“100 Great Books”

great books

In 1973 Frye was asked by The Franklin Mint to become a member of the advisory panel that would select one hundred great books.  In a telegram from the Franklin Mint 2 October 1973, one of several urgent messages imploring Frye to join the project, he was told that Willard Thorp of Princeton (who had recommended Frye to the advisory board), Alan Heimert of Harvard, Albert Guerard of Stanford, Frank Kermode of Cambridge, and Richard Ellmann of Oxford had already signed on.  The Mint even sent a representative, Darby Perry, to visit Frye in his office at Victoria College.  He eventually consented and was sent a checklist with certain titles already on the list and with instructions that it was possible to add alternate titles.  Along with nine others, Frye duly constructed his list.  He was paid $1000 for agreeing to participate in the venture.  Shortly after the Franklin Mint made its list of titles available, Frye began receiving mail, criticizing him for lending his name to such a cheap commercial enterprise and noting that the gimmicky advertising brochure of the Franklin Mint did not indicate the titles selected or the editions used.

Frye responded to one of his critics by saying, “My connection with the Franklin Library scheme was confined to agreeing to serve as an ‘advisor’ for their list of titles.  They sent their list of titles to me; I sent them back my own notion of what a hundred ‘great books’ might be, and they went ahead with their original selection.  In other words, consulting me was pure ritual.  If you were to say that I should have known in advance that this was the case, you would doubtless be right.”  To another he wrote, “You were quite right about the participation: I should never have lent myself to such a business, and much regret having done so.  I am not at my most perceptive on the end of a long distance telephone, and the proposal to ask for my advice in selecting a list of books, accompanied with various distinguished names who are friends of mine, looked at the time more innocent than it is, and than I should have known it would be.”

Nevertheless, Frye did take his assignment seriously and his list of recommendations was accompanied by this note of 23 October 1973 to Ron Wallace of the Franklin Mint: “I am sending with this the form sent me, marked up according to instructions.  As I considered the list, however, I found myself drafting a more analytical table of what I would consider the hundred essential books of Western culture, following your own categories closely.  I hope it will be more helpful than confusing.”

Category 1:  Novels outside the English-speaking World.

1. Apuleius, Metamorphoses (substituted for Petronius, on list).

2. Murasaki, The Tale of Genji (on list).

3. Selected Arabian Nights (on list, transferred).

4. Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (on list).

5. Cervantes, Don Quixote (on list).

6. Balzac, Cousine Bette (substituted for Pére Goriot, on list).

7. Flaubert, Madame Bovary (on list).

8. Stendhal, Charterhouse of Parma (substituted for The Red and the Black, on list).

9. Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (on list).

10. Proust, Swann’s Way (substituted for Cities of the Plain, on list).

11. Camus, The Plague and The Stranger (on list separately).

12. Tolstoy, War and Peace (on list).

13. Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (added).

14. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (substituted for Crime and Punishment, on list).

15. Dostoevsky, The Idiot (on list).

Possible alternates:  Kafka, The Trial (on list); Musil, The Man without Qualities; Mann, The Magic Mountain (on list); Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (there isn’t any Latin-American title on the list).


1. I think Apuleius has more general appeal than Petronius, apart from the fact that the latter is exasperatingly fragmentary.

3. I transferred the Arabian Nights from children’s books: you mention the Burton translation, which would need pretty careful editing if children were to read it.

9. I’d prefer Les Miserables for a lifetime library, but it’s too long.

10. Swann’s Way is the first novel of the Proust series, and the obvious choice:  Sodome et Gomorrhe is very difficult to follow unless one knows something of what preceded it.

Category 2:  British Novels.

1 (16).  Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (on list transferred).

2 (17). Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (on list, transferred).

3 (18). Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (on list, transferred).

4 (19).  Defoe, Moll Flanders (on list).

5 (20).  Fielding, Tom Jones (on list).

6 (21).  Sterne, Tristram Shandy (on list).

7 (22).  Austen, Pride and Prejudice (on list).

8 (23).  Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (on list).

9 (24).  Dickens, Great Expectations (substituted for David Copperfield, on list).

10 (25).  Thackeray, Vanity Fair (on list).

11 (26).  George Eliot, Middlemarch (substituted for The Mill on the Floss, on list).

12 (27).  Conrad, Lord Jim (on list).

13 (28).  Hardy, The Return of the Native (on list).

14 (29).  Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (on list).

15 (30).  Joyce, Ulysses (on list, transferred).

Possible Alternates:   Meredith, The Egoist; Trollope, Last Chronicle of Barset; Woolf, To the Lighthouse (on list); Patrick White, Voss; Forster, A Passage to India (on list).


1, 2, 3. I’ve transferred these books from other categories: Robinson Crusoe is not a child’s book, unless abridged and edited in a way I shouldn’t care for.

Category 3:  American Novels

1 (31).  Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (on list).

2 (32).  Melville, Moby Dick (on list).

3 (33).  Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer AND Huckleberry Finn (on list separately).

4 (34).  Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (added).

5 (35).  James, The Ambassadors (substituted for The American, on list).

6 (36).  Lewis, Babbitt (substituted for Main Street, on list).

7 (37).  Dreiser, Sister Carrie (substituted for An American Tragedy, on list).

8 (38).  Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (on list).

9 (39).  Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (substituted for For Whom the Bell Tolls, on list).

10 (40).  Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (on list).

Category 4:  Short Stories and Novellas.

1 (41).  Boccaccio, Decameron (on list).

2 (42).  Poe, Selected Stories (on list).

3 (43).  Melville, Billy Budd (on list; see note).

4 (44).  Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (on list; see note).


3. This book should contain Benito Cereno and Bartleby, or, perhaps, instead of them, The Confidence Man, which is really a novella.

4. This should also be combined with one or two other James stories of comparative length, such as The Beast in the Jungle or The Pupil.  Another possibility, and one I like better, would be a book of three short novels by different authors:  James, The Turn of the Screw; Conrad, Heart of Darkness; D.H. Lawrence, The Man Who Died.

Category 5:  Children’s Stories.

5 (45).  Grimm’s Fairy Tales (on list).

6 (46).  Andersen’s Fairy Tales (on list).

7 (47).  Carroll, Alice in Wonderland AND Through the Looking Glass (on list separately).

8 (48).  Dickens, Christmas Carol (on list; see note).

9 (49).  Stevenson, Treasure Island (on list).

10 (50).  Kipling, The Jungle Book (substituted for Just-So-Stories, on list).


8. Again, Christmas Carol might look a bit skimpy unless combined with The Chimes or The Cricket on the Hearth.  Another possibility would be to collect three Victorian stories for younger readers under a common title: Christmas Carol, Kingsley’s Water Babies, and George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind.

Category 6:  Poetry.

1 (51).   Homer, The Iliad (on list).

2 (52).   Homer, The Odyssey (on list).

3 (53).   Virgil, The Aeneid (on list).

4 (54).   Ovid, Metamorphoses (on list).

5 (55).   Dante, Divine Comedy (on list).

6 (56).   Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (on list).

7 (57).   Milton, Paradise Lost (on list).

8 (58).   Goethe, Faust (on list, transferred).

9 and 10 (59-60).  Two Anthologies (added; see note).


It seems to me that, apart from epic, poetry is impossible to add to a series like this without making special anthologies.  There’s room for two collections of British and American poetry in my scheme, say one on British Poetry 1550–1880, running from Shakespeare’s age down to the first-generation Romantics (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge), and one on British and American Poetry 1800–1950, running form the second-generation Romantics (Byron, Shelley, Keats) to our own day.

Owing to the difficulty of translating poetry, I don’t include translations of shorter poems by non-English poets, important as they are.

Category 7:  Drama.

1 (61).  Classical Tragedies (selected from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, on list).

2 (62).  Classical Comedies (selected from Aristophanes, Terence, Plautus, on list).

3, 4, 5 (63, 64, 65).  Shakespeare (on list)

6 (66).  Plays Selected from Shakespeare’s Contemporaries (Jonson, Webster, Marlowe, etc.; added).

7 (67).  English Comedies, selected from Wycherley, Congreve, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde, Synge,

O’Casey (added).

8 (68).  Shaw, Arms and the Man, Major Barbara, Heartbreak House (substituted for the Puritan plays, on list).

9 (69).  Plays selected from Ibsen (on list) Chekhov (on list), Strindberg (added).

10 (70).  Plays selected from O’Neill (on list), Pirandello (on list), Sartre (added) and Beckett (added).


Drama, like poetry, is difficult to represent except in collections.

Category 8:  Biography and Essays.

1 (71).  Plutarch, Selected Lives (on list).

2 (72).  Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (added).

3 (73).  Erasmus, The Praise of Folly (on list).

4 (74).  Castiglione, The Courtier (added).

5 (75).  Montaigne, Selected Essays (on list).

6 (76).  Bacon Essays and Advancement of Learning, Book I (first on list; second added).

7 (77).  Boswell, Life of Johnson (on list).

8 (78).  Voltaire, Candide (on list; see note).

9 (79).  Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (added).

10 (80).  Thoreau, Walden (on list).

Possible Alternates:  Pascal, Pensées (on list).


4. There doesn’t seem to be on your list a book specifically on education, which is why I add what is in my opinion the world’s best book on the subject.

8. Candide is reasonably short: I’d like to see Zadig or Micromegas added (or even, perhaps, Diderot’s Le neveau de Rameau).

Category 9A:  Discursive Prose to 1600.

1 (81).  The Bible (on list; see note).

2 (82).  Dictionary (on list; see note).

3 (83).  Plato, Republic (on list).

4 (84).  Plato, Shorter Dialogues (should include at least Apology, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, Timaeus, and Critias; added).


1.  There’s no doubt that the Bible is one of the world’s hundred great books, but whether it should be in a series like this I’m not sure.  I could see an abridged or “essential” Bible as a possibility.

2.  Again, there’s no doubt that a good dictionary is essential to a good library, whether or not it should be one of the hundred books.  Perhaps it should be left outside the numbering.  I should have no objection to Webster, but others might want to exclude the famous Third.

8.  You have both the Bhagavadgita and selections from the Vedas on your list: perhaps there should be a volume of “Hindu Wisdom,” including these along with selections from the Upanishads and the Patanjali Yoga Sutras.

Category 9B:  Discursive Prose from 1600.

11 (91).  Descartes, Discourse on Method; Spinoza, On the Improvement of the Understanding; Leibnitz, Monadology (first two on list; third added; see note).

12 (92).  Hegel, The Philosophy of History (added).

13 (93).  Rousseau, The Social Contract (on list).

14 (94).  Mill, On Liberty AND Locke, Second Treatise on Government (first on list; second added).

15 (95).  Darwin, Origin of Species (on list).

16 (96).  Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling AND The Concept of Dread (first on list, second added).

17 (97).  Marx, Das Kapital, Book I AND The Communist Manifesto (on list separately).

18 (98).  Freud, Basic Writings (on list).

19 (99). Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (on list).

20 (100).  Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (added).


11. These three works are all fairly short and the three together would give a good idea of the foundations of modern philosophy.  I don’t include Kant in the list, mainly because I doubt whether a subscriber to this series would actually want to read, say, The Critique of Pure Reason.

16. Fear and Trembling is quite short; The Concept of Dread is for the source of the whole “existentialist” movement concerned with anxiety and similar ideas, so it would be useful to include it.

20. It’s difficult to pick classical scientific books: most such books belong to the history of science, and many of them are unreadable.  A good example is Copernicus: Copernicus believed that the sun was motionless and that all heavenly bodies revolved at the same speed; consequently his book is impossibly muddled.  There’s only one translation into English, made around 1950 for the Chicago hundred-book scheme, and it’s bloody awful.  That’s why I substituted Whitehead for Newton, Einstein, et al.

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