Watch CBSN Live

Tilting At Windmills

"Don Quixote," the 17th-century Spanish tale about a madcap knight, was voted the world's best work of fiction by a poll of the world's leading authors Tuesday.

Miguel de Cervantes' story won comfortably ahead of Marcel Proust's "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" ("Remembrance of Things Past") in the poll of 100 authors from 54 nations and eclipsed the plays of Shakespeare and masterpieces from Homer to Leo Tolstoy.

"If there is one novel you should read before you die, it is 'Don Quixote'," said Ben Okri, a Nigerian-born author who won the British Booker prize and wrote the introduction to a new Norwegian edition of "Don Quixote."

"It has the most wonderful and elaborated story, yet it is simple," he told a news conference at the Norwegian Nobel Institute to launch the collection of the world's best 100 books.

"Don Quixote" was a runaway winner, collecting 50 percent more votes than Proust's masterpiece in the survey of writers including Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, John le Carre, John Irving, Nadine Gordimer, Carlos Fuentes and Norman Mailer.

Alf van der Hagen, an editor with the Norwegian Book Clubs, which organized the poll, declined to give further hints about other works trailing "Don Quixote" and "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" as the list was intended to be an unranked collection.

"Don Quixote," a satirical romance published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, tells of an aging knight who wanders around La Mancha, central Spain, doing hare-brained acts of chivalry to prove his love for Dulcinea del Toboso, whom he has never met.

Cervantes's hero, wearing a battered suit of armor and mounted on a worn-out horse in a quest for adventures after he goes crazy by reading too many romances of chivalry, is offset by his down-to-earth, proverb-quoting squire Sancho Panza.

Van der Hagen said most authors had welcomed the request to name their 10 favorites in world literature, but admitted some had declined and even criticized the project, for instance Isabel Allende.

"And from some we never got an answer, such as Bob Dylan. We never heard anything from Gabriel Garcia Marquez either, even though he is represented on the list with two books," he said.

Doris Lessing, included in the list with "The Golden Notebook," said she was "a bit shocked" when she first heard about the project, but wanted to participate in order to spark interest about literature among the young generation which she said read far too little despite high levels of education.

"They should be called educated barbarians," she said.

The poll was organized as part of a drive to promote classical literature against challenges from television, videos and computer games.

It said that 10 authors had more than one work on the list -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky led with four, Franz Kafka, Shakespeare and Tolstoy had three while William Faulkner, Gustave Flaubert and Garcia Marquez, Homer, Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf had two.

Of the 100 titles, more than two thirds were written by Europeans, almost half were written in the 20th century and 11 were written by women.

By Erik Brynhildsbakken