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The Book Riot Community’s 50 Favorite Novels: Discussion

Editor’s note: Rebecca and I were so interested in the results of our reader poll that we discussed it at length. Here is the result of that discussion.

Jeff O’Neal: Well, Rebecca, we had more than 1300 people cast their ballots in our poll of favorite novels and more than 1200 novels were mentioned. I guess that’s my first observation; there is enormous breadth to our readers’ favorites. The top vote-getter, To Kill a Mockingbird, was mentioned by less than 10% of readers, and as you move down the list it shallows out even more dramatically from there.

It also very, very white (more than 90%) and mostly male (more than 66%). Unlike many reader polls, this one didn’t limit by time or country, so the whole of literature was eligible, which is itself overwhelmingly white and male. I have to admit I was disappointed not to see a novel by an African-American writer here. Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God made the top 100, but still.

What did you notice?

Rebecca Joines Schinsky: The sheer variety here is really remarkable–it’s not All Classics, All the Time, as these lists tend to be when they’re generated by so-called authorities rather than actual readers–and it’s cool to see the classics hanging out alongside contemporary favorites. Genre fiction makes a good showing, too. Tolkien, Stephen King, Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card, and Frank Herbert are all here. And there’s some kidlit and YA. We have a little bit of everything!

You can love both Pride and Prejudice and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and many people do. Diversity in reading preferences seems to be the rule here, not the exception. That’s pretty cool. And where else are you going to see Marilynne Robinson, whom I know we both love, wedged between Dune and Les Mis?

JSO: I am now imagining a musical version of Dune. And Les Miserables set in space. Anyway. It might be worth pointing out a few of the novels that make the list that might be more unfamiliar. The Book Thief is clearly a contemporary classic, if reader opinion means anything. The Secret History and The Time Traveler’s Wife as well. If you have someone who likes to read on your holiday shopping list, that trio is a pretty safe bet to be both enjoyed and unfamiliar.

I wonder if I had made it explicitly clear that graphic novels count, would there have been more votes for Watchmen or Persepolis or Maus? That’s one regret I have (though including short stories is not).

RJS: Les Mis has been rebooted so many times, space really is the final frontier (*groan*) for it. I’d watch that, and it’d give a whole new meaning to Javert’s “Stars” moment. Wait, what are we talking about again?

Right, contemporary classics. Given the outpouring of ERMAHGERD when we announced our Riot Read of The Secret History, I wasn’t too surprised to see that one make the list. But I’ve gotta tell you, I didn’t see The Book Thief or The Time Traveler’s Wife coming. I know people love those books, and they’ve certainly been widely read, but that they made it into many readers’ all-time top three was unexpected.

Any titles you expected to see here that didn’t end up making the cut?

JSO: No Hemingway or Toni Morrison. No Huck Finn. I’m not sure I expected any of them exactly, but I thought they might show up. Also, no Confederacy of Dunces, which has been a lit-nerd favorite for a couple of decades now.

I was surprised to see Gone With The Wind ranked so highly. Any of the other placements strike you as interesting?

RJS: I was surprised by how high Harry Potter came in–sorta the same situation as my reaction to The Book Thief, in that I know people love those books, but all-time-top-three love? And I thought Steinbeck would have come in higher. He got into the top 50 twice, but both are in the bottom half of the list.

With respect to Hemingway and Morrison, I wonder if they would have made the list if we had asked for favorite writers instead of favorite novels. My gut says yes. I suspect that having a deep backlist makes it more difficult to get any single title into a list like this. Think there’s anything to that, or am I just looking for a way to get ToMo some love?

JSO: Probably, but I’m right there with you. I think the thing with Hemingway and Morrison especially is that there isn’t a runaway favorite among their work. Beloved, Paradise, and Song of Solomon split the Morrison vote, as do The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms for Hemingway. One reason To Kill a Mockingbird is such a juggernaut is that there isn’t another Harper Lee book to contend with it. If, say, there were another Lee title even close to as good, some people would vote for that rather than TKaM. I’m sure there is some Freakonomics term for this, but I will call it “Fred.”

Ok, here’s the big question: How many have you read? I’ve read 40. I’ll tell you which I haven’t but I asked you first.

RJS: I’ve read 32. 33 if you count the time I read Slaughterhouse-Five in 8th grade and didn’t understand a lick of it. Of the ones you haven’t read, which are you most likely to pick up? (‘Cause I’ve gotta tell you, I like being a completionist, but I’m probably never going to read Dune.)

JSO: The Book Thief has been floating around enough that I probably will read it. The Poisonwood Bible is an eternal “maybe I’ll read this next” contender. I have to admit I am not even sure what The Outlander series is, but I am going to find out.

This is fun. I want to poll our readers about more stuff. What should we ask them next?

RJS: The Outlander series is, I’m pretty sure, epic historical romance with time travel. They are BIG books, and there are a lot of ‘em, which is why I’ve never read them. That’s a big commitment, and I don’t think she’s finished writing them yet.

Polling is fun! It satisfies all the nosey, voyeuristic urges, doesn’t it? Let’s do a variation on “What’s the best book you’ve never read?” next. Always interesting to see what people think they should read, or want to read, but haven’t.

JSO: Ah, epic historical romance with time travel. I should have known.

So a guilt poll, eh? That would be interesting. I think I like your earlier idea a little better: who are your three favorite authors? But hey, we have a big ol’ website here, so we just might do both and more.

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This is the part where I end the discussion and ask our readers: What big book question should we ask you guys next?