What the classics can tell us about life today

Why bother reading classic novels written decades or even centuries ago, when they’re so detatched from modern life? What can you possibly get out of the experience, other than the satisfaction of struggling through archaic language or the escapism of imagining yourself in a nineteenth-century stately home?

According to the editor of a new book – Klassiekers om het Heden te Begrijpen (Classics for Understanding the Present) – there’s a lot we can learn about today’s world from yesterday’s books.

Klassiekers om het Heden te Begrijpen explores the modern relevance of 18 classic novels (all published since 1830). There are plenty of Bucket Listers featured: Herman Melville (The Confidence-Man), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Notes from Underground), Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent), Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London), Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here), Kurt Vonnegut (Player Piano) and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale).

During the launch event, some of the book’s contributors talked about their chapters – how the books they read and studied shine a light on modern society.

Jan Postma talked about Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own – its role in the evolution of he woman’s position in society and how Woolf approached feminism in a much more relatable way than her predecessors. The key message, he said, is that women need the physical and metaphorical room to write, to create – the space to think. That’s still very true today.

Xandra Schutte compared Dostoyevsky’s characters to today’s Facebook users – the anti-heroes of our time. It was through the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground that he was able to fulfil his own revenge fantasies, she suggested.

Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is perhaps one of the most strikingly relevant novels covered in the book. Rutger van der Hoeven talked about Conrad’s “simple tale,” in which Mr Adolf Verloc is not an anarchist, but just pretending to be one. One of the three most-quoted books in the US media after 9/11, The Secret Agent is surprisingly insightful when it comes to some of the faces of today’s terrorism, said Van der Hoeven – the failed footballers and struggling rappers who join extremist organizations.

George Orwell’s picture of the future also turned out to be hauntingly accurate, not just in his most well-known works, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but subtly in his explorations of contemporary politics and society. Coen van de Ven recalled a 15-year-old going missing two years ago in the south of England, having left a note urging his family not to look for him, as he wanted to discover what it was like to be really poor. In less dramatic circumstances, that’s what Orwell did in London, giving him plenty of content for Down and Out in Paris and London.

With memorable characters (of whom he said, “It would be fun to write some of their biographies, if one had time”) and first-hand experiences, the book gives a glimpse into the stark reality of poverty. Society may have changed in many ways since the book was published in 1933, but certain aspects of living in poverty are the same – in particular, said Van de Ven, Orwell’s portrayal highlights the way the poor and the rich are almost seen as different races – good rich people and bad poor people. Orwell’s big hits were published later, but all shared the theme we now know as Orwellianism. [Down and Out is also a fantastically entertaining read – ed.]

So some of the classics are more relevant to today’s world than we might have thought, and the 18 novels compiled by Jaap Tielbeke, editor of Klassiekers om het Heden te Begrijpen, are a great starting point.

Which Bucket Listers have written in or about the past in a way that makes the present more understandable to you? Who would you include in this analysis?

Klassiekers om het Heden te Begrijpen is published by Amsterdam University Press and is available in Dutch.

Meet the top 100: The Bucket List

After months of research, painstaking data collection, careful analysis and more tea than we can recall, we can finally reveal the list!

Just a few things before we share the names. Everything about this is subjective, but we’ve tried to be as subjectively objective as possible. Whether a book or author wins a literary prize is up to the judges’ opinions; book sales depend on who’s buying; critics have their favourites; reader ratings are down to preference. Any one individual source is skewed, but by taking them together, we have tried to reduce the bias.

Then there’s our own subjectivity about the data sources behind the list. Unashamedly, we have weighted the results – selling lots of books in the UK won’t earn an author as many points as winning the Nobel Prize – and that in itself was a long, complicated process. We’ve outlined the sources so you can find out more, and we’d love to hear your thoughts. Is a big prize missing? Or a critic’s selection you think important enough to include?

The Bucket List will be updated every January, with new data from the existing sources, and additional sources we think would be good to include. We’re also working on adding national prizes, so please share with us the top national literature prize in your country.

Here are the Bucket Listers – the top 100 authors of all time, according to prize juries, readers, critics, authors, buyers and librarians – in alphabetical order by first name.

Drum roll…

Meet the top 100.

Albert Camus
Ali Smith
Alice Munro
Anne Tyler
Anton Chekhov
Barbara Kingsolver
Bernard Malamud
Boris Pasternak
Charles Dickens
Charlotte Brontë
Chinua Achebe
Cormac McCarthy
Czesław Miłosz
Don DeLillo
Doris Lessing
E. L. Doctorow
E. M. Forster
Edith Wharton
Elfriede Jelinek
Elias Canetti
Emily Brontë
Ernest Hemingway
Eudora Welty
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Flannery O’Connor
Franz Kafka
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Gabriel García Márquez
George Eliot
George Orwell
Günter Grass
Gustave Flaubert
Halldór Laxness
Harper Lee
Haruki Murakami
Henry James
Herman Melville
Ian McEwan
Isaac Bashevis Singer
J. D. Salinger
J. K. Rowling
J. R. R. Tolkien
James A. Michener
James Joyce
Jane Austen
Jean-Paul Sartre
John Cheever
John Galsworthy
John Irving
John M. Coetzee
John Steinbeck
John Updike
Jonathan Franzen
José Saramago
Joseph Conrad
Joseph Heller
Joyce Carol Oates
Kazuo Ishiguro
Knut Hamsun
Kurt Vonnegut
László Krasznahorkai
Laurence Sterne
Leo Tolstoy
Lewis Carroll
Lydia Davis
Marcel Proust
Margaret Atwood
Marilynne Robinson
Mark Twain
Max Frisch
Miguel de Cervantes
Milan Kundera
Nadine Gordimer
Peter Carey
Peter Handke
Philip Roth
Ralph Ellison
Robert Penn Warren
Salman Rushdie
Samuel Beckett
Saul Bellow
Shirley Hazzard
Sinclair Lewis
Stendhal
Stephen King
Thomas Hardy
Thomas Mann
Thomas Pynchon
Toni Morrison
V. S. Naipaul
Virginia Woolf
Vladimir Nabokov
Walker Percy
William Faulkner
William Golding
William Maxwell
William Styron
Wright Morris
Yasunari Kawabata
Zadie Smith

Meet the top 100: Harper Lee

“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.” — Harper Lee, Newquist

Born in 1926 in Alabama, American novelist Nelle Harper Lee was named after Dr. William W. Harper, a paediatrician who saved her sister’s life. Her father was a former newspaper editor-turned-lawyer, whose experiences would feed into Lee’s major literary triumph, To Kill A Mockingbird.

She became interested in English literature at high school, and went to Huntingdon College for a year before transferring to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to study law. Despite her father’s encouragement, and even a fully financed trip to attend summer school in Oxford in the UK, Lee did not graduate with a degree.

She moved to New York in 1949, working as an airline reservation agent and writing fiction in her spare time. She eventually found an agent in 1956, after writing several long stories, and some of her friends gave her a year’s wages with a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

She took up their offer and by the following spring, she had finished the manuscript that was then titled Go Set A Watchman. Lee’s editor at J. B. Lippincott Company, Tay Hohoff, recognized her talent and they worked closely together through several drafts of the manuscript before To Kill A Mockingbird was finally released in 1960. The novel was an instant success, and it won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Scout, the tomboy main character in the book, is the daughter of a well-respected lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. Much of the book was inspired by Lee’s own childhood; her father defended two black men accused of murdering a shopkeeper, and both were hanged.

Many of the characters were based on people she grew up with: her friend and neighbour Truman Capote is thought to have been fictionalized as Scout’s friend Dill, and Capote himself believed Boo Radley was based on someone living in their village: “He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true.”

The novel was turned into a film of the same title starring Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his appearance. Lee described it as “one of the best translations of a book to film ever made,” and she remained friends with Peck and his family for the rest of her life.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Lee to the National Council on the Arts, but she otherwise withdrew from the spotlight and accepted very few requests for interviews and public appearances. She wrote a few essays and worked on a novel, The Long Goodbye, but it remained unfinished.

In an interview with an Australian newspaper in 2011, Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts said Lee had shared with him why she never wrote again: “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”

But in 2015, to much surprise, Go Set A Watchman was published as a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. It was generally well received, although many questioned its positioning as a sequel – parts of it were clearly an early version of To Kill A Mockingbird, and there were some passages reproduced verbatim. Several of Lee’s friends expressed concern about the publication. In an article in The Washington Post, Marja Mills, Lee’s biographer and friend, wrote: “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” The novel was another success and hit the bestseller lists.

Less than a year later, Lee died in her sleep, aged 89. To Kill A Mockingbird is still a bestseller, with more than 30 million copies in print, and it’s a regular feature on high school reading lists around the world. Despite her limited output, Lee received many prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature.

Why is she on the list?

Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.

  • Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • Best-selling books – Wikipedia (various sources)
  • Nielsen Book Scan UK sales – all-time best-selling books
  • Goodreads Best Books Ever
  • The Best 100 Authors
  • Ranker
  • BLBS
  • The Ideal Library
  • The Greatest Books of All Time
  • 100 books to read in a lifetime
  • 100 Greatest novels of all time
  • The 100 best novels written in English
  • Book awards: The 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians

Read about Lee

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Meet the top 100: Mark Twain

“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” ― Mark Twain

Mark Twain (the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was born in 1835 in Hannibal, Missouri, the sixth of seven children, although only three of his siblings survived childhood. Slavery was legal in Missouri at the time, and his childhood environment provided the inspiration for his two most well-known novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1875) and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

At 16, he became a typesetter and contributed articles and sketches to the Hannibal Journal. Two years later, he left to work as a printer in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati. He spent his evenings learning in the library and has been quoted as saying “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

But the shared ambition of Twain and his peers was to become a Mississippi steamboat pilot. He trained under Horace E. Bixby for two years, for a payment of $500, and received his pilot’s license. His time on the river also inspired his pen name: the leadsman would shout “mark twain” to denote a depth of two fathoms – deep enough for the steamboat.

But in 1858, the steamboat he and his brother Henry were on exploded, killing his brother. Twain claims to have seen the death in a dream the previous month, leading to his interest in parapsychology. Despite being guilt-stricken, Twain continued to work on the river until 1861, when the Civil War started.

He moved to Salt Lake City, Nevada to work with his brother Orion, before his travels took him to Virginia City, where he tried and failed to be a miner. This failure led to his first writing job, on the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise, where he would first use the name Mark Twain. Over the following few years, he continued to work as a journalist for various publications and travelled to Europe and the Middle East on assignment. On the trip, he wrote a collection of travel letters, published as The Innocents Abroad (1869).

In 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon, following a two-year pursuit and her rejection of his initial proposal. They lived in New York, where he part-owned the Buffalo Express and worked as an editor and writer. They had four children, but one died as an infant.

The family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where they had a house built, and spent summers at Quarry Farm in Elmira. These two locations would be where Twain produced much of his most acclaimed work, including the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn series, over two decades.

A fascination with science led to Twain forming a close friendship with engineer, inventor and physicist Nikola Tesla, and Twain even patented three inventions himself. He also knew Thomas Edison, who visited Twain at home in 1909 and filmed the only surviving video footage of Twain, with who are thought to be his two surviving daughters.

This interest in technology also led him to lose a substantial amount of money on bad investments, as well as losing money through failed publishing ventures. With little to live on, Twain and his family moved to Europe in 1891, spending several years in France, Germany and Italy. He filed for bankruptcy in 1894, and after embarking on a world tour of speaking engagements, on which he would start wearing his trademark white suit, he managed to recover financially.

Olivia died in 1904 and after moving back to the US to live in New York, Twain faced a series of tragedies that caused a deep depression, including the deaths of two of his daughters. But through a close connection with a group of girls he called his surrogate granddaughters, he found “life’s chief delight” – he established the Angel Fish and Aquarium Club for the girls, exchanging letters with them, taking them to concerts and playing games.

Three years later, Twain’s prediction that he would come in and go out with Halley’s Comet was proven correct: he died of a heart attack on 21 April 1910, the day after the comet’s closest approach to earth.

Twain’s unrivalled wit, humour and writing ability has also made him one of the most frequently-quoted public figures of all time.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” ― Mark Twain

Described by William Faulkner as “the father of American literature,” Twain wrote some of history’s most widely-read novels, as well as writing extensively as a journalist and non-fiction author. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called “The Great American Novel,” despite facing bans over the years, in part due to Twain’s use of what is now deemed offensive slavery-related language.

Twain wrote seven novels, in addition to his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn series. His bibliography also includes 24 short stories and 11 collections, several essays and nine works of non-fiction.

Why is he on the list?

Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.

  • Goodreads Best Books Ever
  • The Best 100 Authors
  • Ranker
  • Top 100 Works in World Literature
  • Novels and Novelists, A Guide to the World of Fiction (1980)
  • For The Love of Books
  • The Greatest Books of All Time
  • 100 Life-Changing Books
  • 100 Greatest novels of all time
  • The 100 best novels written in English
  • Book awards: The 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians

Read about Twain

The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain and Charles Neider

The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain by Mark Twain

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/AF Bradley

Meet the top 100: Stephen King

“There was nothing else I was made to do. I was made to write stories and I love to write stories. That’s why I do it. I really can’t imagine doing anything else and I can’t imagine not doing what I do.” – Stephen King

Stephen Edwin King was born in Maine, in the US, in 1947. When he was two years old, his father “went to buy cigarettes” and left his mother to raise him and his brother David. He had a religious upbringing, his mother being a Methodist.

He had an early interest in reading and writing, and soon started working on his brother’s newspaper Dave’s Rag, which would eventually get him into trouble at school. He was already interested in the genre that would eventually make him famous, and enjoyed reading EC’s horror comics, but it was his experience of normal life that had the biggest influence on his work.

According to King’s mother, he came home one day after playing with friends and was “white as a sheet.” He didn’t say why but went into his room and curled up on his bed. She later found out that a young boy playing on the tracks had been hit by a train. King told Barnes & Noble in an interview: “I don’t have any memory of it myself, but I remember my mother saying they picked up the pieces in a basket.”

His first submission was to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine – the short story “Happy Stamps.” When he received the rejection note, with a personal note on it advising him not to staple manuscripts, he stuck it on a nail in his wall – a spot where he would collect many more such slips. But he wasn’t deterred; as he recalled in On Writing, “When you’re still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.”

He continued to write, submit and pin his rejections to the wall. His first sale happened in 1967: a short story, “The Glass Floor,” which was published in Startling Mystery Stories.

At the University of Maine at Orono, he wrote a weekly column for The Maine Campus and graduated in 1970 with a BA in English. A year later, he married Tabitha Spruce, whom he had met in the Fogler Library at university. That same year, he started teaching English at a high school in Maine, but continued to write stories and work on novels in his spare time.

In 1973, his first novel, Carrie, was accepted for publication. When the publisher called to tell him about the $400,000 he would receive, King was stunned; that was the beginning of his lucrative career as an author. ‘Salem’s Lot followed, another hit, and then The Shining and The Stand – the three S boys, as Tabitha calls them.

Over the years, he became addicted to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs, leading him to admit in On Writing that he hardly remembered writing Cujo. His family and friends held an intervention and he has been sober since the late 1980s.

King continued to write, with novel after novel hitting the bestseller list. He worked diligently, every day in his writing memoir On Writing, he provides a glimpse into his process and secrets, including his assertion that “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

One of King’s habits was to walk. In the summer of 1999, he was walking along the shoulder of a main road when a minivan hit him at full speed, knocking him four metres from the pavement. He was conscious when the police arrived, and managed to provide an emergency contact number, but he had suffered serious injuries: a collapsed lung, multiple fractures of his right leg, a broken hip and a large cut on his head.

King was in hospital for almost a month, and when he was discharged he was still in so much pain that he could only sit and write in forty-minute stints. Three years on, he announced he would stop writing, but he has since continued, albeit at a slower rate.

Since the early days, King has been a prolific writer. The list of his published work on his website takes some scrolling, at 422 items, 54 of which are novels. Seven of these were written under his pseudonym Richard Bachman, a decision he made to get around the problem of publishers not wanting to release more than one book a year. “I adopted Richard Bachman and that was that it made it possible for me to do two books in one year,” he wrote in an FAQ. “I just did them under different names and eventually the public got wise to this because you can change your name but you can’t really disguise your style.”

King is a master of visual language, which has led to many of his novels and stories being adapted for the screen. “My first editor, Bill Thompson, used to tell people Stephen King has a projector in his head, and that might have something to do with certain visual elements of the stories that have attracted producers and directors,” he told Vanity Fair. He has so far racked up 238 “based on the original story by” writer credits, and appeared personally 22 times on TV and in films.

With fantasy, science fiction, suspense and horror sensations under his belt, King has earned a reputation as one of the best horror writers in history. He has won a multitude of awards – some several times over – including Bram Stoker Awards and World Fantasy Awards. In 2003 he won The National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and in 2014 the National Medal of Arts. Most recently, he received the 2018 PEN America literary service award, for “a critically acclaimed writer whose body of work helps us understand and interpret the human condition, engendering empathy and imagination in even the darkest hours.”

Why is he on the list?

Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.

  • Best-selling authors – Wikipedia (various sources)
  • Goodreads Best Books Ever
  • Amazon Most popular authors
  • The Best 100 Authors
  • Ranker
  • Book Depository
  • The Ideal Library
  • The Greatest Books of All Time
  • Book awards: The 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians

Read about King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stephen King: The Art of Darkness by Douglas E. Winter

The Stephen King Universe: A Guide to the Worlds of the King of Horror by Stanley Wiater, Christopher Golden and Hank Wagner

 

Image: StephenKing.com

Meet the top 100: Virginia Woolf

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” ― Virginia Woolf

Adeline Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) was born in 1882, to a “well-to-do” family in South Kensington. Her childhood had a direct influence on her later writing – for example, she first saw the Godrevy Lighthouse, which features in To the Lighthouse (1927) while on summer holidays at the family’s home in St Ives in Cornwall.

But her younger years had a darker impact on her writing and her life: her mother died of influenza when Woolf was just 13, and soon after her stepsister and surrogate mother also died. During that time, she began to suffer nervous breakdowns, which would plague her for the rest of her life.

Along with her sisters, Woolf studied classics and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College, where she first encountered early members of the women’s rights movement. With encouragement from her father, Woolf became a professional writer in 1900. By 1904 she was being published in The Guardian Women’s Supplement, and from 1905 she wrote for The Times Literary Supplement.

When her father died in 1904, she suffered another breakdown, and would describe herself during those years as a “broken chrysalis,” a theme that would appear repeatedly in her writing. She moved to Bloomsbury, where she met several like-minded intellectuals and formed the Bloomsbury Group.

Woolf married Leonard Woolf in 1912, after months of attempts on his part to gain her attention and affection. Although she was happily in love, Woolf attempted suicide in 1913.

In 1915, she published her first novel, The Voyage Out, through her half-brother’s company, Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd. It showed evidence of what would become her hallmark and pioneering style – stream of consciousness, highlighting the gap between thought and speech. Again, shortly after the publication she attempted suicide.

Two years later, she and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press, named after their home, which published many of her subsequent novels, as well as work by T. S. Eliot and other influential writers of the time. The couple lived in London until their home was destroyed in the war in 1940, when they moved to Sussex.

Woolf continued to suffer breakdowns that are now thought to have been caused by bipolar disorder, which could not be treated properly at the time. In 1941, she drowned herself in a river, fearing another breakdown.

Woolf’s work has been praised for its pioneering style and lyrical narratives that make the mundane appealing; it was heavily influenced by Russian writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. The content of her writing was also pioneering at the time – she is credited as having inspired feminism, and she was an anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and a pacifist. She covered themes like war, witchcraft and social class. But Woolf has also been widely criticised for some of her more controversial views and commentaries, with some calling her privileged, racist and elitist.

Her writing has been translated into more than fifty languages, despite the challenges of her pioneering style; some translations have been controversial due to the difficulties in translation. As well as a legacy of highly regarded fiction, Woolf also left a body of autobiographical work and more than five hundred essays and articles, none of which was published in her lifetime.

Why is she on the list?

Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.

  • The Best 100 Authors
  • Ranker
  • Book Depository
  • Top 100 Works in World Literature
  • For The Love of Books
  • The Ideal Library
  • The Greatest Books of All Time
  • 100 Greatest novels of all time
  • The 100 best novels written in English

Read about Woolf

Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee

Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell

 

Image: Wikipedia.it

Meet the top 100: George Orwell

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” ― George Orwell

George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in British India in 1905 and moved to England with his mother and sister a year later. His private education in England included four years at Eton, where he worked on three college publications: The Election Times, College Days and Bubble and Squeak. With too little money to send him to university (and since his academic record wasn’t good enough to get him a scholarship), Orwell’s family decided he should join the Imperial Police, which would later become the Indian Police Service.

He chose a posting in Burma, where his grandmother lived, and started in 1922. He was soon a sub-divisional officer, responsible for the security of 200,000 people, and was promoted to Assistant District Superintendent at the end of 1924. Posted in Syriam, he would head into Rangoon often, “to browse in a bookshop; to eat well-cooked food; to get away from the boring routine of police life.”

After contracting dengue fever in 1927, he went to England to recover and decided not to return to Burma. Instead, he would become a writer. Settled in England and taking inspiration from American novelist Jack London, Orwell started to explore poverty, dressing like a tramp and staying in lodging houses. He moved to Paris in 1928, and his time in the two cities formed the basis of his book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).

In 1932, Orwell became a teacher; two years later he changed direction and took a part-time assistant job in London, at Booklovers’ Corner, a second-hand bookshop. This gave him the time to write more seriously.

Over the next two years, he travelled around the north of England and wrote The Road to Wigan Pier – a book that documents his northern adventure and an exploration of the development of his political conscience. Working on the book led to him being put under surveillance for twelve years by the Special Branch.

He married Eileen O’Shaughnessy in June 1936, then travelled to Spain to fight in the Civil War; he reportedly told John McNair of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) Office: “I’ve come to fight against Fascism.” Unfortunately, being much taller than most of the Spanish soldiers (1.88m), he was an easy target, and was shot in the throat by a sniper.

Following his return to England in 1937, he fell ill with tuberculosis. He set off for warmer shores to recover in 1938, visiting Gibraltar, Tangier and Morocco. By the start of the Second World War, he was unfit for service, so instead he joined the Home Guard. In 1941, he joined the BBC full-time to supervise cultural broadcasts to India, against Nazi propaganda, to which writers including T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and E. M. Forster contributed.

He left the BBC in 1943, giving him the chance to concentrate on writing Animal Farm. It was published in 1945, with great success, putting him in demand. He started work on Nineteen Eighty-Four the next year, and it was published to high acclaim in the summer of 1949, when his health had declined dramatically. On 21 January 1950, Orwell died when an artery burst in his lung.

As a novelist, journalist, essayist and critic, Orwell was a champion of clear, truthful and sincere writing, which gives his work a freshness that remains decades later. Steeped in his contemporary social context, his novels were imaginative and futuristic, and he came up with many neologisms that have since been absorbed into our everyday language: Thought Police, Big Brother, Room 101, newspeak, thoughtcrime.

Orwell put issues like social injustice and totalitarianism in the spotlight, and the impact of his works, including Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, resulted in widespread use of the word Orwellian to describe totalitarian or authoritarian social practices.

Many of Orwell’s essays deal with war, having been influenced by his experience in Burma, which he is said to have felt guilty about. He strongly supported democratic socialism and wrote about the language of politics: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He also wrote about the craft of writing, and some of his advice has been widely cited, including: “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”

Why is he on the list?

Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.

  • Best-selling books – Wikipedia (various sources)
  • Goodreads Best Books Ever
  • The Best 100 Authors
  • Ranker
  • Book Depository
  • Bucket List Bookshop 2017 survey
  • Top 100 Works in World Literature
  • The Ideal Library
  • 100 Life-Changing Books
  • 100 books to read in a lifetime
  • 100 Greatest novels of all time
  • The 100 best novels written in English

Read about Orwell

George Orwell: The Authorised Biography by Michael Shelden

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Meet the top 100: J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling has the ultimate rags to riches story. Now arguably the most successful writer of all time, she was once struggling to survive on benefits, and even contemplated suicide.

Born in 1965, Joanne Rowling would make up fantasy stories for her younger sister Diane (according to Rowling, “she was the person who suffered my first efforts at story-telling (I was much bigger than her and could hold her down).”

But it wasn’t until much later that she came up with the idea for Harry Potter – in 1990, on a delayed train from Manchester to London in the UK. Shortly afterwards, Rowling moved to Portugal where she met and married TV journalist Jorge Arantes. The relationship broke down and she moved to Edinburgh with her young daughter and three chapters of Harry Potter.

Rowling has talked openly about the time following her return, reflecting that although she saw herself as a failure, she was able to focus on writing. She was diagnosed with depression and contemplated suicide, and having signed up for benefits, she described herself “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.”

By 1995 her Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone manuscript was finished, and she found an agency. Finding a publisher, however, was not as easy; twelve publishers rejected the manuscript before Bloomsbury offered her a £1,500 advance and advised her to get a day job.

The first print run was of 1,000 copies; as the literary awards started rolling in, the book gained popularity and in 1998 Scholastic Inc. won the rights to publish in the US for US$105,000. That year, Rowling published the sequel in what would become a series of seven instalments. The series has sold over 500 million copies in 80 languages.

Even more than books, Harry Potter has become an empire. So far eight films have been made, and there is a theme park dedicated to the series in the UK.

In 2012, Rowling published her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, which was subsequently televised. The following year she started a series of crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, selling 1,500 copies of the first book before her identity was revealed.

Why is she on the list?

Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.

  • Best-selling books – Wikipedia (various sources)
  • Best-selling authors – Wikipedia (various sources)
  • Nielsen Book Scan UK sales – all-time best-selling books
  • Books With a Goodreads Average Rating of Over 4.5 and With At Least 100 Ratings
  • Goodreads Best Books Ever
  • Amazon Most popular authors
  • Amazon Top 20 best-selling books of all time
  • The Best 100 Authors
  • Ranker
  • 100 books to read in a lifetime

Read about Rowling

jkrowling.com

Conversations with J.K. Rowling by Lindsey Fraser, J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling – A Biography by Sean Smith

 

Image: official portrait, JKRowling.com

Meet the top 100: Haruki Murakami

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” – Norwegian Wood

The son of two Japanese literature teachers, Haruki Murakami was born in 1949 in Kyoto. Although reading was very much a part of his youth, Murakami didn’t consider himself a writer until he had what he refers to as an epiphany one day in 1978, at a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp.

“I was more interested in making movies and in college I majored in cinema and theater arts at Waseda University,” he said in an interview. “Rather than writing an inconsequential novel, I would much rather be on the side of reading good novels. But that April afternoon, as I was watching the game at the stadium, I had the sudden notion that “perhaps I too can write a novel.” I don’t know why. I think it was a so-called epiphany.”

Heavily influenced by Kafka, Murakami is drawn to surrealist stories and dreamlike fantasies. “Rather than stories of ‘abnormal things happening to abnormal people’ or stories of ‘normal things happening to normal people,’ I like ‘stories of abnormal things happening to normal people.’”

His first few novels, like Hear the Wind Sing and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World gained a cult following in Japan and sold around 100,000 copies each. But it was his dive into realism that took him to international bestseller status.

“I’m not really interested in writing novels about realism, but Norwegian Wood is a novel of 100 percent pure realism. I wanted to experiment. I thought it was time to try another genre. And the result was that it sold. I started writing it on a whim, and I didn’t expect it to become a bestseller, so I was surprised.”

Some critics have accused Murakami of shunning Japanese culture in his work, but he disagrees – he writes based on his own assimilation of the world; Bob Dylan and baseball are very much a part of Japanese life in that sense. He also sees a shift in Japanese literature: “I am not part of the immediate tradition of Japanese literature, but I do think a new tradition, which will include myself, is going to be created. That is, needless to say, a wonderful thing.”

In addition to his novels, Murakami has written short stories, essays and non-fiction books. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is an account of his love of running, taking us on an athletic journey across the rugged Hawaiian landscape, and in Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, he tells the stories of the people who were affected by the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

Why is he on the list?

Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.

  • Franz Kafka Prize
  • Book Depository
  • The Ideal Library
  • 100 books to read in a lifetime

Read about Murakami

HarukiMurakami.com

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Meet the top 100: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow in 1821, in a poor area of the city. His nanny Alena Frolovna read him stories, fairy tales and sagas from the age of three, establishing his love of literature, and his mother used the Bible to teach him to read and write. Dostoyevsky said that his parents reading him stories at night ignited his imagination, according to Louis Breger in Dostoevsky: The Author As Psychoanalyst.

His childhood had an impact on the content of his writing too. An outcast, the “pale, introverted dreamer,” he wrote about his experiences at a religious boarding school in The Adolescent. And the recurring theme of an older man desiring a younger woman resulted from Dostoyevsky being asked to get help from the father of a young girl who had been raped.

Dostoyevsky was arrested in 1849 for participating in a group that discussed banned books criticizing Tsarist Russia. In prison, he was classified as “one of the most dangerous convicts.” His death sentence was lifted at the last minute and he spent the next decade in a prison camp and in compulsory military service. He later travelled in Europe and had financial problems as a result of a gambling addiction.

In prison, Dostoyevsky was disliked by some due to his xenophobic comments; his Jewish characters are considered negative stereotypes and he expressed negative views of the Ottoman Turks.

Although he started writing in his 20s, his most notable novels – including Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) – were published when he was in his 40s and later. In his writing, Dostoyevsky explored human psychology against the backdrop of a troubled 19th Century Russia, and his works have influenced some notable writers, including Anton Chekhov and Jean-Paul Sartre. His books have been translated into more than 170 languages.

Why is he on the list?

Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.

  • Books With a Goodreads Average Rating of Over 4.5 and With At Least 100 Ratings
  • Goodreads Best Books Ever
  • The Best 100 Authors
  • Ranker
  • Book Depository
  • Top 100 Works in World Literature
  • Novels and Novelists, A Guide to the World of Fiction
  • For The Love of Books
  • The Greatest Books of All Time
  • 100 Life-Changing Books
  • 100 Greatest novels of all time

Read about Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky: His Life And Work by Ronald Hingley

Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst by Louis Breger

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons