World Book Day sparks debate about ‘great’ works

This week marks World Book Day, a celebration of books and reading in over 100 countries. Can it be true that all the great books in the world were written before 1832?

On World Book Day, is it appropriate to ask which are the greatest books in the world?

‘Yes!’ says the United Nations which backs the event. Anything which gets people talking about the subject is a good idea.

But can you really have an Olympics of literature, where authors are ranked as better than others: 1, 2, 3?

Answer: no. But you can have a theory.

Professor Anthony O’Hear believes that all the great books in the world were written before 1832 – the year of the death of Goethe, a genius of German literature and author of Faust, often called the greatest long poem ever written.

In fact, the theory goes, there are just 16 works of literature that truly deserve the description ‘great’. Less than 1% of us alive on earth today will have read them all. What is more, 90% of us will never have read more than one of them or even have heard of most of them.

First there are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, 2,500-year-old stories of the siege of Troy and a warrior’s long journey home. Then the work of three Greek tragedians: The Oresteia by Aeschylus, Antigone by Sophocles and The Bacchae by Euripides; dramatic accounts of human suffering and struggle. Then Plato’s record of his teacher, the philosopher Socrates (both his teachings and his life) followed by two books in Latin: Virgil’s Aeneid, another epic about a warrior from Troy; and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tales of the creation of the world and much in it.

Then there are The Confessions of St. Augustine, the first autobiography ever written; Dante’s Divine Comedy, his poetic vision of the afterlife; and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, his account of a storytelling contest between a group of pilgrims.

Finally the list includes: three plays by Shakespeare - Henry V, Hamlet and The Tempest; Don Quixote by Cervantes; Milton’s Paradise Lost; the philosopher Pascal’s Pensées (literally his ‘thoughts’); Phèdre, a tragedy about incest and guilt by the French playwright, Racine; and Goethe’s story of temptation and the devil, Faust.

Don’t delude yourself, argue others. The deep insight and luminous wisdom contained in these ‘great’ works can rub off on those who take the time to absorb them. To miss out is deliberately to impoverish your mind.


Should we feel ashamed, knowing that we will probably never read ‘the greatest works ever written’?

Not at all, comes one response. Don’t believe this idea that ‘greatness’ only existed during an ‘epic’ period of literature when everyone believed in God or gods, and the myths and emotions arising were on a grand and noble scale. Modern writers, more interested in psychology and the muddle of life, are not trying to be ‘great’. Modern writing is better at being ‘human’.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather give up listening to music or reading books? Why?
  2. Of all the books you have ever read, which one has the most profound message?


  1. One of the great works is Hamlet. Design a poster for a theatre production which you think sums up the drama and would make people really want to see it.
  2. In pairs, research the story of Odysseus (Ulysses) and the sirens. Write notes for a modern version with the same theme but a modern setting. Each pair should make a five-minute presentation to the class, describing the story proposal.

Some People Say...

“You can’t say some books are ‘better’; only that you prefer them.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I listen to this theory?
The man who came up with it is one of Britain’s most learned scholars. Anthony O’Hear is a professor of philosophy and director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He has spent more than 50 years reading and thinking about books. He should know what he is talking about.
Some of these works are over 12 books long. I have not got time for that.
Absolutely. But nobody is saying you have to read them all. First of all it is worthwhile to have heard of them and learned that they are considered important, and to know what they are about. You could find it interesting to look them up on Amazon and have a look at the books’ covers and illustrations. But best of all, follow the link in Become An Expert to a translation of The Odyssey and read a couple of pages.

Word Watch

A good definition is this: ‘A long narrative poem on a great and serious subject, related in a grand style, and centred on a heroic figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the entire human race.’
Here is what Aristotle, often considered the ‘father of philosophy’, said: ‘Tragedy is a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments, and it should be written in poetry embellished with every kind of artistic expression.’
Made-up stories which explain the existence of a natural phenomenon such as where thunder comes from or why snow falls from the sky, or which provide a narrative for people or events. Myths often include gods and goddesses and other supernatural characters who have the power to make extraordinary things happen.


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