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 …
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.
These apprehensions were present as I worked through the pages a second time, but they were overridden by the instant resurrection of exactly what I’d liked about the book the first time, which is Lee’s depiction of life in a small town. You wouldn’t think the Great Depression-era fictional Southern town of Maycomb, Ala., would have much in common with the nonfictional Northern California small town where I grew up and read “Mockingbird” in the 1990s — and yet!
Take the grim joke about a pair of Atticus’s clients, the Haverfords, who ignored their lawyer’s advice to take a plea deal and wound up hanging. No explanation is needed for their recklessness other than, as Scout puts it, that they were “Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass.” That’s on Page 5, and it’s precisely where I remember my attention perking up as a teenager. Only in a place of minimal citizenry can surnames carry such determinative weight. In my town, which had a population of approximately 1,000, the nominative shorthand took a more neutrally descriptive form: There was Barefoot Dave, who preferred to go shoeless on his rambles, and Treehouse Todd, who lived in a treehouse, and Tepee Dan — you can guess where he lived.
Much else in “Mockingbird” was recognizable from small-town living: the temptation to invent boogeymen; the excessive reliance on euphemism; the kneejerk ostracizing of those perceived as outsiders, with vandalism a common mode of reinforcement. There was the importance placed on mundane local landmarks: a certain tree, a specific fence, the house on the corner. There was the fiercely held conviction that one must mind one’s own business coupled with the exasperating practice of everyone minding everyone else’s business 100 percent of the time. (When I first moved to New York and lived in an apartment, I wondered if this last paradox would replicate itself within the diorama of my building. It did not. My urban neighbors took great pains to avoid even a molecule of anyone else’s business.)
Lee writes about the unremitting surveillance of Maycomb — of the reality that no act ultimately goes unobserved. At the age I originally read “Mockingbird,” I stole a candy bar from my town’s sole market, bragged about it to one individual and within hours was escorted by my mother back to the store and forced to apologize to the owner (and pay for the candy). There was no point in asking my mother how she knew. All knowledge was public knowledge.
I hadn’t known until reading Lee’s novel that what seemed like punishments and glories unique to my home turf were characteristic ones: the freedom to run amok, the inevitability of getting caught, the fiber-optic speed of rumor mongering, the magnification of every feud into a catastrophe.
So what struck me, rereading it, was not the totality of the book but one of its humbler accomplishments, which is how keenly Lee recreates the comforts, miseries and banalities of people gathered intimately in one little space.
— Molly Young
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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“Grabbing the dark corners of one’s imagination for 125 years.”
Eleanor Najjar, San Francisco, Calif.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
'To Kill a Mockingbird'
Harper Lee's 1960 book was voted by readers of The New York Times as the number 1 of this list: the very best book of the past 125 years. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is a true high school syllabus classic.
The Holy Bible is the most read book in the world. In the past 50 years, the Bible has sold over 3.9 billion copies. It is the most recognizable and famous book that has ever been published.
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|1||To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 4.27 avg rating — 5,433,442 ratings score: 987,405, and 10,000 people voted|
|3||The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 3.93 avg rating — 4,598,969 ratings score: 722,200, and 7,408 people voted|