Readers Pick the Best Book of the Past 125 Years – The New York Times

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In October, as we marked the Book Review’s 125th anniversary, we invited readers to nominate the best book published during that time. This was a nod to our history: In its first few decades, the Book Review often asked readers to anoint the best books, the best short stories, the best poems. We wanted this project, like those early ones, to reflect readers’ tastes and preferences.

Responses began pouring in from all 50 states and 67 countries. In November, we presented a list of the 25 most-nominated books (one per author) for a vote. After tallying more than 200,000 ballots, the winner, by a narrow margin, is …

The Winner

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

“I am 52. I grew up in public housing, on welfare, parented by angry, erratic alcoholics, with little guidance and even less continuity. Atticus, Jem, Scout, Calpurnia and Dill taught me everything I needed to know about life, love, friendship and honor. These lessons reverberated throughout my life and I truly believe that my path would have been very different without them.”

Corina Jensen, Stanhope, N.J.

“Each time I read it with my students, I find in the author’s words something brilliant and entirely new to discuss with my classes. ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

Ronnie Madanick, Dade County, Fla.

“I grew up in a small, insular, white, Protestant town in the West, and this book first exposed me to the cruelty of racism. I do believe it changed my life and made me a person who cares about social justice. Plus, it is beautifully written with characters I have loved my whole life. I always wanted to be Scout.”

Nancy Foxley, Fort Collins, Colo.

Our critic reconsiders “To Kill a Mockingbird”

When you revisit in adulthood a book that you last read in childhood, you will likely experience two broad categories of observation: “Oh yeah, I remember this part,” and “Whoa, I never noticed that part.” That’s what I expected when I picked up “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was voted the best book of the past 125 years by readers in a recent New York Times poll. Two decades had passed since I’d absorbed Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. And yes, there was a huge amount I’d missed on my first time through, ranging from major themes (the prevalence of child abuse) to minor details (unfamiliar words, like “flivver”).

Inexcusable lapses in reading comprehension also surfaced, such as the fact that I hadn’t realized Mrs. Dubose — the cranky neighborhood villain — was a morphine addict. (“Mrs. Dubose is a morphine addict,” Atticus states in the book. In my defense … well, I have no defense.) As an adult, I can perceive why the novel might hold enduring appeal for many and enduring repulsion to perhaps just as many. I cannot fathom the complexities of teaching it to elementary school students in 2021, especially after reading online accounts from teachers on both the “pro” and “against” sides.

The Runners-Up

2. The Fellowship of the Ring By J.R.R. Tolkien

“The depth of lore for an imagined world and the story of friendship that it accompanies lay the foundation for the rest of the fantasy genre that would follow. Yet few stories live up to the standards set by Tolkien.” Owen Clarke, Provo, Utah

The Fellowship of the Ring

3. 1984 By George Orwell

“It still resonates with us up to this day, around 70 years after it was written. Its warning against the excesses of human pride and hunger for power and its challenge to use our love of freedom to guard against these problems are timeless and universal.” Kathlynn Rebonquin, Mandaluyong City, Philippines

1984

4. One Hundred Years of Solitude By Gabriel García Márquez

“As a piece of literature, it was an earthquake moment, shattering the expectations of a typical realist novel and spawning influences in authors and works from Japan to India and beyond. Out of all the works to have emerged in the last 125 years, none has created a ripple effect, or changed the landscape of literature, as much as this has.” Rizowana Hussaini, Guwahati, India

One Hundred Years of Solitude

5. Beloved By Toni Morrison

“It’s not a bump in the night, subtle haunting. It’s loud and sick. There are images and emotions from ‘Beloved’ that are stuck in my mind now permanently. This ghost story has taught me more about the legacy of slavery than history books ever did.” Brontë Mansfield, Chicago, Ill.

Beloved

The Nominations

The story of the nominations we received is not consensus, but diversity — not just in the sheer number of books that readers nominated, but in the ways that they interpreted what “best book” meant. Of the more than 1,300 books nominated, 65 percent were nominated by only one person. And only 31 percent nominated a book that made it to our list of 25 finalists. Here are some titles that speak to the breadth of readers’ choices.

  • Science Fiction

    Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

    “A bone-chillingly beautiful and heartbreaking tale of exactly what could happen if we don’t take steps now as a society to address social inequalities and the climate crisis.”

    Courtney Daron, Anaheim, Calif.

  • Nonfiction

    The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

    “A beautifully written, sweeping history of the past century in America. Never heavy-handed, Wilkerson’s storytelling places real people in real places, making it possible for any reader to grasp the various impacts of inequality and inequities that still plague America.”

    Patricia Methe, Cincinnati, Ohio

  • Horror

    Dracula by Bram Stoker

    “Grabbing the dark corners of one’s imagination for 125 years.”

    Eleanor Najjar, San Francisco, Calif.

  • Cookbook

    The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer

    “It may be thin on plot or character, but it opened new worlds to me and my family.”

    Cody Clark, Houston, Tex.

  • Children’s Book

    Watership Down by Richard Adams

    “Yeah, yeah, I get it — James Joyce, Toni Morrison, Yasunari Kawabata, Clarice Lispector, Gabriel García Márquez —they’re all great, they changed fiction forever. You’re not wrong. But answer me this: How many of them wrote a book entirely about rabbits that could make you laugh, cry, get angry and question the deeper meaning of life?”

    Brian Dowd, Edgartown, Mass.

  • Self Help

    The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck

    “His opening sentence, ‘Life is difficult’ affirmed my real-life experience. His wise insights into discipline, grace, love, and sin offered hope when I needed it. I ultimately attended seminary and became a pastor who often gifts this book.”

    Marcia Bilyk, Knowlton Township, N.J.

Why readers nominated

Some readers prized lyrical writing above all.

“Silko wonderfully mixes narrative forms, incorporating poetry, rituals and Native American creation stories in a web-like structure that mirrors Pueblo Indian identity and perspective. … Her spectacularly descriptive language, the depth with which she portrays the human condition and the melancholy tone inspire readers.”

Dana Raja Wahab, Miami, Fla. on “Ceremony,” by Leslie Marmon Silko

For others, an author’s imagination was everything.

“It propels the Modernist advances of books like ‘Ulysses’ into the postmodern world, kicking and screaming. It’s a book of superlatives: It’s the smartest, stupidest, most sacred, most profane, most profound, phantasmagoric, lyrical, direct, demanding, rewarding book I’ve ever read.

C. Bleakley, Milan, Italy on “Gravity’s Rainbow,” by Thomas Pynchon

Many nominated novels expanded the kinds of stories told in literature.

“I first read this book in high school in a rural town in New Hampshire. I was one of about 10 people of color in the whole town. This book was the first time I felt seen in an English classroom in white America. The narrator’s impotent rage, and this unshakeable feeling of being a blank slate for others to place their own expectations and guilt (“No don’t worry, you’re one of the good ones.”), all resonated with me. This is one of those books that awaken something in you, and it did in me.”

Ruth Ramjit, New York City on “Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison

Other readers considered a book’s influence and legacy.

“It exploded the idea of what literature can be.”

Susannah Breslin, Burbank, Calif. on “Ulysses,” by James Joyce

Many people nominated children’s books — especially the ones that fostered a lifelong love of reading.

“From cadence and rhythm to the art and story itself, “Where the Wild Things Are” is the most perfect book. This is a hill I will die on.”

Sara Beth West, Chattanooga, Tenn. on “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak

Most popular authors

Three writers — John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner — received nominations for seven of their books.

Other popular authors included James Baldwin, Margaret Atwood and Virginia Woolf, who each had five books nominated.

And readers nominated four of Joan Didion’s books: “The Year of Magical Thinking,” “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “The White Album” and “Play It as It Lays.”


stack of books


A love for literature

Finally, so many nominations we received spoke to deeply personal relationships with books.

“The Nobel Prize winner’s novel evokes the best of modern literature, whilst keeping the classics’ heart and soul at the center of it. The central love story involves not only the two main characters, but the city of Istanbul as well (if not above), thus making it simultaneously intimate … and part of something grander.”

Dalila Sadinlija, Bosnia and Herzegovina on “The Museum of Innocence,” by Orhan Pamuk

“It’s a book … no, THE book about books, celebrating a seemingly idealized (but true!) relationship between a reader and a bookseller. There’s no better epistolary, literary memoir, bathed in the glow of wartime and mid-century New York City, looking eastward to romanticize a ration-booked London that knows its classic authors.”

Darren Sextro, Kansas City, Mo. on “84, Charing Cross Road,” by Helene Hanff

“​​This book captures what it means to be human. The writing is exquisite — you feel the pain and joy of the characters. The world building is subtle but profound. It is simply stunning.”

Chelsea Brislin, Lexington, Ky. on “Never Let Me Go,” by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Because it rails against darkness. Because it’s a testament to the enduring power of love to carry us and transcend death itself. Because it taught me to keep the fire burning, always.”

Max Widmer, New York City on “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy

“I’ve never been more engrossed in the minutiae of nature. Reading this book nudges and reminds me to slow down and absorb the utter beauty surrounding me each day.”

Brandon O’Connor, Chicago, Ill. on “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” by Annie Dillard

Illustrations by Timo Lenzen.

Designed by Deanna Donegan, Rebecca Lieberman and Hang Do Thi Duc. Edited by Tina Jordan, Rebecca Halleck, Joumana Khatib and John Williams, with contributions from Scott Blumenthal, John Cruickshank, Asmaa Elkeurti, MJ Franklin, Jennifer Harlan, Marie Tessier and Urvashi Uberoy. Additional production by Aliza Aufrichtig.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Cover image via Raptis Rare Books. The Fellowship of the Ring: Cover image via Heritage Auctions, HA.com. 1984: Cover image via Bauman Rare Books. One Hundred Years of Solitude: Cover image via Harper Perennial Modern Classics. Beloved: Cover image via Heritage Auctions, HA.com.

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