The 4502nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Ticket That Exploded by William S. Burroughs

    This novel explores the concept of language as a virus and the use of sound and visual editing techniques to create nonlinear narratives. It follows a secret agent who is part of an organization that manipulates and controls human behavior through the use of language and media. The agent becomes disillusioned with the organization's methods and seeks to undermine them. The book is known for its experimental style, including the use of the "cut-up" technique, which involves rearranging words and phrases to create new meanings.

    The 5636th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

    The novel tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a man with a disturbing obsession for young girls, or "nymphets" as he calls them. His obsession leads him to engage in a manipulative and destructive relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita. The narrative is a controversial exploration of manipulation, obsession, and unreliable narration, as Humbert attempts to justify his actions and feelings throughout the story.

    The 7th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

    This complex and challenging novel is renowned for its experimental style and intricate, dreamlike narrative. It explores the story of a publican in Dublin, his wife, and their three children, but the plot is not linear and often veers into surreal and abstract territory. The book is dense with linguistic games, puns, and allusions to a myriad of cultural, historical, and mythological sources. The narrative is circular, ending in the middle of a sentence that is completed at the start of the book, embodying the cyclical nature of life and history.

    The 325th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Take It Or Leave It by Raymond Federman

    "Take It Or Leave It" is a unique narrative that blends fiction and autobiography. The story is about a French-American man who is drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The narrative is non-linear and fragmented, often digressing into side stories and anecdotes. The protagonist shares his experiences of growing up in France during World War II, his immigration to the United States, and his experiences in the army. The book plays with the conventions of storytelling and is known for its postmodern style.

    The 5731st Greatest Book of All Time
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison

    This novel tells the story of a former African-American slave woman who, after escaping to Ohio, is haunted by the ghost of her deceased daughter. The protagonist is forced to confront her repressed memories and the horrific realities of her past, including the desperate act she committed to protect her children from a life of slavery. The narrative is a poignant exploration of the physical, emotional, and psychological scars inflicted by the institution of slavery, and the struggle for identity and self-acceptance in its aftermath.

    The 26th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Going Native by Stephen Wright

    "Going Native" is a darkly surreal journey through the underbelly of late 20th-century American life. The protagonist, a seemingly ordinary suburban man, abandons his life to embark on a disturbing cross-country odyssey. The narrative unfolds through a series of interconnected vignettes, each exploring a different aspect of American society from the perspective of various eccentric and often dangerous characters. The novel is a disturbing exploration of identity, alienation, and the dark side of the American dream.

    The 5416th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

    Set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the novel follows the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul with a severe alcohol addiction. Through his interactions with his estranged wife and half-brother, the book explores themes of despair, betrayal, and the destructive power of addiction, against the backdrop of political and social unrest. The impending eruption of the nearby volcano serves as a metaphor for Firmin's deteriorating mental state and the looming world war.

    The 119th Greatest Book of All Time
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

    This novel is a pioneering work of modernist literature that explores the Ramsay family's experiences at their summer home on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The narrative is divided into three sections, focusing on a day in the family's life, a description of the house during their absence, and their return after ten years. The book is known for its stream of consciousness narrative technique and its exploration of topics such as the passage of time, the nature of art, and the female experience.

    The 35th Greatest Book of All Time
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass

    The book is a collection of short stories exploring the lives of ordinary people in the Midwest. The narratives delve into the human condition, examining the complexities of relationships, the nuances of emotion, and the struggles of existence. The stories capture the essence of Midwestern life, painting a vivid picture of the landscape and its people, while also exploring themes of isolation, disillusionment, and the search for meaning.

    The 1265th Greatest Book of All Time
  • JR by William Gaddis

    The novel is a satirical critique of capitalism, narrating the story of an 11-year-old boy who builds a vast financial empire from his school's payphone. Using the adults around him as pawns, he manipulates the system to his own advantage, turning junk bonds into high profits. The narrative unfolds almost entirely through dialogue, making it a challenging but rewarding read. The book is a commentary on the American dream, exploring themes of greed, exploitation, and the dehumanizing effects of capitalism.

    The 1496th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    The novel is a poignant exploration of a young African-American man's journey through life, where he grapples with issues of race, identity, and individuality in mid-20th-century America. The protagonist, who remains unnamed throughout the story, considers himself socially invisible due to his race. The narrative follows his experiences from the South to the North, from being a student to a worker, and his involvement in the Brotherhood, a political organization. The book is a profound critique of societal norms and racial prejudice, highlighting the protagonist's struggle to assert his identity in a world that refuses to see him.

    The 28th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo

    "Underworld" is a sweeping narrative that spans from the 1950s to the end of the 20th century, exploring the interconnectedness of events and the impact of the Cold War on American society. The story revolves around a diverse group of characters, including a waste management executive, a graffiti artist, a nun, and a baseball collector, among others. These characters' lives intertwine in unexpected ways, illustrating the complex web of relationships and influences that shape our world. The novel is renowned for its vivid portrayal of historical events and its profound examination of themes such as memory, technology, and waste.

    The 418th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

    The novel is a poignant tale set in the 1920s post-World War I era, focusing on a group of American and British expatriates living in Paris who travel to Pamplona, Spain for the annual Running of the Bulls. The story explores themes of disillusionment, identity, and the Lost Generation, with the protagonist, a war veteran, grappling with impotence caused by a war injury. The narrative is steeped in the disillusionment and existential crisis experienced by many in the aftermath of the war, and the reckless hedonism of the era is portrayed through the characters' aimless wanderings and excessive drinking.

    The 48th Greatest Book of All Time
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

    This novel is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man's intellectual and artistic development in late 19th-century Ireland. The protagonist struggles with issues of identity, faith, and nationality, ultimately rejecting the traditional values of his Catholic upbringing to pursue his own path as an artist. The book is renowned for its innovative narrative style and its exploration of themes such as individuality, freedom, and the nature of art.

    The 68th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Set in the summer of 1922, the novel follows the life of a young and mysterious millionaire, his extravagant lifestyle in Long Island, and his obsessive love for a beautiful former debutante. As the story unfolds, the millionaire's dark secrets and the corrupt reality of the American dream during the Jazz Age are revealed. The narrative is a critique of the hedonistic excess and moral decay of the era, ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

    The 2nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Ambassadors by Henry James

    The novel centers around a middle-aged man named Lambert Strether who is sent from New England to Paris by a wealthy widow, Mrs. Newsome, to convince her wayward son, Chad, to return home. However, upon arriving in Europe, Strether is charmed by the sophisticated lifestyle Chad has adopted and finds himself questioning the puritanical values of his homeland. He also becomes entangled in romantic relationships and complex social dynamics, leading him to ultimately question his loyalty to Mrs. Newsome. The book explores themes of morality, identity, and the concept of the American versus European lifestyle.

    The 208th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence

    "Women in Love" is a novel that explores the complex relationships of two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, as they navigate their passions, desires, and connections with two men, Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich, in post-World War I England. The novel delves deep into the psychological aspects of love, questioning traditional romantic love and proposing a more modern, individualistic approach to relationships. It also explores themes of industrialization, modernity, and the nature of human existence.

    The 228th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

    "Sixty Stories" is a collection of short narratives that use unconventional, experimental structures to explore a range of themes. The book is known for its absurdist and postmodern style, and the stories often feature elements of parody, surrealism, and satire. The tales cover a wide array of topics, including art, literature, philosophy, and the human condition, all presented with a unique blend of humor, wit, and intellectual depth.

    The 1534th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Rifles by William T. Vollmann

    "The Rifles" is a historical novel that intertwines two tales of exploration in the Arctic. One story follows a 19th-century British naval officer, Sir John Franklin, on his ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which ultimately results in his crew's death from starvation, cold, and cannibalism. The other narrative is about a late 20th-century man who becomes obsessed with Franklin's story and travels to the Arctic himself, experiencing the harsh realities of life in the far North. The book explores themes of obsession, colonialism, and the harshness of Arctic life.

    The 6938th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Recognitions by William Gaddis

    The novel is a complex and lengthy examination of authenticity and forgery. It tells the story of a young man who becomes a master forger of Old Masters paintings, while exploring themes of identity, religion, and art. As the plot unfolds, the protagonist grapples with his own authenticity in a world obsessed with appearances and material success. The narrative is interspersed with philosophical and religious discussions, making it a challenging yet thought-provoking read.

    The 634th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

    This classic novel follows the journey of a seaman who travels up the Congo River into the African interior to meet a mysterious ivory trader. Throughout his journey, he encounters the harsh realities of imperialism, the brutal treatment of native Africans, and the depths of human cruelty and madness. The protagonist's journey into the 'heart of darkness' serves as both a physical exploration of the African continent and a metaphorical exploration into the depths of human nature.

    The 25th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

    The book is a satirical critique of military bureaucracy and the illogical nature of war, set during World War II. The story follows a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier stationed in Italy, who is trying to maintain his sanity while fulfilling his service requirements so that he can go home. The novel explores the absurdity of war and military life through the experiences of the protagonist, who discovers that a bureaucratic rule, the "Catch-22", makes it impossible for him to escape his dangerous situation. The more he tries to avoid his military assignments, the deeper he gets sucked into the irrational world of military rule.

    The 18th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

    Set in a dystopian future, the novel presents a society under the total control of a totalitarian regime, led by the omnipresent Big Brother. The protagonist, a low-ranking member of 'the Party', begins to question the regime and falls in love with a woman, an act of rebellion in a world where independent thought, dissent, and love are prohibited. The novel explores themes of surveillance, censorship, and the manipulation of truth.

    The 5th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

    This novel follows the life of Janie Crawford, a young African-American woman, in the early 20th century. She embarks on a journey through three marriages and self-discovery while challenging the societal norms of her time. The narrative explores her struggle for personal freedom, fulfillment, and identity against the backdrop of racism and gender expectations, ultimately emphasizing the importance of independence and personal growth.

    The 49th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

    This novel is a complex narrative about Thomas Sutpen, a poor white man who rises to power in the South, aiming to create a dynasty that would rival the old aristocratic families. However, his ambitions are thwarted by his own flawed decisions and the overarching racial and societal tensions of the era. The story is not told in a linear fashion but rather through a series of interconnected flashbacks and narratives, offering different perspectives on the same events. The book explores themes of family, class, race, and the destructive power of obsession.

    The 56th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

    The novel follows the journey of a poet with amnesia, known only as the Kid, through a dystopian city named Bellona. The city has been isolated from the rest of the world following a catastrophic event of unknown origin. The Kid navigates through a society where time, identity, and reality are all fluid, engaging with various groups of outcasts and explorers. The narrative is marked by its experimental style, incorporating elements of science fiction, surrealism, and metafiction.

    The 817th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

    The book follows the Joad family, Oklahoma farmers displaced from their land during the Great Depression. The family, alongside thousands of other "Okies," travel to California in search of work and a better life. Throughout their journey, they face numerous hardships and injustices, yet maintain their humanity through unity and shared sacrifice. The narrative explores themes of man's inhumanity to man, the dignity of wrath, and the power of family and friendship, offering a stark and moving portrayal of the harsh realities of American migrant laborers during the 1930s.

    The 15th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Stain: A Novel by Rikki Ducornet

    "The Stain" is a gothic, surreal novel set in a small French village during the 19th century. The plot revolves around a girl named Charlotte who is born with an unusual birthmark and is subsequently ostracized by her superstitious community. As Charlotte grows older, she develops a unique understanding of the world around her, which is both a gift and a curse. The book is a blend of fantasy and reality, exploring themes of difference, otherness, and the human capacity for cruelty and kindness.

    The 6405th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Entering Fire by Rikki Ducornet

    "Entering Fire" is a dark, surreal exploration of the human psyche, set against the backdrop of 19th-century France. The story follows the life of a man obsessed with the bizarre and grotesque, as he delves into the world of sexual obsession, madness, and the grotesque. His journey takes him from the underbelly of Paris to the exotic landscapes of North Africa, as he seeks to understand the nature of desire and the limits of the human mind. The narrative is rich with historical detail and vivid, dreamlike imagery, creating a world that is at once fascinating and deeply disturbing.

    The 6502nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Fountains of Neptune by Rikki Ducornet

    The novel centers around a character named Nicky, who wakes up from a coma after a shipwreck with no memory of his past. As the story unfolds, he starts to recall fragments of his life, his obsessions, and his encounters with strange and eccentric characters. The book is filled with surreal and dreamlike sequences, exploring themes of memory, obsession, and the power of the imagination. It is set in a coastal town filled with quirky inhabitants and is rich in maritime and nautical imagery.

    The 6841st Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Jade Cabinet by Rikki Ducornet

    "The Jade Cabinet" is a surreal, historical novel set in 19th century England. The story follows Etheria, a girl born with the ability to communicate with the inanimate, who is raised by her eccentric uncle and aunt after her parents' death. The narrative explores themes of obsession, madness, and the blurred line between reality and imagination, as Etheria's life intertwines with a taxidermist and a mad scientist. The novel is renowned for its rich, poetic language and vivid, dream-like imagery.

    The 6890th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson

    In this groundbreaking cyberpunk novel, a washed-up computer hacker is hired by a mysterious employer to pull off the ultimate hack. As he navigates a dystopian future filled with artificial intelligence, corporate espionage, and virtual reality, he must confront his own past and the dark realities of the digital world. The narrative explores themes of technology, identity, and consciousness, pushing the boundaries of science fiction literature.

    The 252nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Count Zero by William Gibson

    In a future where cybernetics and biotechnology have become commonplace, a computer hacker named Turner is hired by a mysterious employer to help a scientist defect from one mega-corporation to another. Meanwhile, a young man named Bobby Newmark, also known as "Count Zero," is introduced to the dangerous world of cybernetic hacking. Their stories intertwine in a complex narrative involving corporate espionage, artificial intelligence, and voodoo gods.

    The 6503rd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

    "Mona Lisa Overdrive" is a cyberpunk novel that follows the interconnected stories of several characters, including a professional kidnapper, a reclusive artist, a tech mogul's daughter, and a young prostitute. Set in a dystopian future, the narrative explores themes of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and corporate power. The characters' lives become intertwined as they navigate a world dominated by advanced technology and powerful corporations, leading to a thrilling climax.

    The 6592nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

    The book is a semi-autobiographical novel set in 1930s Paris and describes the protagonist's life as a struggling writer. The narrative is filled with vivid descriptions of the city, sexual encounters, and philosophical musings, all penned in a stream-of-consciousness style. The protagonist's experiences living in poverty, his relationships with other expatriates, and his pursuit of artistic freedom are central to the story. Despite the explicit content, the novel is noted for its candid exploration of the human condition and the author's quest for personal and creative authenticity.

    The 226th Greatest Book of All Time
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac

    This novel follows the story of a young man and his friend as they embark on a series of cross-country road trips across America during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The protagonist, driven by a desire for freedom and a quest for identity, encounters a series of eccentric characters and experiences the highs and lows of the Beat Generation. The narrative is a testament to the restlessness of youth and the allure of adventure, underscored by themes of jazz, poetry, and drug use.

    The 40th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Lookout cartridge by Joseph McElroy

    The novel is a complex, experimental narrative that follows a filmmaker who suspects he's being pursued due to a film he shot in England. As he attempts to understand what's happening, he delves into a labyrinthine investigation of his own memories and perceptions. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, utilizing stream-of-consciousness and shifting perspectives to explore themes of perception, reality, and the nature of narrative itself.

    The 5673rd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Crash: A Novel by J. G. Ballard

    The novel revolves around a man who becomes sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car-crashes, a fetish that spirals further out of control when he meets a like-minded woman. It explores the disturbing intersection of technology, sexuality, and violence, pushing the boundaries of social norms and challenging the reader's perception of reality.

    The 437th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

    The novel tells the story of Saleem Sinai, who was born at the exact moment when India gained its independence. As a result, he shares a mystical connection with other children born at the same time, all of whom possess unique, magical abilities. As Saleem grows up, his life mirrors the political and cultural changes happening in his country, from the partition of India and Pakistan, to the Bangladesh War of Independence. The story is a blend of historical fiction and magical realism, exploring themes of identity, fate, and the power of storytelling.

    The 38th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

    "The Sot-Weed Factor" is a satirical, picaresque novel set in the late 17th century, revolving around an innocent poet from London who is tricked into becoming a tobacco sot-weed factor in Maryland. The protagonist's misadventures, filled with mistaken identities, pirates, Native Americans, and a wide array of eccentric characters, mirror the challenges and absurdities of America's early colonial period. The narrative, rich in historical detail and parody, explores themes of identity, truth, and the nature of reality.

    The 911th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Genoa: a telling of wonders by Paul C. Metcalf

    The book is a unique blend of fiction, history, and poetry, revolving around the life and works of Herman Melville and his family. It delves into the exploration of Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America, tying these historical events with Melville's personal life and his literary masterpiece, Moby-Dick. The narrative employs a stream-of-consciousness style, offering a complex, multi-layered exploration of history, literature, and personal experience.

    The 5679th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

    Set in a dystopian future, the novel explores a society where human beings are genetically bred and pharmaceutically conditioned to serve in a ruling order. The society is divided into five castes, each with its specific roles. The narrative follows a savage who rejects the norms of this new world order and struggles to navigate the clash between the values of his upbringing and the reality of this technologically advanced, emotionless society. His resistance prompts a deep examination of the nature of freedom, individuality, and happiness.

    The 42nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

    The novel takes place in British-ruled India, where the cultural divide between the British and the Indians is explored. The story focuses on the experiences of an Indian Muslim, Dr. Aziz, and his interactions with an English woman, Miss Quested, and her elderly friend, Mrs. Moore. After an expedition to the Marabar Caves, Miss Quested accuses Dr. Aziz of assault, leading to a trial that deepens the racial tensions and prejudices between the colonizers and the colonized. The novel is a critique of British imperialism and a study of the cultural and racial misunderstandings and ill-will between the British and the Indian people.

    The 53rd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Double Or Nothing by Raymond Federman

    "Double Or Nothing" is an experimental novel that explores the life of a young man trying to pen a novel about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. The book is unique in its format, with the protagonist's thoughts, ideas, and narrative presented in various graphic and typographical forms. The narrative is nonlinear and fragmented, reflecting the protagonist's struggle to make sense of his traumatic past and his attempts to express it through writing.

    The 5681st Greatest Book of All Time
  • At Swim Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

    This novel is a complex, metafictional work that weaves together three separate narratives. The first is about a lazy, hard-drinking college student living with his uncle, the second is about a devilish Pooka and a loquacious old man, and the third is about a fictional character named Finn who seeks revenge on his author for creating him poorly. The narratives eventually intersect in a unique and humorous way, challenging traditional ideas of story structure and character autonomy.

    The 296th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

    Set in the mid-19th century, this novel follows a violent teenager known as "the Kid" as he joins a group of Indian-hunters led by the enigmatic and brutal Judge Holden. The narrative is a gruesome depiction of the lawless American West, filled with philosophical musings, vivid descriptions of the harsh landscape, and brutal, relentless violence. The story explores themes of human nature, morality, and the inherent chaos and brutality of life.

    The 172nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Cannibal: Novel by John Hawkes

    The novel revolves around a small German town during World War II and its aftermath. The narrative is fragmented and nonlinear, filled with surreal and horrific scenes. The story is a blend of reality and dream, and it explores the themes of violence, power, sexuality, and the human capacity for evil. The protagonist is a traumatized and disfigured war veteran who is both repulsed and fascinated by the violence and cruelty around him.

    The 3247th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Native Son by Richard Wright

    This novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man living in Chicago's South Side during the 1930s. Bigger's life takes a tragic turn when he accidentally kills a young white woman. The incident leads to his arrest and trial, revealing the deep-seated racial prejudices and injustices prevalent in American society at the time. The narrative explores themes of poverty, systemic racism, fear, and the effects of oppression.

    The 69th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

    "The Day of the Locust" is a novel set in 1930s Hollywood, portraying the dark side of the American dream through the lives of its desperate characters. The protagonist, a young artist from the East Coast, finds himself disillusioned by the superficiality and decay of Hollywood society, which is filled with failed actors, charlatans, and lost souls. The narrative culminates in a violent riot, symbolizing the destructive power of frustrated dreams and the harsh reality of the American dream.

    The 354th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

    "Nightwood" is a modernist novel that explores the complex relationships and sexuality of a group of Americans and Europeans living in Paris in the 1920s. The story primarily revolves around the tumultuous love affair between two women, one of whom is a married aristocrat. The narrative, known for its poetic and dense language, delves deep into the characters' psyches, exploring themes of identity, gender, and desire. The novel is also notable for its frank and groundbreaking depiction of homosexuality and transgender issues.

    The 319th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

    The novel explores the life of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are raised by a series of relatives in a small, secluded town in Idaho after their mother's suicide. The girls' lives are profoundly affected by the eccentric and transient lifestyle of their aunt Sylvie, who becomes their guardian. The narrative delves deeply into themes of family, identity, womanhood, and the impermanence of life, ultimately leading to a divide between the sisters as they choose different paths in life.

    The 215th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

    The novel follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran who has become "unstuck in time," experiencing his life events out of order. This includes his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allies' firebombing, his post-war life as a successful optometrist, his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, and his eventual death. The book is a critique of war and a demonstration of the destructive nature of time, with a nonlinear narrative that reflects the chaos and unpredictability of life.

    The 54th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Libra by Don DeLillo

    This novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy. It explores Oswald's troubled childhood, his time in the Soviet Union, his return to America, and his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate the president. The story is told from multiple perspectives, including that of Oswald himself, his mother, and various fictional characters, creating a complex and nuanced portrait of a man who has become a symbol of one of the most traumatic events in American history.

    The 1314th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

    "Wise Blood" is a novel about a young man named Hazel Motes, who returns home to Tennessee after serving in World War II and finds his religious beliefs shaken. He becomes a street preacher, founding the Church Without Christ to preach his message of faithlessness. The book explores themes of redemption, faith, and the struggle between belief and atheism as Hazel interacts with a variety of eccentric characters and faces his own internal battles.

    The 486th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

    This novel is a combination of fiction, folklore, poetry, and anthropology set in a post-apocalyptic future in Northern California. It revolves around a tribal society known as the Kesh, who have developed a sustainable lifestyle and a rich cultural heritage after the fall of our current civilization. The narrative is interspersed with the Kesh's myths, poems, and rituals, and is primarily seen through the eyes of a woman named Stone Telling, who recounts her journey from her tribal home to a patriarchal dystopian city and back.

    The 6477th Greatest Book of All Time
  • U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos

    The U.S.A. Trilogy is a series of three novels that chronicle the lives of various characters in the first half of the 20th century in the United States. The narrative intertwines the stories of twelve characters as they navigate the societal changes and upheavals of the era, including World War I, the Great Depression, and the rise of Hollywood. The author uses a unique narrative technique that combines traditional prose, newspaper-style headlines, biographies, and stream-of-consciousness writing to paint a vivid picture of American life during this period.

    The 202nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

    The novel centers around a woman named Anna Wulf, a writer who keeps four notebooks, each representing a different aspect of her life: her experiences in Africa, her current life in London, a novel she is writing, and her personal experiences. As Anna's mental state deteriorates, she attempts to unify her fragmented self in a fifth notebook, the golden notebook. The novel explores themes of mental breakdown, communism, the changing role of women, and the fear of nuclear war.

    The 94th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

    The novel follows the story of a teenager named Holden Caulfield, who has just been expelled from his prep school. The narrative unfolds over the course of three days, during which Holden experiences various forms of alienation and his mental state continues to unravel. He criticizes the adult world as "phony" and struggles with his own transition into adulthood. The book is a profound exploration of teenage rebellion, alienation, and the loss of innocence.

    The 4th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

    In this hard-boiled detective novel, a private investigator is hired by a newspaper publisher in a corrupt western town to uncover the truth behind the murder of a local worker. As he delves deeper into the investigation, he finds himself embroiled in a chaotic war between rival gangs, corrupt police, and greedy industrialists. The detective uses his cunning and manipulation to turn these factions against each other, leading to a bloody and violent resolution.

    The 466th Greatest Book of All Time
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

    This collection of short stories explores the complexities of love through various perspectives. The narratives delve into the lives of everyday people, showcasing their struggles, their desires, and their failures. Love is depicted in its many forms, from passionate and romantic to destructive and obsessive, providing a raw and honest depiction of human relationships. The stories highlight how love can both heal and hurt, uniting and dividing people in unexpected ways.

    The 794th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Dubliners by James Joyce

    "Dubliners" is a collection of 15 short stories that portray the life of the Irish middle class in the early 20th century. Each story depicts an aspect of everyday life in Dublin, capturing the complexities of human experiences and emotions. The stories range from childhood to adulthood, reflecting on themes such as the paralysis of routine, the desire for escape, and the failure of both. The book is renowned for its vivid characterization and its exploration of the subtleties of the human condition.

    The 438th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Cane by Jean Toomer

    "Cane" is a collection of vignettes and poems that depict the life of African-Americans in both the rural South and urban North during the early 20th century. The narrative explores themes of racial identity, cultural heritage, and the African-American experience, blending elements of fiction, poetry, and drama. The work is divided into three parts, with the first and third focusing on life in the rural South and the second part on life in the urban North.

    The 791st Greatest Book of All Time
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

    Set in the backdrop of New York's high society during the turn of the 20th century, the novel follows the life of Lily Bart, a beautiful but impoverished woman of social standing. As she navigates the pressures and expectations of her social circle, Lily grapples with the need to secure a wealthy husband to maintain her lifestyle. However, her romantic inclinations and her desire for personal freedom come into conflict with societal norms, leading to her tragic downfall.

    The 150th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

    Set in a post-apocalyptic England, the novel follows the journey of a young boy named Riddley Walker, who becomes the leader of his small community after his father's death. The world is a primitive, violent place where remnants of technology and culture are barely understood. Riddley's quest for knowledge and understanding leads him to discover the terrifying truth about humanity's downfall, involving nuclear warfare and the destructive power of knowledge. The story is told in a unique, fractured English, reflecting the decayed state of civilization.

    The 1077th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Go in Beauty by William Eastlake

    "Go in Beauty" is a novel that explores the complexities of human relationships, love, and loss against the backdrop of the Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico. The protagonist, a New York journalist, moves to the reservation after his wife's death and becomes entangled in a love triangle with two local women. The book delves into themes of cultural clash, isolation, and the search for meaning and redemption, all set against the stark and beautiful landscape of the American Southwest.

    The 5706th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Bronc People by William Eastlake

    Set on a Navajo reservation during World War II, "The Bronc People" explores the complex relationships and cultural tensions between the Native American inhabitants and the white government officials. The story is centered on a young Navajo man who is torn between his traditional lifestyle and the modern world. The book provides a deep insight into the Navajo culture, their spiritual beliefs, and their struggle to preserve their identity amid external influences.

    The 5706th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Portrait of an Artist with 26 Horses by William Eastlake

    "Portrait of an Artist with 26 Horses" is a collection of stories set in the American Southwest, exploring the lives of diverse characters ranging from Native Americans to cowboys. The narratives delve into the complexities of human relationships, the struggle for survival, and the deep connection between people and the land. The title story focuses on a painter who owns 26 horses, each named after a letter of the alphabet, and his unique perspective on life and art.

    The 5706th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin

    This novel revolves around the life of a young man who, despite suffering from multiple sclerosis, decides to invest his inheritance in a chain of fast-food franchises across America. As he travels from one location to another, he encounters various characters and situations, each reflecting different aspects of American society and culture. The narrative explores themes of capitalism, consumerism, and the American Dream while also providing a poignant portrayal of the protagonist's struggle with his disease.

    The 5849th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

    "The New York Trilogy" is a collection of three detective stories that explore the nature of identity and the search for meaning. The stories are set in New York City and feature various characters, including a detective, a writer, and a professor, who are all engaged in their own personal quests. These quests often involve elements of mystery, existentialism, and introspection, and the stories are interconnected in various ways, creating a complex and thought-provoking narrative.

    The 609th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins

    The novel follows the story of Ellen Cherry Charles, an artist who embarks on a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment, and her husband, Randolph "Boomer" Petway, who creates a mobile home out of a turkey. The narrative also includes inanimate objects - a Conch Shell, a Can of Beans, a Dirty Sock, a Painted Stick, and a Silver Spoon - that come to life and embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The book explores themes of love, art, religion, and the human condition, all with a blend of humor and philosophical insight.

    The 6703rd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

    This novel is a complex, multi-layered narrative that explores themes of addiction, recovery, and the human condition in a near-future society. The story is set in a tennis academy and a halfway house for recovering addicts, and it intertwines the lives of its numerous characters, including a gifted but troubled teenage tennis prodigy, his filmmaker father, and a group of Quebecois separatists. The book is known for its length, intricate plot, and extensive use of footnotes.

    The 303rd Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

    This book is a collection of short, interconnected stories that challenges the conventions of narrative and language. The stories are set in an alternative America and are filled with surreal and bizarre elements, often defying logic and meaning. The author uses a unique, poetic language to describe this world, creating a strange and disorienting effect. The book is divided into different sections, each dealing with a different aspect of this world, such as food, sleep, or animals. It's a challenging and thought-provoking read that pushes the boundaries of fiction.

    The 7080th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Tlooth by Harry Mathews

    "Tlooth" is a surreal and experimental novel that follows a group of inmates from a Siberian prison as they embark on a global quest for revenge against a sinister doctor. The narrative, full of eccentric characters and bizarre events, unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, incorporating elements of various genres, such as science fiction, detective fiction, and adventure, as well as references to music, languages, and mathematics. The story is marked by its complex structure, playful use of language, and exploration of themes such as identity, reality, and the nature of storytelling.

    The 5716th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Pricksongs and Descants by Robert Coover

    This book is a collection of short stories that blend elements of American folklore, historical realities, and contemporary life into a unique, surreal, and often disturbing narrative. The author uses a mix of traditional and experimental storytelling techniques to explore themes such as love, death, and the nature of reality. The stories often feature bizarre, dreamlike scenarios and characters, challenging readers to question their assumptions and perceptions.

    The 1420th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

    Set in an alternate history where the Axis powers won World War II, this novel explores life in a world where the United States is divided into three parts: the Pacific States of America, controlled by Japan; the Rocky Mountain States, a neutral buffer zone; and the United States of America, controlled by Nazi Germany. The story follows several characters, including a jewelry designer, a trade minister, and a German secret agent, as they navigate this dystopian reality. The narrative is further complicated by the existence of a banned novel that depicts an alternate reality where the Allies won the war, causing characters to question their understanding of reality.

    The 512th Greatest Book of All Time
  • American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

    The novel is a disturbing and graphic exploration of the mind of a wealthy, young and handsome Wall Street investment banker who is also a psychopathic serial killer. He leads a double life, appearing to be a charming and sophisticated businessman by day, while indulging in horrific acts of violence and murder by night. The narrative provides a satirical critique of 1980s American consumer culture, vanity, and excess, while also delving into the dark underbelly of human nature.

    The 401st Greatest Book of All Time
  • The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

    Set in the Victorian era, the story revolves around a complex love triangle involving a gentleman engaged to a well-bred woman and his infatuation with a mysterious woman known as the French Lieutenant's Woman. This woman, shrouded in scandal and mystery, challenges the protagonist's conventional views of society and morality. The novel, known for its metafictional style, explores themes of freedom, responsibility, and the oppressive social norms of the time.

    The 413th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

    The novel follows a young apprentice torturer named Severian who is exiled for showing mercy to one of his victims by allowing her to die. As he travels through a futuristic, dystopian world, he becomes embroiled in a series of political and supernatural events, while also grappling with his own moral compass and the nature of his profession. The story is steeped in allegory and symbolism, with a narrative that explores themes of memory, truth, and the nature of storytelling.

    The 3720th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Claw Of The Conciliator by Gene Wolfe

    The Claw of the Conciliator continues the journey of a young torturer named Severian, who has been exiled for showing mercy to a prisoner. Now in possession of a powerful gem known as the Claw of the Conciliator, he travels through a far-future Earth, where society has regressed to a quasi-medieval state. Along the way, he encounters numerous adventures and strange creatures, while dealing with his own moral dilemmas and the mystery of his own identity. His journey is not just physical, but also a spiritual and psychological one, as he struggles to reconcile his past actions with his current path.

    The 5856th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe

    The third book in a science fiction series, "The Sword of the Lictor" follows the journey of a professional torturer who, after questioning the morality of his profession, flees his post in the city of Thrax with a mysterious and magical woman. The pair face various challenges and encounter a range of creatures and characters in their quest for freedom and answers. The book combines elements of fantasy, philosophy, and dystopian fiction to explore themes of power, morality, and the nature of reality.

    The 6062nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

    The Citadel of the Autarch is the final book in a four-part series set in a far future post-apocalyptic Earth. The protagonist, a man named Severian, is an exiled executioner who has been travelling through a world where society has regressed to a technology level similar to the Middle Ages. Severian becomes embroiled in a war against alien invaders, and his journey ultimately leads him to the titular Citadel where he must confront the Autarch, the ruler of the Commonwealth. The book combines elements of science fiction and fantasy, exploring themes of memory, truth, and the nature of power.

    The 6399th Greatest Book of All Time
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

    This novel follows the life of a violent young man named Alex, who is part of a youth subculture in a dystopian future England. Alex and his gang engage in a nightmarish spree of rape, assault, and robbery, until he is arrested and subjected to a psychological experiment by the government to "cure" him of his violent tendencies. The novel explores themes of free will, morality, and the nature of evil, while using a unique slang language invented by the author.

    The 87th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Legs by William Kennedy

    "Legs" is a fictional biography of the notorious gangster Jack 'Legs' Diamond, set in the Prohibition era. The narrative, told from the perspective of Marcus Gorman, a lawyer and friend to Diamond, explores the gangster's life, his criminal activities, his relationships, and his untimely death. The book provides a vivid portrayal of the Jazz Age, offering a deep exploration of the criminal underworld of that time.

    The 5813th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Billy Phelan's Greatest Game by William Kennedy

    Billy Phelan's Greatest Game is a novel set in the 1930s, focusing on the life of a small-time hustler and poker player named Billy Phelan. When a local politician's son is kidnapped, Billy becomes embroiled in the case, despite his attempts to stay out of it. The story explores the themes of morality, corruption, and redemption as Billy navigates the seedy underbelly of Albany, New York, and is forced to confront his own past and make some tough decisions.

    The 6088th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Ironweed by William Kennedy

    Set during the Great Depression, the novel follows Francis Phelan, a former professional baseball player, who has become a drifter following a series of unfortunate events. Haunted by his past, including the accidental death of his infant son, Phelan returns to his hometown of Albany, New York, where he confronts his past and tries to make amends. The book explores themes of guilt, suffering, survival, and redemption.

    The 1407th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Tunnel by William H. Gass

    "The Tunnel" is a complex and challenging novel that explores the life and mind of a history professor who has spent his career studying Nazi Germany. As he writes his magnum opus, he also begins to dig a tunnel from his basement, a physical manifestation of his increasingly dark and claustrophobic worldview. The narrative delves into themes of history, memory, identity, and the nature of evil, presenting an unflinching examination of the human capacity for cruelty and self-deception.

    The 7091st Greatest Book of All Time
  • Omensetter's Luck by William H. Gass

    Set in a small Ohio town in the 1890s, the novel revolves around the enigmatic character Brackett Omensetter, a man whose mere presence seems to affect those around him in profound and inexplicable ways. The story is narrated from the perspectives of three different characters: the town's eccentric and paranoid physician, a reverend tormented by his lack of faith, and a local man who becomes obsessed with Omensetter. The narrative explores themes of religion, morality, and the nature of luck and fate.

    The 3258th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

    "The Sheltering Sky" is a novel about an American couple, Port and Kit Moresby, who travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. The journey, initially an attempt to cure their marital woes, quickly descends into a harrowing journey of self-discovery and exploration of the human condition. As they move further into the desert, the harsh environment and their isolation from the outside world push them to their psychological limits, leading to devastating consequences.

    The 495th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Darconville's Cat by Alexander Theroux

    This novel follows the life of Alaric Darconville, an English professor at a women's college in Virginia, who falls in love with one of his students, Isabel. However, when Isabel leaves him for another man, Darconville is plunged into despair and embarks on a quest for revenge against womankind. The book is a dark, satirical exploration of love and hatred, filled with rich language and complex characters.

    The 6253rd Greatest Book of All Time
About this list

Larry McCaffery, 116 Books

The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction is a popular "best of" list compiled by Larry McCaffery largely in response to Modern Library 100 Best Novels list (1999), which McCaffery saw as being out of touch with 20th-century fiction. McCaffery writes that he sees his list "as a means of sharing with readers my own views about what books are going to be read 100 or 1000 years from now".

Added almost 10 years ago.

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