No Sartre, no Lessing, no Mailer: Frodo the hobbit beats them all

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The Independent Online
JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is the greatest book written this century, according to a poll of more than 25,000 people conducted by the book chain Waterstone's and Channel 4's Book Choice.

The top 100 titles chosen - based on a poll carried out over six weeks last autumn - omits all Jean-Paul Sartre's work, and ignores Doris Lessing's significant The Golden Notebook and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. It also overlooks the acclaimed modern authors Martin Amis and Julian Barnes - but includes Delia Smith, the cookery writer.

Second in the poll is George Orwell's seminal study of the future, 1984, followed by his political satire, Animal Farm. Fourth is James Joyce's Ulysses and fifth goes to Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

Gordon Kerr, marketing manager of Waterstone's, said that The Lord of the Rings came consistently top at almost every branch in Britain and in every region except Wales, where Ulysses made first place.

Voters were urged to choose "the titles of the five books you consider the greatest of the century". The poll form allowed inclusion of anything from A Brief History of Time to Trainspotting and Animal Farm, cookery books or the Highway Code, as long as they were written this century.

In the event, readers tended toward the conventional, with the selection of accepted modern classics such as JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (6), Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (7), Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (8) and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (9).

A vast proportion of the top 50 were written in previous generations. More recent surprise successes were heroin-laced Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (10), Wild Swans, Jung Chang's study of the changing lives of herself, her mother and her grandmother (11), and Douglas Adams' surreal sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (24). Odd omissions were Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and any form of poetry - T S Eliot's The Waste Land and Other Poems just missed out at 101.

Only 13 books were written by women, with Jung Chang ranked highest, followed by Alice Walker at 18 with The Color Purple and Margaret Mitchell, for Gone with the Wind, at 23. The best-selling appetite wetter Delia Smith squeezed in at 83 with The Complete Cookery Course.

Non-fiction choices included The Diary of Anne Frank (26) and Primo Levi's moving account of life in Auschwitz, If This Is A Man (30). Also ranked were Stephen Hawking's scientific study A Brief History of Time (79), Orwell's account of living in poverty in the Thirties, Down and Out in Paris and London (86) and Richard Dawkins' populist explanation of genetics, The Selfish Gene (91).

The most popular children's books were Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (16), Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne (17). Roald Dahl featured four times with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach and The BFG, respectively placed at 34, 76, 80 and 97.

The chart-topping Lord of the Rings, the sequel to The Hobbit, was written in the mid-Fifties by Tolkien, then Merton Professor of English at Oxford. It was initially rejected by two big publishing houses, but was finally taken on by Allen and Unwin, which had accepted The Hobbit, although it expected to lose pounds 1,000 on the deal. In fact, the three-volume mythological story went on to achieve cult status in the Sixties.

Rayner Unwin, Tolkien's publisher for many years, said he had convinced his father, Sir Stanley, to print The Lord of the Rings because he had met Tolkien as a student at Oxford during the war. "My father was abroad on business and I had to write to him to get permission. I said that I thought it was a work of genius but that I also thought it would lose pounds 1,000," Mr Unwin said. "He wrote back very astutely. He said: 'If you think it is a work of genius you may lose pounds 1,000.' Of course it didn't lose pounds 1,000, it made quite a lot of money for everybody."

Mr Unwin added that he thought Tolkien, who died in 1973, would have been delighted by the vote of confidence in his book.

"I think he would have been astonished, and probably found a reason for why it was a thoroughly bad idea, but he would have been flattered. He was a difficult man in some ways, but charming in others," he said.

1 The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien

2 Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell

3 Animal Farm George Orwell

4 Ulysses James Joyce

5 Catch-22 Joseph Heller

6 The Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger

7 To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee

8 One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez

9 The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck

10 Trainspotting Irvine Welsh

11 Wild Swans Jung Chang

12 The Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald

13 Lord of the Flies William Golding

14 On the Road Jack Kerouac

15 Brave New World Aldous Huxley

16 The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame

17 Winnie the Pooh AA Milne

18 The Color Purple Alice Walker

19 The Hobbit JRR Tolkien

20 The Outsider Albert Camus

21 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe CS Lewis

22 The Trial Franz Kafka

23 Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell

24 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams

25 Midnight's Children Salman Rushdie

26 The Diary of Anne Frank Anne Frank

27 A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess

28 Sons and Lovers DH Lawrence

29 To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf

30 If This is a Man Primo Levi

31 Lolita Vladimir Nabokov

32 The Wasp Factory Iain Banks

33 Remembrance of Things Past Marcel Proust

34 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl

35 Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck

36 Beloved Toni Morrison

37 Possession AS Byatt

38 Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad

39 A Passage to India EM Forster

40 Watership Down Richard Adams

41 Sophie's World Jostein Gaarder

42 The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco

43 Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 Rebecca Daphne du Maurier

45 The Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro

46 The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera

47 Birdsong Sebastian Faulks

48 Howards End EM Forster

49 Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh

50 A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth

51 Dune Frank Herbert

52 A Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving

53 Perfume Patrick Suskind

54 Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak

55 The Gormenghast trilogy Mervyn Peake

56 Cider with Rosie Laurie Lee

57 The Bell Jar Svlvia Plath

58 The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood

59 Testament of Youth Vera Brittain

60 The Magus John Fowles

61 Brighton Rock Graham Greene

62 The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist Robert Tressell

63 The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov

64 Tales of the City Armistead Maupin

65 The French Lieutenant's Woman John Fowles

66 Captain Corelli's Mandolin Louis de Bernieres

67 Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut

68 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig

69 A Room with a View E.M. Forster

70 Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis

71 It Stephen King

72 The Power and the Glory Graham Greene

73 The Stand Stephen King

74 All Quiet on the Western Front Erich Maria Remarque

75 Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha Roddy Doyle

76 Matilda Roald Dahl

77 American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis

78 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S Thompson

79 A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking

80 James and the Giant Peach Roald Dahl

81 Lady Chatterley's Lover DH Lawrence

82 The Bonfire of the Vanities Tom Wolfe

83 The Complete Cookery Course Delia Smith

84 An Evil Cradling Brian Keenan

85 The Rainbow DH Lawrence

86 Down and Out in Paris and London George Orwell

87 2001 - A Space Odyssey Arthur C Clarke

88 The Tin Drum Gunter Grass

89 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Alexander Solzhenitsyn

90 Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela

91 The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins

92 Jurassic Park Michael Crichton

93 The Alexandria Quartet Lawrence Durrell

94 Cry, the Beloved Country Alan Paton

95 High Fidelity Nick Hornby

96 The Van Roddy Doyle

97 The BFG Roald Dahl

98 Earthly Powers Anthony Burgess

99 I, Claudius Robert Graves

100 The Horse Whisperer Nicholas Evans