It should be noted, first, that this is from NPR’s audience, which is heavily skewed toward those favoring the New York Times Review of Books, which a wag once called “the fanzine of the lit-fi genre”. Second, like all such polls it tends to favor the recent — many that I consider true classics aren’t in this list because modern readers haven’t encountered them (A. E. van Vogt, e.g.). And third, it isn’t really “100 books”, as many others have pointed out. In some cases long series are collapsed into a single entry; in others (especially Pratchett) individual books from a long series are separate items.
Following established custom, the ones I’ve read are in boldface, sometimes with commentary attached.
1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien — belongs at #1 on anybody’s list.
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams — may belong on a “top 100” list, but not nearly this high. I’m reminded of teaching the computer humor in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: tell it once, you’re a wit; twice, you’re a halfwit; geometric progression or worse. A few of the lines are golden: “If you don’t vote for a lizard, the wrong lizard might get in.”
3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card — Excellent, but it’s up this high primarily because it’s recent. It will survive as a classic, but won’t stay in the top 10.
4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert — I read the original Dune as it was serialized in the magazines, and was never inspired to buy a copy of the final version. I consider Herbert dull and pedestrian. On his good days. The books are celebrated by seekers for a Savior who aren’t satisfied with the one we got.
5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin — is this the one about the civilization in the valley where the Mediterranean will be? If so, I’ve read the first and part of the second, and got disgusted with all the public works that would show up like Lady Gaga in a nunnery to even semi-competent archaeology. Suspension of disbelief is all very well, but it shouldn’t require renting a forty-ton crane.
6. 1984, by George Orwell — This is looking less and less like science fiction, and more and more like an instruction manual for the statist Left. (Note: the title of the book is Nineteen Eighty-Four. Writing it out as numerals is pure dumth.)
7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury — Overwrought doomsaying worthy of a Twitterer discussing Rick Perry.
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov — Asimov’s prose was always dull; his work is important for the ideas. Most people who rave about the books fail to see the subtext, which would in many cases horrify them.
9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley — see #7. The prose is better, though.
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman — delightful fun, so long as you keep in mind that Gaiman’s a Brit. Neither Tolkein nor Orwell require that consideration.
11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman — read by many people who ooh and aah without understanding any smallest portion of what it’s about.
12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan — not boldfaced because I got maybe fifty pages in, put it down, and never went back. “Wheel” is right. Round and round it goes, always coming back to the same point. Some have suggested that that is the point. They may be right, but I’m not willing to invest the time in finding out.
13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell — much better and more pointed than Nineteen Eighty-Four, in my opinion. NPR listeners who voted for it either didn’t understand it or have porcine ambitions.
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov — see #8. Asimov’s ideas regarding artificial intelligence were advanced for their day, but have been superseded in many ways. As prose, it’s tedious to a modern reader.
17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut — see #7 and #9. Vonnegut was an enormously bright individual who always came up with brilliant insights, then backed away from where they really led like a teenage girl encountering a rattlesnake.
20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley — one of the few readable books from the foundations of modern horror. That’s because of the movies, not the book, which has more in common with I, Robot than anything Vincent Price had anything to do with.
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick — Dick was a dick. He combines outrageous doomcrying with formalistic stylism in ways that have materially contributed to the deterioration of my teeth.
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke — I’m not at all sure why this would be considered important or influential any more. Its vision rests entirely upon the optimism of the late Fifties and early Sixties, which has been soundly rejected in favor of Prii, windmills, and Whole Foods, especially by NPR’s listener base. Fun movie, though.
25. The Stand, by Stephen King
26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson — Proper pessimism.
27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury — stylism, very “literary” <fx: spits>
28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut — see #19.
29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman — no system for partial boldface. I’ve dipped into this here and there, but never been inspired to go straight through it.
30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess — again, if the stereotypical NPR listener understood half of what the book is about they’d rage at it.
31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein — this vote had to be based on the movie. Reading portions of it aloud, especially the good Colonel on History & Moral Philosophy, would jam the switchboards at KQED and cut their donations in half.
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams — I got through it eventually. Useless twaddle.
33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey — That particular volume is early enough in the series to be fun, although the unexpanded short stories printed in Analog were better. Later on, when she tried to turn what is frankly fantasy in an SF frame into something more nearly justifiable from a science fiction point of view, the series went to s*t.
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein — Excellent, one of the best Heinleins.
35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller — part of the mirror-image of Arthur Clarke, also very fashionable at the time. Nuclear War Will Kill Us All So We Must Join The Soviet Union! was a very important trope among the literary doomsayers. The book is still worth reading, but Matheson (I am Legend) is better.
36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells — Difficult for a modern reader, perhaps. Read Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons for essentially the same story.
37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne — one of the Founders.
38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys — If you can read this without crying, I don’t want to know you. Actually, the short story (“novelette”) version is better because there are fewer distractions from the main thrust. I didn’t Google it, but I think there’s another “e” in the author’s name (“Keyes”).
39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells — another Founding Document. By modern standards it creaks, but it’s easy enough to project your imagination back in time and enjoy it.
40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny — the first couple were fun. Zelazny clearly got bored with it toward the end, and so did I.
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings — puffery, but Hell for enjoyable. Every single sub-trope in the “poor boy discovers he’s really the Savior” theme is trotted out, elaborated, re-elaborated, bored, stroked, and chrome-plated, complete with not one but an entire host of Amusing Sidekicks, and Eddings makes it all fun.
42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley — more “literary” c*p.
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven — a look at human evolution that may be a little disturbing. The Ringworld itself is dynamically implausible; Niven made lemonade in the sequels.
45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin — see #42. Purports to be a paean to Acceptance of Otherness; ends as The Superior Morality of Homosexuality, which is why it’s beloved in a certain set.
46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien — Hunh? Publishing an author’s research notes can make money, I guess.
47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman — delightful.
49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke — Nevah happen.
50. Contact, by Carl Sagan
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman — Lovely.
53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson — Delightful, but if you don’t take notes you’re likely to get lost. It would help to have the computer handy so you can use a search engine.
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman — Uh huh.
57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett — one of the best of the Diskworld books.
58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson — self-indulgent garbage about a self-indulgent butthead.
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold — Find the Easter eggs. Most don’t. Shards of Honor is jewelry, and belongs on this list by itself. The Curse of Chalion, too.
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett — good fun, but on this list only because it’s recent.
61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle — O noes! We’re the Moties! Stop driving that SUV right now!
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson — undoubtedly the best of the “After Nuclear Doooom” stories.
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist — dense and ultimately superficial.
67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne — another Founding Document. Very disappointing to the modern reader, in the same vein as the fellow who objected to Shakespeare as “…just a collection of old sayings.”
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore — no boldface because I read the first two pages and put the book back on the shelf.
74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi — this is really good, but (again) makes the list only because it’s recent.
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke — tedious technogeekery. The Big Ideas impress, I suppose.
77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin — LeGuin’s consistent theme is that human beings and human culture are inferior to anything else that might be encountered. (Of course, Posleen never occurred to her.) This is another celebration of that notion.
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury — see #27.
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart — delightful. Read it.
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson — worth the trouble, despite the complexity.
86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe — Jack Vance did “the last days of Earth” much better, but his protagonists aren’t any more sympathetic. I did enjoy many of the images, especially doing stratigraphy in a world-wide garbage dump.
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury — see #27, #79
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley — McKinley == good. Take your time with it, though.
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge — fireworks by Vinge. Like others from him it’s a read-once, but a damned impressive one.
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov — Read it long ago. E. M. Forster did it first (“The Machine Stops”) and Vance did it better (“Ullward’s Retreat”), and both of those are short stories.
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle — just re-read this one recently. I don’t think Southern California would come out nearly so well in a remake.
97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis — one of the few from Willis I haven’t read, other than excerpts. Lincoln’s Dreams is just as dark. She gets more cheerful (and more enjoyable) later.
98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony — Popcorn. Read one, you’ve read ’em all. As one of a Top 100? Insanity.
100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis — Very good, very deep. If you try to treat it as light reading you will be very disappointed.
Did you notice that I don’t care for Bradbury or LeGuin? Good on ya.