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Elizabeth Diefendorf (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: An introduction, in Books of the Century, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 2-7.

[Diefendorf is the chief librarian of the general research division of the New York Public Library. In the following essay, Diefendorf offers a librarian's perspective on the obstacles—and the value—of compiling a list of definitive books of the twentieth century, as determined by the New York Public Library.]

The New York Public Library's Books of the Century grew out of an exhibition created to celebrate the Centennial of the New York Public Library. One of many events, publications, and displays that marked our anniversary year, the exhibition drew on the enthusiasm and love of books as well as the special expertise of the institution's librarians. This little volume is permanent documentation of our effort.

The world was very different in May 1895, when the New York Public Library was founded, formed by the consolidation of the Astor Library and Lenox Library, both privately owned, and the Tilden Trust, a legacy of Samuel J. Tilden, a former governor of New York state. The site at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, where the great marble Library building would rise, was still occupied by the looming Croton Reservoir, a masterpiece of 19th-century architecture and hydraulic engineering, which supplied water to the households and businesses of much of Manhattan. Horse-drawn omnibuses carried passengers up and down Fifth Avenue past churches and mansions. In 1895, patents were registered for automobiles, moving-pictures, and wireless communication. American women had 25 years to wait for the right to vote. James Joyce was 13 years old; Mao Zedong was 2. Today, most of Fifth Avenue's mansions and many of its churches are gone, and the famous thoroughfare is choked with bus and automobile traffic. Within the Library and without, text, sound, graphics, and even moving images arc communicated electronically from desktop to desktop. Women are increasingly elected to political office. Joyce's Modernism has given way to Post-Modernism. An aggressive state capitalism has emerged in Mao's People's Republic of China.

Identifying books that would recall this past century and its tremendous changes was a formidable task. All librarians on staff, whether employed in one of the four centers of the Research Libraries (which together preserve and make accessible over 50 million items) or in the Branch Libraries (which lend almost 12 million books a year in 82 neighborhood branches), were asked to suggest books that had had a significant influence, consequence, or resonance during the Library's first 100 years. Lists and ideas poured in. Many contributions came from bibliographers with substantial expertise in particular subject areas. There were lists featuring business titles, Scandinavian imprints, religious writings, historiography, Latin American Literature, and science fiction. Books by suffragists, sociologists, and environmentalists all found advocates. In the end, more than 1,100 individual titles were recommended, with Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams receiving the greatest number of individual recommendations.

The exhibition opened on Centennial Day, May 20, 1995, displaying 159 works, selected from the titles recommended by librarians. To give structure to the show, the books were grouped within 11 categories—"Landmarks of Modern Literature," "Nature's Realm," and "War, Holocaust, Totalitarianism," among others—developed to acknowledge and express the artistic achievements, cataclysmic events, and intellectual trends that characterized the Library's first century. These categories have become the chapters in this book [The New York Public Library's Books of the Century]. Artist Diana Bryan was commissioned to create special murals for the exhibit, featuring cut-out silhouettes representing her interpretations of some of the books included; these have also been incorporated here.


(This entire section contains 1280 words.)

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we sought to engage on-site visitors in a dialogue, a very important component of the exhibit was a place for reflection, where people were invited to comment and to suggest titles they thought had played a defining role during the past 100 years. Four months into the exhibit, six notebooks were full to bursting with thoughtful reflections, some criticism, more praise, many, many interesting suggestions of individual titles to add, and plenty of heated discussion related to the issue of "political correctness." Comments ranged from "It's all a little white, male and ethnocentric, eh?" to "Excellent work, I like the breadth, lack of elitism, and inclusion of non-English titles" to "Not enough women, no lesbians…. Why emphasize the significance of the ruling class?" to "A provocative idea—only couldn't you do another one on silenced voices?"

Several visitors commented on the issue of standards. "The choices are arbitrary and no criteria are given for them," wrote one anonymous individual, who apparently supposed that we could define an objective, quantifiable set of tests that only great books could pass. In truth, we worked with only two limits, neither of them a rule pertaining to intrinsic merit. First, because we were celebrating the Library's Centennial, a book's first appearance in print had to have fallen between 1895 and 1995 (hence no Communist Manifesto, The Origin of Species, or any book by Mark Twain). Second, we decided that an author could be represented by only one title (since James Joyce's Ulysses was in the show, his Finnegans Wake was not).

Another viewer grumbled, "heavily feminist … and why Stephen King?… is popularity the only criterion?" And although popularity was by no means the sole guide, neither, in every case, was literary merit or aesthetic originality. Thus, along with such universally recognized literary masterpieces as Franz Kafka's Die Werwandlung (The Metamorphosis) and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, we included classics of genre literature such as Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes and a "potboiler," Grace Metalious's Peyton Place, We also chose to exhibit some books that had, we believed, exerted a profound or lasting influence even when they were poorly written or when that influence was almost wholly evil, such as Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf or Mao Zedong's Quotations from Chairman Mao.

Some titles included here might not even seem to be "books" at all. Neither the United Nations Charter nor Smoking and Health (known as The Surgeon General's Report) was first printed by a commercial publisher, but both these documents achieved wide distribution and precipitated great change.

All of us who worked on Books of the Century understand that any such compilation, no matter how ambitious, can only be "Some Books of the Century," as one visitor commented. Our choices, though certainly diverse, represent a perspective that is urban, American, and profoundly concerned with issues of social justice and freedom of expression. And ultimately there are many other books we might have included.

We have responded to the exhibition's visitors both in this book and in the exhibition itself. Many viewers had strong opinions about what we had left out; how could we have omitted Faulkner or The Catcher in the Rye, many of them asked. And although several children's books were included, many felt there should have been more, reflecting perhaps the strong attachment we all feel for the first stories and books we encounter. We have therefore added a new section, "Favorites of Childhood and Youth," which appears as the last chapter in this book. Eight other titles, including The Portable Faulkner and Atlas Shrugged, exhibited in the Library under the title "The People's Choice," have been added here to their appropriate chapters….

When we reflect on the response to this exhibition, what is particularly heartening to us as librarians is the strong viewer reaction. Although there is much talk today of books as an endangered species, the thoughtful and emotional reactions of so many visitors is an encouraging affirmation of the continuing importance of books to our understanding of the world. We hope that the New York Public Library's Books of the Century will stimulate your own reflections about the books you have read and their significance for you.

Giles Foden (essay date 20 January 1997)

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SOURCE: "100 Books that Made a Century," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, January 20, 1997, p. 3.

[In the following essay, Foden comments on the Waterstone Bookstore's publishers list, addressing questions of the reading public's tastes versus criteria determined by literary academics.]

As long ago as 1592, second-rate poet Robert Greene was complaining about Shakespeare's rise to the top of the list. In the modern age, writers as diverse as Cyril Connolly and John Cowper Powys have produced lists of great books.

Now Waterstone's booksellers, in conjunction with Channel 4's Book Choice, has polled more than 25,000 people on their books of the century.

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (written 1954–5) came first, receiving just over 5,000 votes. Some distance behind, George Orwell secured second and third place with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945), with James Joyce's Ulysses (1922, France, 1936, UK) and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) being the others in the top five. Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1995) is at number 10. Only 13 of the 100 books on the list are by women.

Martin Lee, marketing director of Waterstone's, said: "This must be one of the widest-ranging surveys of reading tastes ever to be compiled. We are very excited about the list of books and hope that it will stir a passionate debate about the merits of the century's writing."

Tolkien's other bestseller, The Hobbit, is at number 19, while Wild Swans, Jung Chang's history of three generations of Chinese women is the highest non-fiction entry at number 11. There is no poetry on the list, which includes two science books, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. Children's books proved popular choices: among them Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows, A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, and four titles by Roald Dahl—Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG.

The list, complied by the public rather than pundits seems to be based not so much on "greatness" as on appropriateness to certain stages in psychological development. Thus Peregrine Worsthorne, among the celebrity choices canvassed by the Guardian, gives a favourite book from each period of his life.

Many of the books on the Waterstone's list seem to fall into two main categories; narratives of integration and disintegration. In the former category are a large number of books about fantasy worlds, such as Tolkien's works, C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the second category are books like J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Albert Camus's The Outsider and Franz Kafka's The Trial.

Yet these categories are by no means distinct. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy is on the cusp, and so is John Fowles's The Magus. It is also a commonplace to argue that fantasy books like Tolkien's, with their insistent quests and complex internal value systems, encourage escapism and obsession, powerfully integrating the reader into a fictional world while having deleterious effects in everyday life.

Questions of literary value are necessarily involved here, in the sense that F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot understood them. Leavis had doctrinaire views about the virtues of certain types of writing, which he trumpeted as part of a crusade against industrialisation and mass culture.

Eliot argued (in his famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent") that new entrants to the continuum of the canon drew succour from, and refreshed old ones, in the way that his own The Waste Land (just missing out in the Waterstone's list at number 101) did with Dante and much else. This sense of a "great conversation" was at the heart of a much-mocked initiative by the University of Chicago, whose Great Books of the Western World programme (1952) offered everything from Aristotle to Zola in 60 smart leather-bound volumes, along with an index that highlighted connections between all the different works. In other words, you could look up the word "culture" and find references to it in books by Plato, Matthew Arnold, Marx, etc. More recently, American academic Harold Bloom evinced an essentially Leavisite position in his book The Western Canon (1995), and the distinguished British critic Sir Frank Kermode has argued that a classic book is one that invites multiple positive interpretations in different eras.

Kermode's "old wine in new bottles" position—first laid out in his book The Classic (1975) and reiterated in an article in the Guardian last year—lies some way between that of Leavis, Eliot and the newer breed of post-theoretical critics.

The latter would include Antony Easthope, Professor of English and Cultural Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, who welcomes the popular appeal of the Waterstone's venture but doesn't think that it proves The Lord of the Rings is intrinsically "better" than Ulysses. "Better for what?" he asked. "There are all kind of reasons why people value things. Nothing is valuable in itself, and never was."

Galen Strawson, who teaches philosophy at Oxford University, said: "The Waterstone's list has more than merely sociological interest, yet it doesn't tell us what we should read. Some of the books have been subjected to the test of time and some have not. Will Trainspotting, for instance, be there in 10 years' time?"

Radmila May (essay date April 1997)

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SOURCE: "Britain's '100 Best Books,'" in Contemporary Review, Vol. 270, No. 1575, April, 1997, pp. 206-10.

[In the following essay, May considers several implications of Waterstone's list, emphasizing the survey methods and respondents's backgrounds.]

Anyone who can write, so the saying goes, can write a book. And anyone who can lay their hands on a bit of money can publish it. That's the easy part.

What's difficult is to sell the wretched thing, to persuade the public to part with their pounds, dollars, francs, marks, whatever. Few individual books, at least in the eyes of publishers, merit substantial marketing campaigns. Those that do get exclusive promotion are those which would probably sell well anyhow, with or without hype. It had been expected, at least by some, that the demise of retail price maintenance in the book trade in Britain (which forced all shops to charge the same price for a book) would result in lower prices and higher sales. But it did not. In fact, prices, except prices of discounted books, have increased and publishers' lists have been cut. And sales are static.

So booksellers had to think of fresh ploys to get customers into the stores where most sales are still made. And Waterstone's, one of the three chains which dominate the British retail book trade, came up with a spiffing wheeze. Customers in their bookstores and viewers of TV Channel 4's Book Watch programme were invited to fill in a questionnaire with 'the titles of the five books you consider the greatest of the century' and return it to Waterstone's with, if wished, a comment of 50 words or less on their favourite title. The questionnaire was clearly a marketing device: respondents were asked for their names and addresses, prizes were offered for the 5 most persuasive comments, and those not wishing to receive further information from Waterstone's had to tick a box. Over 25,000 people replied nominating over 5,000 titles and the names and authors of the 100 most-nominated books were published in W, Waterstone's own magazine, in January 1997 together with a leaflet giving further facts about the survey. Most of the books in the Top 100 were British; there were 21 by US writers and a spattering of titles from elsewhere. W also contained an article by the noted critic and writer Germaine Greer giving her views of the results of the questionnaire.

There was an immediate furore, which must have been everything that Waterstone's hoped for. The reason for this was that far and away the most popular book nominated was J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools (a Government post whose job is to monitor standards of teaching in English schools) deplored this: in The Times he was quoted as saying 'If The Lord of the Rings is our favourite book, what is it saying about our attitude towards quality in the arts?' And the views of Germaine Greer were widely reported: since coming to England from Australia in 1964 and finding 'full-grown women … babbling excitedly about hobbits, it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century.' But Malcolm Bradbury, Professor Emeritus of American Literature at the University of East Anglia, defended the book: 'It has a very special cultural value. It is a book that crosses the magic line between childhood and adulthood.' Controversy. The media salivated.

What does the list actually mean? First of all, the question asked in the questionnaire should be examined. It is an axiom of such surveys that the question is more important than the answer since the former determines the latter. And so it is in this case. The word used was 'great': But 'great' can mean anything from 'of the utmost significance and profundity in a truly cosmic sense' to 'a thundering good read which was quite unputdownable'. Only four of the respondents' comments were printed: on The Lord of the Rings, Midnight's Children, Proust, and Hemingway's Fiesta (Hemingway didn't make the Top 100 although The Old Man and the Sea gets into the next 50). Dr. Greer uses the word 'influential' but this is not normally taken as a synonym for 'great': fortunately so, since the two books of the century which arguably had the greatest influence on events, Hitler's Mein Kampf and Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, are undoubtedly also the most evil. Neither of those, one is glad to report, feature on any list. One must presume that Germaine Greer did not have them in mind either.

Another query must be: who filled in the questionnaire? The answer is: people who shop in Waterstone's bookstores (in London and 67 other towns and cities), and people who watch Channel 4's Book Watch. Those who did neither had no idea the survey was taking place until the media excitement in January.

People who frequent bookstores tend to be middle class, well educated, and young: hardly representative of the overall UK population. According to Dr. Greer 'the good thing about the list is that it has not been compiled by pundits.' This rather contrasts with her later assertion that she regards the list with dismay.

Examination of the list suggests that many of those who answered were children. Roald Dahl had 4 titles in the top 100, more than anyone else: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (34), Matilda (76), James and the Giant Peach (80), and The BFG (97). Other children's books of an earlier vintage also feature: The Wind in The Willows (16), Winnie the Pooh (17), The Habbit (19), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (21). But were these nominated by children, by adults who had read and loved them as children, or by parents who thought this is what children ought to like? On the published figures, there is no way of knowing.

Further light is cast by the ancillary list of authors with the highest number of titles. First on this list is Enid Blyton with 44. If the Top 100 had been compiled on the basis of most popular author rather than that of most popular book Blyton would, one must assume, have gone into the list, perhaps rather high. Dr. Greer's blood pressure would almost certainly have short right up. Terry Pratchett (also not included in the main list) was third with 34, Dahl with 33. R. L. Stine (not until now a name to conjure with: a writer in a very popular children's horror series) has 31. C. S. Lewis (19), Dick King-Smith (19) and Judy Blume (17) also featured. Of adult writers only Stephen King (37) with probably a large teenage readership and Graham Greene (21) sneak in between Blyton and Blume. Not that this invalidates the survey, just makes it rather different from what at first sight it appears to be. A child's idea of a 'great' book is bound to be different from that of an adult looking back over a lifetime's reading.

Other titles have strong A-level or GCSE connections, such as Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (7), William Golding's The Lord of the Flies (13), Toni Morrison's Beloved (36). And I suspect that other titles, if not actually set books, were on school reading lists: could this account for Orwell's 1984 (2) and Animal Farm (3)? If so, it is reassuring to know that spuming a book that you have been told to read because it is good for you and you might learn something is not an automatic reaction of all school children. Some books appeal to both adults and children: The Lord of the Rings no doubt was one. Among others are undoubtedly The Diary of Anne Frank (26), Richard Adams' Watership Down (40), Jostein Gardner's Sophies World (41), Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy (55).

There are few non-fiction titles in the list: Jung Chang's Wild Swans (11) is the highest. Like Wild Swans most of the nonfiction titles are autobiographical. Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course comes in at 83: Delia is Britain's best-known TV cook; she combines an extremely plain, matter-of-fact, not to say uncharismatic, presentation with recipes that are easy and which work. Dr. Greer's criticism of Delia Smith that 'she writes for people who don't cook much … and are fundamentally uninterested in cooking' is unjust: such people buy frozen or ready-cooked meals and zap them in the microwave. Delia Smith writes for people who would like to cook better but lack confidence in their own abilities: she should not be criticised on that score.

The chief characteristic of the list is its variety. Given the number of respondents that is hardly surprising. The strong element of fantasy in the list reduces when titles probably nominated by children are stripped out. On the whole, the idea of the 'great' book seems to have been taken seriously. There are a number of notable titles which date from before World War II, even World War I: Joyce's Ulysses (4), Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (9) and Of Mice and Men (35), Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (12), Huxley's Brave New World (15), Kafka's The Trial (22), Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (28), Woolf's To The Lighthouse (29), Proust (33), Conrad's Heart of Darkness (38), Forster's Passage to India (39) and Howard's End (48) and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (49) are all in the first fifty. Some have a film or TV connection but by no means all or even most. Dr. Greer suggests that Proust was nominated by people who hadn't read him. But the question (back to that again) asks for the 'greatest book of the twentieth century' not 'the greatest book etc. which you have actually read.' More modern serious novels are difficult. In addition to those already singled out, one could mention Heller's Catch 22 (5), Alice Walker, The Color Purple (18), Rushdie, Midnight's Children (25). Others are out: Dr. Greer suggests, among other writers, Patrick White, Elizabeth Bowen, Julian Barnes, Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Muriel Spark. But it is at this point that criticizing the list becomes pointless: because the method of collecting the data was so statistically haphazard, the list is really little more than a list of the preferences of those who answered the questionnaire. It can have no wider significance. In any case some of those named Dr. Greer puts forward did get into the next 50, which also includes some poetry (Eliot and Auden) and, as no doubt Dr. Greer will be pleased to note (she points out that there is no directly feminist book in the Top 100), her own The Female Eunuch. And others, such as Iris Murdoch, P. G. Wodehouse and Isaac Asimov, do well in the list of authors with most titles voted for. Oddly, Dr. Greer does not suggest either Freud or Jung.

That the respondents took the survey seriously is evidenced by the comparatively few books in the list whose function is purely to entertain (apart from the children's titles). Even some of those one might think of as largely entertainment have serious aspects: Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (92), whatever its literary quality, is concerned with the dangers of genetic tampering, and Scarlett O' Hara of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (23) has been reinstated by some as a feminist icon. There are only two thrillers: Eco's The Name of the Rose (42) and Greene's Brighton Rock (61), although Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal gets into the next 50.

Fashion and the tastes of the young undoubtedly play a major part. Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting comes in at 10. But it is difficult to evaluate these more modern novels. In 1972 Claud Cockbum published Bestseller, an examination of certain wildly popular novels published between 1900 and 1939. With the exception of Mary Webb's Precious Bane and Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph, neither of which are more than very minor classics, they are uniformly ghastly: racist, xenophobic, snobbish, and written in dreadful overblown prose. In their day they were treated as major literary works; but who now remembers Guy Thome's When It Was Dark, Robert Hichens' The Garden of Allah, or A. S . M. Hutchinson's If Winter Comes? Who is to say that much of what is in the list will not meet the same fate in 50 years' time? The Daily Telegraph conducted a similar poll of its readers and found that the same books, Lord of the Rings and the two Orwell novels, achieved the top three places.

To return to The Lord of the Rings, is it such a worthless tribute to late twentieth century taste? Does it represent something more than a simple tale (albeit told at great length with several strands of narrative), an account of the battle between good and evil? The reader's comment referred to above describes it as 'memorable and inspiring, an allegory for this century, the past and the future'. He obviously saw something in it that Germaine Greer did not. If Derek Malcolm, film critic of The Guardian, can describe the film Star Wars in its new rejigged version as more than a cult, a myth, akin to Beowulf and other heroic sagas, cannot the same be said of Tolkien's epic? In the hobbits, the true heroes of The Lord of the Rings, small, weak, unaggressive, do we not see alternative role models to the murderous, trigger-happy heroes of the cinema as depicted by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis et al.? As we look back over this most grim and violent of centuries, maybe the popularity of the hobbit virtues—integrity, courage, tenacity, loyalty, resourcefulness—show us that we human beings are not so bad after all. And maybe there is, after all, more to The Lord of the Rings than the pundits would have us believe.

[Below is the list that was compiled based on the survey of Waterstone's customers.]

  1. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. 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, J. D. 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, A. A. Milne
  18. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  19. The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
  20. The Outsider, Albert Camus
  21. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. 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, D. H. 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, A. S. Byatt
  38. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  39. A Passage to India, E. M. 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, E. M. 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. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
  56. Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee
  57. The Bell Jar, Sylvia 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 Philanthropists, 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 Motor Cycle 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, D. H. Lawrence
  82. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
  83. Complete Cookery Course, Delia Smith
  84. An Evil Cradling, Brian Keenan
  85. The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence
  86. Down & Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
  87. 2001—A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
  88. The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass
  89. A 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 Groves
  100. The Horse Whisperer, Nicholas Evans

Paul Lewis (essay date 20 July 1998)

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SOURCE: "'Ulysses' on Top among 100 Best Novels," in New York Times, July 20, 1998.

[In the following essay, Lewis describes the intent and composition of the Modern Library's list, noting the members of the selection panel and some of their responses to the final list.]

Ulysses, that sprawling, difficult, but uniquely original masterpiece by James Joyce, has been voted the finest English-language novel published this century by a jury of scholars and writers.

The book—in which an immensely long account of a single day in the lives of a group of Dubliners becomes a metaphor for the human condition and the author experiments with language almost to the point of unintelligibility—heads the list of 100 novels drawn up by the editorial board of Modern Library, which has been publishing classic English-language literature at affordable prices since 1917 and is now a division of Random House.

The list is to be released on Friday at a workshop for young publishers known as the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Radcliffe College of Harvard University.

The board members are Christopher Cerf, Gore Vidal, Daniel J. Boorstin, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian, A. S. Byatt, Edmund Morris, John Richardson, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and William Styron. Ulysses was banned in the United States as obscene from 1920 to 1933, when the ban was lifted by a Federal judge, John M. Woolsey, who called the book "a sincere and serious attempt to devise a new literary method for the observation and description of mankind."

Ulysses is followed in descending order by The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's magical tale of romance, mystery and violence among rich Long Island socialites in the 1920's; another work by Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his autobiographical account of a young man's intellectual awakening"; Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's tale of the aging Humbert Humbert's doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze; and Brave New World, Aldous Huxley's satirical horror tale of a civilization where humans are literally made to order.

These five novels originally tied for first place, with each winning the support of 9 of the editorial board's 10 members. In a second separate vote, the panel then placed them in their final order.

Executives at Random House said they hoped that as the century drew to a close their list would encourage public debate about the greatest works of fiction of the last hundred years, thus both increasing awareness of the Modern Library and stimulating sales of novels the group publishes.

"It's a way to bring the Modern Library to public attention," Random House's president and editor in chief, Ann Godoff, said in an interview. "We want to grow the Modern Library and its stable of classics."

Random House was recently bought by the German Bertelsmann group, already the owners of the American publishing house of Bantam Doubleday Dell, and which then became the largest commercial book publisher in the world. Executives say the Bertelsmann group currently publishes 59 of the 100 novels on the Modern Library list. And of the Modern Library board members, all but Professor Gregorian are published by Random House or the Bertelsmann group.

Modern Library plans to reissue at least 10 novels on the list in paperback over the next eight months. These will include Samuel Butler's autobiographical attack on Victorian morality, The Way of All Flesh (No. 12); Joseph Conrad's tale of intrigue, The Secret Agent (No. 46); Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm's comic tale of a femme fatale at Oxford University (No. 59); The Call of the Wild by Jack London (No. 88); and The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (No. 100).

Random House, which in 1934 published the first legal American edition of Ulysses, will place promotional material in bookstores that are offering novels from the Modern Library's list. And the company is inviting readers to send in on-line suggestions for an alternative list of great English-language fiction of this century to

In the next few months Random House also plans to expand the size of the Modern Library's editorial board.

It will then invite the expanded board to make a list of the 100 best nonfiction books published in this century.

"That is something that has never been done before," Ms. Godoff noted.

The Modern Library's best-novels list includes 58 books by an eclectic collection of American writers: William Faulkner's Sound and the Fury (No. 6); Ernest Hemingway's Sun Also Rises (No. 45); the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos (No. 23) as well as three works by Henry James—The Wings of the Dove (No. 26), The Ambassadors (No. 27) and The Golden Bowl (No. 32)—although James lived much of his life in England and eventually became a British citizen.

But it also includes Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (No. 7), Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (No. 50) and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (No. 55), as well as Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon (No. 56) and James M. Cain's Postman Always Rings Twice (No. 98).

The 39 works by British writers include D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (No. 9), The Rainbow (No. 48) and Women in Love (No. 49); E. M. Forster's Passage to India (No. 25) and Howards End (No. 38); George Orwell's 1984 (No. 13) and Animal Farm (No. 31) as well as novels by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Anthony Powell.

In addition to his two works in the top five, Joyce's third well-known book, Finnegans Wake, also makes the list, in 77th place.

But apart from Joyce, the list contains no other works by English-speaking writers from outside the United States and Britain, although India, Australia and South Africa all have flourishing literary traditions and have produced many distinguished authors.

In addition, only eight women make the list. They are led by Virginia Woolf whose To the Lighthouse is in 15th place, followed in 17th by Carson McCullers's Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Other women represented are Edith Wharton (twice), Willa Cather, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Rhys and Iris Murdoch.

Several board members criticized the absence of writers from the rest of the English-speaking world as well as the small number of female authors selected.

Calling the final list "typically American," Ms. Byatt regretted that the Australian Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Patrick White, had not been chosen, and said there was "definitely room for more women." Like the American author William Styron, she regretted the absence of the South African writer Doris Lessing and the American novelist Mary McCarthy. Mr. Styron said that he was surprised, too, by the omission of Patrick White and that he wished the list had included the American writer Eudora Welty.

But Professor Gregorian, who heads the Carnegie Corporation, said he and several other judges had felt they should choose only books that had been in print a long time, thus showing that they "have really stood the test of time."

All the judges who could be reached for comment said they believed Ulysses deserved first place and considered The Great Gatsby a worthy second. Ms. Byatt called Ulysses "the first truly modern novel, a real break with the past, like Picasso." Mr. Styron said it was "the watershed novel of the 20th century from which all modernism flows."

Gore Vidal, the American novelist, called the top five "about right." But several of his colleagues on the board were unhappy with the novels in third, fourth and fifth places.

Edmund Morris, an American historian, said he was "pleased" that Ulysses and Lolita had made the top five. But he argued that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man did not deserve so high a slot because it is really "a sketch for Ulysses." He also dismissed Brave New World as "not Huxley's greatest."

Shelby Foote, also a historian, said that he accepted Ulysses and The Great Gatsby but that he had "trouble with the others" in the lop five slots. In his view, Lawrence's Rainbow and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying would have been better choices.

The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called the first three choices "sensible" but said he would have preferred to see Henry James's Wings of the Dove and E. M. Foster's Passage to India in fourth and fifth places. He also thought Evelyn Waugh's World War II trilogy, Sword of Honor, would have been a better choice than Brideshead Revisited (No. 80).

Other editorial board members who participated in the voting but could not be reached were Mr. Cerf, son of Bennett Cerf, who bought the Modern Library and founded Random House, and Mr. Boorstin, a former Librarian of the Library of Congress.

In a recent interview, Harold M. Evans, currently editorial director of U.S. News and World Report, said he had come up with the plan to compile a list of the best 100 novels for the millennium when he was president of Random House. But it was not completed until after he had handed over the top job to Ms. Godoff last November.

Steve Rubenstein (essay date 21 July 1998)

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SOURCE: "Sound and Fury over Top Novel List," in San Francisco Chronicle, July 21, 1998.

[In the following essay, Rubenstien reports typical reactions to Modern Library's list.]

The 100 best novels are not necessarily the 100 best novels.

A New York publisher released a list yesterday of what it called the best English language novels of the century, but had no luck convincing anyone else that the ranking was anything but another work of fiction. "Such a list is meaningless," said Ojars Kratins, an associate English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, whose specialty is the modern novel.

The best 20th century novel, according to a committee of scholars and writers hired by Modern Library, was Ulysses. The next best novels, in order, are The Great Gatsby, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lolita and Brave New World. Most of the books on the list are published by Modern Library—the company that commissioned it.

Kratins called the list an "advertising sales gimmick" and said he was not at all concerned that three of the last four novels he has lectured on in his current class on 20th century novels failed to make the list.

"I have my own criteria," he said.

Ulysses, the tough-to-read James Joyce masterpiece about a single day in the life of a group of Dubliners, is a respectable choice for best book, he said—although he admitted that relatively few people have read it.

After that, said the professor, the list is off base. Heart of Darkness, at No. 67, should be much higher. Grapes of Wrath, at No. 10, should be much lower, or off the list altogether.

"It's not very demanding," he said. "It may be culturally and historically important, but that's different."

Kratins lectured yesterday to Cal students about The Sound and the Fury, which is ranked No. 6. But the next books on his class list, including Mrs. Dalloway, Descent Into Hell and The Female Man, failed to make the top 100 at all.

"I can live with that," said Kratins.

Other book fans pointed out that Ernest Hemingway placed no higher than 45th, that Catcher in the Rye was a measly 64th, and that only eight of the books were by women.

At Crown Books on Sloat Boulevard, clerk Andrea Porter said the list seemed off base, too.

The best book of the century, she said, was Beloved by Toni Morrison. And her pal behind the counter gave her vote to The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Neither book made the list.

Porter said she could not remember ever selling a copy of Ulysses.

A check of the store computer inventory showed that the store last sold a copy of Ulysses in December.

"It's not a book you take to the beach," she said. "The books that people should read are not always the books that people read."

The top 100 list was selected by a committee that included writers Gore Vidal, whose books did not make the cut, and William Styron, whose novel Sophie's Choice placed fifth from the bottom.

Chronicle Book Editor David Kipen lamented the failure of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow to make the list. He also said, with a smile, that the absence of any work by Danielle Steel was a "willful slight of San Francisco literature."

Drawing up such a list, said Kipen, was "for the birds."

"How can you quantify something as quicksilver as literature?" he said. "How can you say Ulysses is 100 times more magnificent than The Magnificent Ambersons?"

"I think Modern Library is trying to sell Modern Library books," the book editor said.

Kipen said he had read only 37 of the 100 books on the list and had not yet had the pleasure of reading Ulysses.

"I fully expect it to be as great as everyone says it is when I finally get around to reading it," he said, "Which I hope will be someday soon."

Alain de Botton (essay date 22 July 1998)

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SOURCE: "Great Books, Read and Unread," in New York Times, July 22, 1998, p. A19.

[De Botton is the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life. In the following essay, de Botton assesses the merits of compiling book lists, sampling a variety of nuances that define greatness.]

Ever since the invention of the printing press, those who most love books have been prey to an awkward, paradoxical thought: that there are far too many books in the world. In secret moments, these book lovers may even look back with nostalgia to that fortunate scroll-and-scribe era, when, a little after middle age, educated people with good libraries and not too many pressing engagements could conceivably reach a point when they had read everything.

If we lament our book-swamped age, it may be out of an awareness that it is not by reading more books, but by deepening our understanding of a few well-chosen ones that we develop our intelligence and sensitivity. How clever we would be if we only knew three or four books well, Flaubert once wrote to Louise Colet (who was reading too much). And yet this patient focus on a few titles is made ever harder by the abundance of new books and by the deliberate attempts of publishers to make us feel badly read, to frustrate our wish to deepen our loyalties to a few works. The modern book lover is condemned to a nauseating feeling of under-readness; a visit to a library or large bookstore may provoke as much despair as exhilaration.

So it may be the desire to cut a path through this dense literary foliage that explains why people are drawn to make lists of great books, choices that indicate not just what one must read, but—more important and more therapeutic—what one doesn't have to bother with. Yet the exercise seems doomed to failure, and the latest attempt by the Modern Library (which this week published a list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the century) is no exception. Complaints have flooded in: there were not enough female authors; books in other languages should have been included; where were the Indian, Australian and South African writers?

But these gripes miss the fact that lists of great books always fail to capture the idiosyncrasies of our reading tastes. We do not rank our favorite books in linear fashion; we hold them like planets around us. They spin in and out of view again. There are moments or years when The Golden Bowl cannot speak to us and others when we suddenly see it clearly. We develop aversions to books because we read them at the wrong lime. We fall in love with parts of books; we may deeply appreciate 20 pages of a work that we are disinclined to finish.

Moreover, there is a distinction between great books and books one likes. It seems typical that Ulysses should have been chosen as the greatest book of the century by the Modern Library judges, for it seems the essence of a "great" book. A perverse belief dictates that a great work of art must be difficult, an apparent relic of a Protestant association between virtue and a renunciation of earthly pleasures. A book that makes us suffer may seem more profound than one that reads with clarity and fluidity; the more a book makes me suffer, the better it must be. This, however, should not preclude the occasional thought that perhaps a book is difficult to read simply because the author can't write.

Lists of great books arc also in danger of killing our enthusiasm for the titles featured. Books rarely seem more boring than when they've been recommended as "masterpieces," as works of genius and extraordinary accomplishment, perhaps because greatness in literature is almost synonymous with the schoolroom, tedium and the need to pass an exam.

There's something terrifying about a book whose greatness we will have no choice but to accept. How difficult to be spontaneous when reading a book we know we'll simply have to end up loving; how daunting the risk of being labeled the only person in the world not to get Zuleika Dobson or to think that perhaps To the Lighthouse is a bore.

I remember the relief I experienced on reading that the "great" Dr. Johnson had no time for Laurence Sterne's "great" novel, Tristram Shandy, that Stendhal had a lifelong hatred of Racine, that Flaubert had mixed feelings about Victor Hugo, that Mario Vargas Llosa didn't like Ulysses and that Milan Kundera had reservations about George Orwell. There was relief here because, however obvious it might seem, it showed that there's no need to like every supposedly great writer. One might not agree with Dr. Johnson's taste—I don't—but one can trust him as a man who had his own taste, arguably a more important faculty.

To feel for ourselves the greatness of a book, we have to risk that we may not like it, be it Ulysses or Herodotus. We have to make our own minds up, which requires us to be somewhat irreverent, and dare to think that perhaps Jane Austen is a drag, Charles Dickens melodramatic and Virginia Woolf prissy. Perhaps they're not, but we'll never know for ourselves, in our own hearts, until we develop the inner security to judge for ourselves.

Then again, an unintended and wonderful side effect of these authoritarian lists of great books may simply be to remind us of what works we genuinely like. In disagreeing with the judges' choices, we define our own identities as readers. Perhaps the best lists should annoy us most.

Wanda Coleman (essay date 22 July 1998)

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SOURCE: "Authors Who Were Excluded Speak Volumes about Cultural Barriers," in Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1998, pp. El, E6.

[Coleman is an author and poet. In the following essay, Coleman imagines abolitionist Sojourner Truth's response to Modern Library's list, consisting of objections to notable omissions and of surmises about the board's reasoning.]

"Ain't I a writer?" Had she been a contemporary novelist, Sojourner Truth might be asking that question this morning over her steaming, thin-mouthed mug of freshly brewed gourmet coffee, spilling just a tad as her dark hands tremble with a newly aroused militancy inspired by the Modern Library's choices for the best 100 novels of this 20th century. Not a single black woman novelist was considered a fine enough writer to be included. Not Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), not Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), not Ann Petry (The Street).

"Good Goddess, what an outrage! How many genius awards, Pulitzers and Nobel prizes does it take? Not to mention National Book Awards. American Book Awards and an ungodly number of politically correct multicultural ethnically diverse anthologies! What does a black womanist feminist novelist have to do to prove herself?" she might stammer, as she rises to peer out the dining room window, taking in the perfect blue sky, the impeccably manicured lawns, the lovely homes of quiescent neighbors.

"What possible criteria did they use in committing this crime of omission?" she might finally ask, slamming her folded copy of the list onto the hardwood dining table, infuriated at the obviously tokenistic inclusion of James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) and Richard Wright (Native Son)—a move, she might surmise, deliberately calculated to neutralize any effective outcries of racism.

"Clever, these elitists!" Sojourner might speculate as she seethes over the selection of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, published in 1901, ranked No. 78 on the Modern Library list as a specious nod to a bygone era of British imperialism. She would see this as ironic, given that only English-language writers were considered for the list, thus disqualifying the stunning and influential novels of Albert Camus (The Stranger); Hermann Hesse (Steppenwolf); Andre Malraux (Man's Fate); Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude); Nigerian-born Nobelist Wole Soyinka (The Season of Anomy)—the first black author to receive the coveted prize; and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (Nausea), who declined the Nobel Prize in 1964.

"Why not create a broader selection by imposing a limit on the number of novels allowed any one author?" she might ask, after noticing that several authors, including D. H. Lawrence, Jack London and Edith Wharton, have more than one novel on the list.

With the extraordinary double exception made for Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie—a native of India (though he does live in England) who was born in 1947—no other author on the list appears to have been born later than 1932. By first limiting committee members to a one-author-one-novel vote, then dividing the list at mid-century and, third, limiting selections to 50 books per half, a fairer, more balanced selection might have been achieved—thus forcing the Modern Library's committee into a more democratic survey of novelists who have emerged in the last 30 years across the persistent barriers of gender, ethnicity and region.

"But who reads this stuff today?" Sojourner might puzzle as she plows the list, not thoroughly displeased that James Joyce's Ulysses was ranked the finest novel of the century. She might fondly recall those sleepless freshman nights when, stuffing her face with cocktails of No Doz and Pepsi-Cola, she nodded over the voluminous tome in a desperate race against the clock to finish her term paper on this father of the modern novel.

Yet she might be incensed to find the impenetrable Finnegans Wake ranked 77th, viewing its inclusion as an act of outright academic snobbery if not downright silliness. And this, just when she had applauded the inclusion of dominant culture genre writers Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five), only to have her suspicions aroused about why Octavia Butler (Wild Seed), the award-winning first and so far only black woman sci-fi novelist, failed to make the cut.

When presented with the ultimate argument that the novel has to have withstood "the test of time," Sojourner might again point out Hurston, Petry and Morrison. She might also point the finger of culpability at the voraciously vocal coterie of slighted black male critics who led a recent protest over the exclusions of black males when Morrison was honored as the first African American Nobelist, male or female. To these critics, the commercial success of Terry McMillan (Mama) added insult to injury, as did a significant period when three works written by black women made the New York Times bestseller list.

"If it were up to those white male academics and those silly boogie Negroes, we'd all starve," Sojourner might conclude, despite the purported six figures a savvy new generation of black writers is pulling down these days. Begrudgingly, she might ultimately applaud the list that, under the current social givens, others might view as radical, particularly when comparing the results of the Modern Library list to those complied by "Great Books" editor Mortimer J. Adler.

As she drains her cup of coffee to the residual grounds, the new Sojourner might find the bitter brew leaves a sweet aftertaste. After all, there's a new century on the horizon, and all the new possibilities that portends, with a new technology changing the face of literature more quickly than anyone seems capable of anticipating. Perhaps, if she thinks it over positively, Sojourner might roll up her sleeves and get busy at the monitor. She's got her novel to write. And plenty of great achievements ahead.

Steve Wasserman (essay date 22 July 1998)

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SOURCE: "It'll Get 'Em Talking, But Will It Get 'Em Reading?," in Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1998, pp. El, E6.

[Wasserman is book editor of the Los Angeles Times. In the following essay, Wasserman evaluates the marketing strategy of the Modern Library list, outlining Random House's history and its present-day competition for readers.]

The modern mania for list-making is seemingly insatiable. It is one of the ironies of our democratic age that, despite the impulse to include and honor every voice, no matter how marginal or mediocre, nostalgia for hierarchies of quality and authority finds its most vulgar expression in the concoction of lists and rankings of all kinds.

A striking example is the publication of a list of 100 novels that the editorial board of the Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, regards as the best books written in the English language in the 20th century. Even a cursory glance through the list raises multiple questions of the criteria used to select the lucky titles. Issues of merit, nationality, race and gender loom large.

Fifty-eight of the books are by Americans including William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James and Ralph Ellison. Thirty-nine are by British writers including D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. Only eight women made the cut including Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf.

At a time when the so-called Culture Wars have coarsened the texture of American culture, such a list smacks of unabashed (and faintly disreputable) notions of tradition and merit. The Modern Library's list of best novels of the century is sure to spur debate and, Random House hopes, sales. Ann Godoff, Random House's president and editor in chief, has said that "it's a way to bring the Modern Library to public attention. We want to grow the Modern Library and its stable of classics." She may well be onto something: and Barnes & Noble report continued robust sales of the so-called backlist titles previously issued by publishers, which all too often languish on the shelves of warehouses and bookstores.

The list was chosen after considerable reflection and debate by Modern Library's 10-member editorial board. With two exceptions, the members are all Random House authors: Christopher Cerf (son of Bennett Cerf, the firm's co-founder), Daniel Boorstin (the former Librarian of Congress), Shelby Foote (the acclaimed Civil War historian), A. S. Byatt (the English novelist and author of Possession), Edmund Morris (the biographer of Theodore Roosevelt and author of a biography of Ronald Reagan to be published this fall by Random House). John Richardson (author of the multivolume Picasso) and William Styron (author of such novels as Sophie's Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner). The only board members not published by Random House are Vartan Gregorian, the former head of the New York Public Library, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., chronicler of John F. Kennedy's presidency.

Certain to arouse criticism as much for what it includes as for what it excludes, the list already has garnered attention as a marketing gimmick. Every reader will have his or her own complaints. V, S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, for example, are the only writers on the list who were not born in the United States or the British Isles. Patrick White, the Australian writer who won the Noble Prize for literature in 1973, is a notable omission. As for women, the absence of such gifted and influential writers as Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and Doris Lessing, to name only three, is striking. But Random House is confident that the list, whatever its critical merits, will revivify a remarkable and influential imprint.

The Modern Library has been at the heart of Random House's business since the firm was founded in 1925. It was in that year that Bennett Cerf, together with Donald Klopfer, paid the publisher Horace Liveright $215,000 for the rights to the existing 108 titles in the series. Cerf had admired the Modern Library, having studied many of the books while attending Columbia College. Established in 1917, the Modern Library was modeled after Everyman's Library, begun in 1905 by publisher Joseph Malaby Dent in London. Intended to make available a library of the world's literature that would appeal "to every kind of reader," Everyman's Library was affordably priced, but largely devoted to English literature. Cerf wanted to broaden the list to include more American authors.

For the first two years of Random House's existence, Cerf and Klopfer devoted themselves exclusively to selling the series into as many bookstores as they could convince to carry the titles. They also rejuvenated the appearance and design of the books by hiring the talented Lucien Bernhardt, a German designer, who drew the logo of the silhouette of the galloping woman with a torch held aloft. Rockwell Kent designed the distinctive endpapers and would go on to draw the Random House colophon, which made its first appearance in February 1927. The Modern Library was a "roaring success," Cerf would later recall.

That was then, however, and this is now. The landscape of American publishing is altered almost unrecognizably from the halcyon days of Random House's early glory years. The infotainment industry—with its many competing claims for people's attention, time and dollars—has put severe pressure on the more genteel traditions of book publishing. The stakes are ever higher, the money tighter, the profit margins slim. The financial merry-go-round is dizzying. Even keeping track of who owns what becomes exhausting. Random House, for example, was sold by Cerf and Klopfer to RCA for $40 million. Then, in 1980, RCA sold it to S. I. Newhouse's Advance Publications for nearly $70 million. Earlier this year, Newhouse sold America's largest trade-book publisher for an estimated $1.3 billion to Bertellsman, the giant German media conglomerate, which owns, among other far-flung companies, the publishing firm of Bantam Doubleday Dell.

Strategies for grabbing the public's attention abound. The creation of Modern Library's list of best English-language novels of the 20th century is one such strategy. It is not new. Seven years ago, Alfred A. Knopf, a subsidiary of Random House Inc., relaunched the Everyman's Library of world classics. Three years ago, the (London) Times Literary-Supplement printed a list of the 100 most influential books, largely nonfiction, published since World War II. Such lists provide 15 minutes of book chat for the chattering classes, but one wonders whether they prod a significant number of readers actually to purchase and to read the books whose synopses they likely gleaned from the digests provided by Cliffs Notes.

But one mustn't be churlish. If even a single reader stumbles upon even a single one of these excellent books, it would be reason enough to rejoice. After all, there are many writers who owe much to such series. Susan Sontag, for one, still treasures the volumes of Modern Library she bought and read while a pupil at Hollywood High School in the late 1940s. As for the Everyman volumes, with their distinctive gilt design and lettering on their spines, the late critic Alfred Kazin observed that "Without Everyman's, I would have had no proper education at all…. I have kept for decades and decades every Everyman's I bought as a boy."

One slightly suspects that in today's world a classic is a book no one any longer reads, except to the degree that it is assigned reading in college. As for what, in the end, makes a book endure, I am reminded of a story Arthur Koestler, the author most famously of Darkness at Noon (No. 8 on the Modern Library list), was fond of telling. Asked once whether given a choice between having 100 readers today or 10 readers a hundred years from now, Koestler said unhesitatingly, "Why, 10 readers 100 years from now, of course." He then paused, and added, "Though I don't suppose that sentiment gives much comfort to my publisher, who hopes still to be in business in a hundred years."

Tony Lioce (essay date 24 July 1998)

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SOURCE: "A Century's Best Novels, Chapter 2: Readers Vote," in Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1998, pp. El, E8.

[In the following essay, Lioce provides a sample of Times readers's views of Modern Library's list as well as their opinions of titles that should have been included.]

Where's Harper Lee? Where's Margaret Mitchell? Where's Ayn Rand? Where's John Irving? Where's William Burroughs? No Raymond Chandler? OK, they included Faulkner, Nabokov, Steinbeck and Hemingway. But where's Absalom, Absalom!? Where's Laughter in the Dark? Of Mice and Men and East of Eden? The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Today at Radcliffe College, the Modern Library's editorial board officially will announce what it considers the 100 finest English-language novels published in this century, a list that starts with James Joyce's Ulysses and ends with Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons.

The list has been in circulation since Monday, though, and reaction to it has been swift and hot. Too many white authors. Not enough women (and not a single black one). Too many dead/old people. Only one author who didn't/doesn't live in the U.S. or England. Too many books published by the Modern Library itself or at least its parent company.

This week we asked Times readers what they think, and which of their favorite books and authors they were surprised to find missing.

Of all the books left off the list, the three that got the most votes from Times readers—To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind and The Fountainhead—are by women (Lee, Mitchell and Rand, respectively). The most popular ignored man was Irving, whose The World According to Garp tied for fourth with Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Other books ignored by the Modern Library but receiving multiple nods from Times readers included Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott ("a scandalous omission," wrote Donald Marcus of Pasadena), and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.

Also One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, White Noise by Don DeLillo, Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor, The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, Molloy by Samuel Beckett, Post Office by Charles Bukowski and A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

And The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles.

"[Los Angeles Times] Book Review editor Steve Wasserman rightly points out [… see essay above] that 'issues of merit, nationality, race and gender loom large' about [the] list of 100 best novels. He overlooked the issue of sexual persuasion. So did members of the Modern Library editorial board, who included not one single novel by a known gay novelist writing about the gay experience.

"William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, John Rechy's City of Night and Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man altered our culture by exploring, in expert prose, lives otherwise unseen, lives the editorial board has implicitly attempted to push back into hiding with its list."—Michael, Los Angeles

"I looked at the list a few times and I could swear that Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien wasn't on it. This seems strange, particularly as it was No. 1 on a similar list issued about 18 months ago in Britain. This must be my mistake so I will look again."—Chris, Los Angeles

"Most egregiously missing from the list is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toolc. It's hilarious … brilliantly [wcaving] together seemingly disparate story lines into a laugh-out-loud reading experience. I'd put in the top 10."—Jennifer, Los Angeles

"I find it appalling that John Updike is not among the authors included. His Rabbit quartet alone should be on any list of the century's great novels."—Margery, Santa Barbara

"I think it is a travesty that none of Thomas Wolfe's novels is on the list."—Rebecca, University of La Verne

"It's a shame that Truman Capote's work is not represented on the list.

"At least Capote would have been pleased that Gore Vidal didn't make the list either."—Kevin, Sunland

"Nothing by Nelson Algren? Never Come Morning? The Man with the Golden Arm?"—Dave, no address given

"No Toni Morrison! No Nadine Gordimer! No Alan Paton! I, Claudius is on the list? Give me a break. Since when is Winesburg, Ohio a novel, by the way?"—John, Culver City

"Although I love Dashiell Hammett, I can't pretend that The Maltese Falcon (56 on the list) is any more than a potboiler. If we are to include crime novels, there are better choices. P. D. James, for example, is a better writer, her themes are heavier, her gasp of the human condition deeper, her characters richer, truer, more complex. Why not Innocent Blood, Devices and Desires or Original Sin?"—Margaret, Ventura

"Ernest Hemingway, the most influential writer of this century, only gets two novels on the list, none higher than 45, while The Great Gats by is No. 2?

"I don't think so."—Philip, La Crescenta

"It is shocking that Absalom, Absalom! was omitted, while Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road was included."—Thomas, UCLA

Irene (who didn't include her address) nominated Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherinc Anne Porter, and dismissed the Modern Library selections as a pale list by pale men.

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr., The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw.—Jack, Los Angeles

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven, Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen.—Robert, Oceanside

"Lost Horizon, Babbitt, The Jungle, The Onion Field."—Dory, Inglewood

"The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson."—Liz, Needles

"The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams."—Patricia, Los Angeles

"The Godfather by Mario Puzo."—Donna, no address given

"Call it Sleep by Henry Roth."—Freddie, Sacramento

"Mervyn Pcake's Titus Groan and its sequel, Gormenghast."—James, Tarzana

"Jonathan Livingston Seagull."—Jack, Rialto

"I am of the impression they didn't select anything people actually read," wrote Kate of Fullerton, whose favorites include the Asian saga novels of James Clavell (Shogun, Tai-Pan, King Rat. Noble House), "almost anything by James Michener and the historical novels of Thomas B. Costain (The Silver Chalice) and Herman Wouk (The Winds of War).

Steve of Encino also mentioned Michener, saying he would add Hawaii to the list—but only "the first 19 pages."

"Are these editorial board members prepared to swear on the stack of the other 99 books that they actually read, let alone understood. Finnegans Wake?"—Sara, Pasadena

"I was an English major, and Vladimir Nabokov was one of my professors at Cornell. I cannot stand James Joyce! Or Henry Miller."—Ruthe, Irvine

"No need to check the list twice to realize it is self-promoting and self-serving: the editorial board of Random House's Modern Library selecting 59 out of 100 novels published by their own company. Then no one should be surprised if I select two of my own novels, published by myself: Chicago Boy: The Life and Crimes of a Southside Street Fighter, which would fit near No. 20 on the Modern Library list (Native Son by Richard Wright), and my other novel, The Landlady's Daughter, which would be comparable to No. 3 on the list, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.—Edward, West Covina

Jonathan Yardley (essay date 27 July 1998)

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SOURCE: "The List of Great Novels: Read It and Weep," in The Washington Post, July 27, 1998, p. D2.

[In the following essay, Yardley complains about the contents of the Modern Library's-list, protesting the rankings of certain titles and the omission of others.]

One reader wonders why Gone With the Wind didn't make what is rapidly becoming known as The List. Another asks about the omission of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, several bring up the names of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, while yet another complains that, even though he is scarcely an ignoramus or a buffoon, the very top of the list is reserved for a book he simply cannot read.

So here's my dirty little secret: I can't read it, either. "It" is Ulysses, which a panel of judges laboring on behalf of the Modern Library has chosen as the greatest novel of the 20th century in the English language. Like Russell Baker slaving away each summer at Remembrance of Things Past, I have made more attempts at Ulysses than Charlie Brown has made at Lucy's football, and not a one has connected. For me, as doubtless for millions of other, Ulysses is a monument not to literary greatness but to mystification.

This is not as it was meant to be. Ulysses has been required reading among the American illuminati for two-thirds of a century because my great-uncle, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey, overturned a federal proscription against James Joyce's novel, permitting its publication by Random House and writing in an opinion of notable wit and eloquence that the novel "is not pornographic," that "whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac."

Uncle John's opinion, a work of literary criticism as well as legal scholarship, was published in 1933. In the intervening years Ulysses has been subjected to Talmudic investigation by graduate students too numerous to imagine, but the great man's not-so-great-nephew has been left cold by it over and over again. I recognize its genius, its originality and its humanity but cannot engage myself with aspects of it that some readers love: its word-playfulness, its obscurity, its literary Chinese box. Some years ago I decided that life is too short and other pleasures far too sweet to expend any more time on it.

Still, it is hard to imagine that this or any other group of people faced with the impossible assignment of choosing the century's major works of English-language fiction would come to any other conclusion. Ulysses may or may not be the greatest novel of our time but it is unquestionably the most influential, "the watershed novel of the 20th century from which all modernism flows," in the words of one of the Modern Library's judges, the novelist William Styron.

Indeed, influence in its various forms seems to have swayed the judges at least as much as true greatness. How else to explain Catch-22 in the seventh (!) position on the list, or Darkness at Noon in the eighth, or The Grapes of Wrath in the 10th, or Slaughterhouse-Five in the 18th? These books are not without their merits, but their main distinction is that in their different ways they affected popular attitudes toward war, communism and poverty. They are on the list not because of what they are but because of what they say: their morally impeccable thematic content as opposed to their actual literary quality, which as it happens in all four cases is rather negligible.

But when you appoint a committee to make literary judgments, you are going to get compromises, miscalculations and mistakes; I know this from having served all too often on prize committees, where barter is the main order of business. How on earth could the judges have placed Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King in 21st place while waiting 60—60!—more places before getting around to the same author's The Adventures of Augie March, the great American picaresque novel? What in Heaven's name led them to conclude that by the difference between 42nd place and 45th, James Dickey's Deliverance (!!!!) is better than Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises?

Lunacy, sheer unbridled lunacy. Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes is ignored yet Portnoy's Complaint and Ragtime are included! No Welty or O'Connor, but Ironweed, by William Kennedy! No Peter Taylor, but The Naked and the Dead, in 51st place! No Bernard Malamud—a list such as this that omits The Assistant is beyond imagination—yet Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin, and The Ginger Man, by J. P. Donleavy!

Some of these omissions are understandable if not pardonable: Welty, O'Connor and Taylor were masters of the short story, as were too many others not to be found on this list, and no room—quite stupidly—was left for short stories. Others are beyond rational explanation: Only three Faulkners, none of them Absalom! Absalom! The great American novel of the postwar years, Invisible Man, is relegated to 19th place. Theodore Dreiser's incomparable Sister Carrie gets No. 33, 17 places below his flabby An American Tragedy. There is Dashiell Hammett bul no Raymond Chandler, and no Conrad until The Secret Agent in 46th (!!!) place.

On and on it goes. The temptation to rant into the night is extreme and must be resisted. Needless to say the managers of the Modern Library had just such temptation in mind and did all they could to encourage it, including appointing a panel only a few members of which have discernible qualifications for the job. The idea was to stir up controversy and entice readers to the Modern Library, which, you will not be surprised to learn, publishes many books on the list and aims to add still more. It's all good fun and if it gets you into the bookstore, all the better. Just don't take it seriously. Please.

Richard Bernstein (essay date 28 July 1998)

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SOURCE: "19th-century Novelists, Stop Spinning in Your Graves," in The New York Times, July 28, 1998, p. E2.

[In the following essay, Bernstein ponders the composition of the Modern Library's list had novels of the nineteenth century also been selected, asserting that the nineteenth century "was a greater epoch for literature" for several reasons.]

With all due respect to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., A. S. Byatt, William Styron and the others who, acting at the behest of the Modern Library, produced a list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the century, the truth is that the entire endeavor is so drenched in caprice as to be close to silly. You might be able scientifically to pick the 100 best-ever baseball players, because there would be a certain statistical basis to rely on. The same is not the case with works of the imagination. Still, the purpose of the exercise was to provoke discussion, always a good thing.

Should Ulysses really have been listed No. 1, especially when one suspects that almost nobody, probably including most members of the Modern Library panel, has ever read James Joyce's difficult masterpiece from cover to cover? How can Joseph Conrad's immortal Lord Jim be in the No. 85 spot, while Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm ends up 50th? And here's another question that emerged from a recent conversation duly provoked by the Modem Library list: How many of the books on it would still be there if the selections had included works of the 19th century as well? My own quick answer is not that many.

Indeed, when one starts examining this issue a bit more closely, the Modern Library list of 20th-century writers virtually demonstrates that the 19th century was a greater epoch for literature. In any case, I offer that statement (one that is certainly no more outrageous than some of the choices in the Modern Library list) as a challenge for rebuttal.

It is true, of course, that the Modern Library List has many very good novels: two by Joyce as well as works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Graves and Virginia Woolf, along with books by Henry James and Joseph Conrad, 19th-century men whose greatest works squeaked in just over the 20th-century line.

But on the 19th-century list would be Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, Jane Austen and Mark Twain ("the Lincoln of our literature," said William Dean Howells). Comparing Virginia Woolf with Jane Austen, in my view, is similar to comparing Samuel Richardson of Clarissa with Henry Fielding of Tom Jones, as Samuel Johnson did. "There is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson's than in all Tom Jones," Johnson said. I would say that there is more literary genius in every chapter of Austen than there is in the entire oeuvre of Woolf. To the Lighthouse is a fine but somewhat precious and dull work, certainly not one to be mentioned in the same breath with Pride and Prejudice; yet it got the 15th spot on the Modern Library list.

The greatest monuments in American literature are, I would argue, Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. Indeed, what serious person could maintain, if those two books had been included, that they would not have ended up higher than the two top American entries on the Modern Library 20th-century list, Gatsby and Nabokov's Lolita?

These latter two works are indisputably great, but I do not believe that either of them has the mightiness of theme, the narrative power or the transgressive originality of the Melville and the Twain. Among the other 19th-century novels that would crowd out most of the 20th-century selections: Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray; Billy Budd, by Melville; Middlemarch, by George Eliot; Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy, and at least six books each by Dickens and Austen. That is not to mention Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter or The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. If I am right that the 19th-century list would be greater than the 20th-century one, the next question is why.

This is not easy to answer, given the difficulty of ever knowing why the literary imagination seems to flourish at certain times and in certain places but not in others. Perhaps the 19th century was greater than the 20th because, except for the Napoleonic Wars that opened it and for the American Civil War, it was a period of relatively small and short military conflicts. As Jason Epstein, senior editor at Random House, puts it, the great war of the 20th century lasted with some brief interruptions from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the end of the cold war in 1989.

It has been argued that civil or international turmoil is a stimulus to great writing. But the hypothesis here is that the 20th-century wars were so devastating that they led to a loss of spirit and confidence, both of which are necessary for the production of great literature.

"The 19th century was fundamentally an optimistic, progressive century," Mr. Epstein said. "Things were going to get better. The 20th century was riddled with angst and disillusion, and each century produced its appropriate literature. The consensus in retrospect is that the 19th century produced greater literature than the 20th, so the conclusion would seem to be that optimism is better for literature than pessimism."

World War I and the powerful despondency that it created, the disgust with the human animal that it generated, aided in the development of an over-elaborated, introspective sensibility, that, while critical to the modernism pioneered by Joyce, also led literature toward self-consciousness and away from events.

And in this sense, the literary age of feeling, of personal, sexual, political and stylistic exploration, seems somehow smaller than the literary age of great moral and philosophical narrative. The priority given to literary experimentation in the 20th-century novels of politics and consciousness seems to have operated in the recent Modern Library list. How else to explain why Lalita, To the Lighthouse and Portnoy's Complaint are high on the 20th-century list while Conrad's Lord Jim, a far greater work, in my opinion, than any of those three, ended up No. 85?

Maybe I'm all wrong, but I don't think so. Surely my preferences are no more capricious than ranking Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as the fifth-best book in English of the century, a strange choice indeed!

Bruce Headlam (essay date 30 July 1998)

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SOURCE: "Forget Joyce; Bring on Ayn Rand," in The New York Times, July 30, 1998. p. B4.

[In the following essay, Headlam makes observations about a list compiled from a survey of on-line readers at Random House's Web site, comparing the results to Modern Library's list.]

Literature has certainly come a long way since it really mattered.

Consider the example of the Modern Library, which recently published its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, starting with James Joyce's Ulysses at No. 1 and ending with Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons at No. 100.

Forty years ago, critics and intellectuals would have dismissed a list like this one as a cheap marketing ploy. Today, critics celebrate the marketing smarts behind the Modern Library list but confess that they cannot be bothered to read the great works anymore. Once, we loved literature and scoffed at the list; now, we love the list and laugh at Ulysses.

The Modern Library list has uncovered one place, apparently, where books still matter, and that is the Internet. Concurrent with its publication of the list, Random House, Modern Library's parent company, established a readers' poll, where on-line visitors could vote for their favorite works of fiction at If the Modern Library list represents the middlebrow sensibility, the poll, which runs until September, gives a snapshot of the literary tastes of the on-line community, what could be called netbrow.

As might be expected, the poll has yielded a few predictable trends, like a predilection for science fiction and fantasy, a bizarre affection for Ayn Rand, who has four books in the top 30, including Atlas Shrugged at No. 1, and a few mysteries, like who is Charles de Lint and how did he get four books among the top 50?

But the readers' poll does have its virtues, especially when placed beside the Modern Library list. Readers who also use the Internet, for example, seem less afraid of experimental fiction, like Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (No. 8) and less ashamed of big, historical crowd pleasers like Gone With the Wind (No. 48) and Bonfire of the Vanities (No. 95), all of which failed to make the Modern Library list.

While most of the Modern Library entries were written before 1950, many readers' poll books were written in the last 20 years. Only nine of the Modern Library books were written by women. The readers' poll list, helped along by Ayn Rand, has 24.

The Modern Library list has also been attacked for being too American. The Internet list is, if anything, too Canadian, with books by Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, various Tek War novelizations from the Modern Library reject William Shatner and the four entries from Charles de Lint who, it turns out, lives in Ottawa.

And the readers' poll, however its voting may be stacked, is free of the taint of self-interest. The Modern Library, after all, has published many of the titles on its list and would like to sell more. The bulk of the readers' list could be bought at the local 7-11.

The real sport of the readers' poll site is found in the forum, where readers defend their choices, attack other people's choices and murmur darkly about Random House's attempt to filter out votes for Howard Stern. (An unsuccessful attempt, apparently: Private Parts was as high as No. 20 at one point.)

In the forum is the kind of passion for literature that Random House must have hoped to inspire with its Modern Library list. Internet readers tend to be cranky, argumentative, a little perverse and full of resentment toward the crushing weight of history and good taste—the attributes that were once ascribed to modern literature.

Anna Mulrine (essay date 3 August 1998)

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SOURCE: "Is It a List Made by and for the Silent Generation?" in U.S. News & World Report,, August 3, 1998.

[In the following essay, Mulrine characterizes the Modern Library's list as somewhat dated.]

When Random House's Modern Library announced its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century last week, it met with youthful protest. "They should have called it 'Writers from the first half of the century who are just like us,'" says Kiran Desai, the 26-year-old author of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.

Modern Library's panel of one woman and nine men does tilt heavily toward the generation that came of age in the Great Depression or during World War II, such as Shelby Foote, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Gore Vidal. "You see the whiskey-and-typewriter realists of the '30s—like James Farrell's The Studs Lonigan Trilogy," says Michael Bérubé, director of the University of Illinois program for Research in the Humanities. "But except for E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, there's almost nothing from the last third of the century. It's like a time capsule buried in the '60s."

The selections have sparked a spate of alternative lists. When the Radcliffe Publishing Course, a seminar for a hundred 20-something up-and-comers of the book world, chose its Top 100 Friday. Toni Morrison's Beloved, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and E. B. White's Charlotte's Web made the Top 20. None are on the Modern Library list. And the Random House Web site invited visitors to vote in a sort of people's choice awards. Dune, the sci-fi work by Frank Herbert, vies for top spot on that list with Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. William Shatner's Tek Lords was included briefly. "We'll seek a more actively diverse board for our next Modern Library list." says Christopher Cerf, chairman of Modern Library's editorial board, "But we still wouldn't have picked Shatner."

Know that even William Gordon, executive director of the American Library Association, says he has never understood Ulysses, "in spite of what they told me it was about." And take comfort in the words of Bluff Your Way in Literature (Ravette Books), a popular guide out of England: "Literary texts arc infinitely complex; with one meaning forever being undercut by another level of irony. So as long as you're prepared to stand firm, there's no real chance of your interpretation being proven incorrect."

David Streitfeld (essay date 5 August 1998)

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SOURCE: "'The Best Novels' May Not Be; Modern Library Panelists Say They Didn't Rank the Books," in The Washington Post, August 5, 1998, p. A1.

[In the following essay, Streitfeld details the selection and ranking methods of Modern Library's list, including commentary from members of the editorial board.]

If someone made a list of the most successful recent publicity gambits in book publishing, the Modern Library's ranking of the 100 best novels would be No. 1.

Alerted by voluminous media coverage, people have been arguing, agreeing, sneering and making counter-lists for more than two weeks now. Above all, lit lovers have been debating the fine points of the rankings.

Why, for instance, is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a famous novel but rarely thought of as a great one, all the way up at No. 5?

The 10 eminent Modern Library board members, the panel that supposedly put it there, don't have much of a clue. "God knows," says historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

"I have no idea," says novelist William Styron.

"I didn't vote for it at all," says novelist A. S. Byatt.

"Don't ask me. I don't understand it myself," says historian Edmund Morris.

"I can't believe that even one of us thought Brave New World was one of the top five," says historian Shelby Foote.

For all of the criticism the list has received, it was never clear exactly how it was composed. It turns out that the way the list was made explains much of the reason why people are criticizing it.

Despite the Modern Library's assertion that the board "selected and ranked" these 100 works as the best 20th-century novels written in English, the members say they never ranked much of anything. The board members merely checked off books from a master list of 440 titles supplied by the classics publisher, without putting them in any particular order.

Executives at Random House, the publishing conglomerate that owns Modern Library, then tallied the number of judges who mentioned each book. (Several judges did not even mention 100 books.) The vast majority of books tied with many other titles—mentioned by four judges, say, or three. Judges were not asked to sort out these ties; instead, Random House brass took all the dead heats and turned them into rankings.

So when readers wonder how such eminent figures could rank James Dickey's Deliverance (No. 42) ahead of both Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (No. 53) and William Faulkner's Light in August (No. 54), the answer is: They didn't.

In interviews, the judges do not even agree on what they were ranking—the best-written books, or the most important, or the most influential. One judge acknowledges that he voted for books he has not actually read.

Brave New World, a pioneering novel of Utopia turned bad, reached its exalted heights simply because a lot of judges agreed it belonged somewhere on the list. But only one judge believed it belonged anywhere near the top.

"One of the reasons the list has received such a drubbing was that it was put together in such a strange way," Styron says. "There were a lot of terrible glitches."

Says board chairman Christopher Cerf: "I don't consider this a scientific or even a valid process. I consider it a swell process. It's got everyone I know talking about books, and it's books they don't usually talk about. This has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."

In a way, it's the huge success of the survey that is prompting some regrets among board members. "If I realized it was going to be taken so seriously, I would have encouraged [the Modern Library] to get all of us together" to hash out the choices in person, Styron says. "But I didn't furrow my head over this."

Agrees Byatt: "It wouldn't matter so much if everyone wasn't taking it so seriously."

Interviews with the board—only one, art historian John Richardson, couldn't be reached for some form of comment—answered some of the mysteries that have enveloped the list.

For instance, some commentators have decried the absence of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, generally thought of as a classic American work.

Wolfe, it turns out, wasn't even on the list of 440 possible titles, although there was room for 21 titles by Gore Vidal, a Random House author and one of the Modern Library board members. That's more than William Faulkner, Henry James and Joseph Conrad put together.

Despite this encouragement, no works by Vidal made it to the list of 100. Styron's Sophie's Choice made it in under the wire at No. 96—without, the author says, any assistance from him.

Several of the board members say they voted only for the works they felt sure of. "I contributed a list of something like 37," says Morris. Styron says he voted for only 50 or 60.

This means that it didn't take much to get on the lower reaches of the list. "Most of the books on the list got there with only one vote," maintains a board member. "The final list was put together largely by Random House."

Modern Library Managing Director Ian Jackman declines to be specific about how the voting was done, but says more than one vote was needed to make the final list.

"I didn't set up the system as Price Waterhouse might have set it up," he concedes. "I personally didn't feel I could go back to the board and say, 'Rank them all.' I knew that was a lot to ask."

The judges weren't even sure exactly what they were voting for. "I was going for artistic vitality—which of the books would still be alive a century from now," Schlesinger says. But Foote says he was going after "not the best-written books, not even the best books, but the 100 novels that would have to be included in any literary history of the novel of the 20th century."

Cerf, meanwhile, is honest enough to admit he voted for many books he hadn't read. "I voted for about 20 or 30 because I thought they belonged there based on reputation or influence."

The place where the poll went furthest afield from the board's intentions is, ironically, the part of the list that has received the most publicity—the top five books. In order, they were Ulysses, by James Joyce; The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, also by Joyce; Lolita, by Nabokov; and Brave New World.

Apparently all these titles were selected by nine out of 10 board members. The judges were then asked by the Modern Library to rank them in order from one to five. This was the only time the board did any actual ranking.

Thus was Huxley's 1932 tale of a misbegotten Utopia lifted from the depths to the heights, something none of them intended. If they had been ranking the books, board members say, they would have put Brave New World low on the list. Styron says he would have ranked it about 75. Schlesinger says he'd put it in the low eighties, Morris in the sixties, Cerf perhaps 25. Only Vidal says he doesn't disagree with its current placement.

Another board member, former librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, is so firmly against the notion of rankings that he refuses even hypothetically to assign a slot to Brave New World. "Literature does not live in rankings," he says.

A number of the judges say the same thing that happened with Brave New World boosted Portrait of the Artist to No. 3. They hadn't liked it quite that much. "Personally, I'd have put Portrait in the low thirties," says Byatt. Schlesinger says the same.

None of this would matter if so many people hadn't seized on the list as a spark for a cultural debate. For that, thank the media, particularly the New York Times, which was leaked the list by Random House and gave it huge play on July 20.

That same morning, Cerf discussed the rankings on Today with Katie Couric. That night, Peter Jennings announced on ABC that Ulysses was on top. Within 24 hours the news was spreading around the world, with everyone adding a local angle ("Little surprise at Canadian exclusions from literary list," headlined the Ottawa Citizen) or anti-intellectualism ("Denver Prefers Grisham," said the Rocky Mountain News) or anti-American sentiment ("U.S. Media Mocks '100 Best Novels of the Century' List," noted Agence France-Presse).

For those who fear the printed word, the New York Daily-News pointed out how many of the novels had been filmed. And columnists everywhere offered up their own, improved lists.

All of this has created action at the cash register, which was what former Random House chief Harold Evans intended when he came up with the idea. Evans dreamed big: He had wanted to negotiate cooperative ventures with other publishers to allow the Modern Library to issue every book on the list. It would have been a publicity masterstroke—the best novels of the century, all available from the Modern Library.

That idea never came to fruition, although the Modern Library is issuing 10 of the titles over the next year, in addition to the many it already has in print. Meanwhile, the inscrutable Ulysses has become, of all things, a bestseller. A year's supply of the book disappeared in a few days. Jackman says., the online bookseller, says the list "sparked instant comeback" for some of the titles. Ulysses is No. 2 on its paperback bestseller list, while Brave New World is No. 7, Loiita No. 8 and The Great Gatsby No. 10.

For Cerf, son of the longtime publisher of Random House, that makes it all worthwhile. Sure, he says, "I think the process is to some degree a scam, but it's a good scam. I mean that in the best sense of the word."

In other words, the ends justify the means.

"The statistics weren't valid, but if you had a list that was really diverse and incredibly thought out, it would cause less controversy," he says. "And then people wouldn't be talking about books."

Frank Rich (essay date 8 August 1998)

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SOURCE: "Who Chose The Magus?," in The New York Times, August 8, 1998, p. A15.

[In the following essay, Rich reviews several controversies inspired by the Modern Library list.]

If further proof were needed that publicity can sell anything in America, here it is: Ulysses, a novel that is to beach reading what the Ring Cycle is to shock-jock radio, has now made the best-seller list, clocking in, as of yesterday, at No. 3 among paperbacks al, where it has leaped ahead of the novelist laureate of Oprahland, Wally Lamb. On Amazon's "hot 100" list of paperbacks and hardcovers, it is even beating The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (reading Ulysses is not among them) and that ever-popular anti-Joycean screed, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.

The Beanie-Babies-like popularity of Ulysses is the most recent, but hardly the only, fallout of Modern Library's release, less than three weeks ago, of its list of the century's 100 best English-language novels. The list has spawned a thousand newspaper columns (this is No. 1,001) in which journalists advertise their own erudition by decrying the omission of a pet writer (Steven Millhauser, Djuna Barnes, Frederick Exley) who should have made the list before the roundly deplored Booth Tarkington. (My candidate: Max Allan Collins, author of the novelization of Saving Private Ryan.)

The list has also spawned counter-lists throughout the land (and cyberland) in which readers champion Ayn Rand, Frank Herbert, L. Ron Hubbard (in the plebiscite at the Modern Library Web site) or the unlikely duo of Alice Walker and Margaret Mitchell (among the best 100 voted by students at the Radcliffe Publishing Course). The Washington Times has retorted with a "100 worst English-language books of the 20th century" in which Ulysses appears along with recent titles by Charles Frazier, David Halberstam and Susan Molinari.

What's most amusing, though, is the extent to which the Modern Library list has become a political football, a Frisbee-weight summer plaything of the eternal culture wars. When the top 100 was first announced, Random House, which owns Modern Library, was decried for fomenting a cynical gimmick to push its own books. (Full disclosure: I am a Random House author desperately praying that there are more cynical gimmicks where this one came from.)

The P. R. controversy was quickly drowned out by the P. C. controversy. Since the 10-member Modern Library board is composed almost entirely of nearly dead white men (median age, 69; median race, liver-spotted white), its top 100 was dominated by dead while men. A writer in the Los Angeles Times mocked the board for its "obviously tokenistic inclusion" of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright while ignoring, among others, Toni Morrison. (It is, in fact, a Federal offense in America to omit Toni Morrison from any list of authors, no matter what its purpose.)

Now the P. C. controversy has given way to Huxleygatc. On the front page of Wednesday's Washington Post, David Streitfeld broke the story that Modem Library had converted its board's lists into rankings in a manner so sub-Price-Waterhouse that it might have been more scientific had Gore Vidal and Daniel Boorstin simply thrown darts at the shelves at the Century Club. The lax procedure may explain why Aldous Huxley's Brave New World ended up, even to the shock of some of the board members, as No. 5. By yesterday, USA Today was decrying the "rank rankings" in an editorial, but I must say I feel kind of sorry for Huxley, a guy who just can't catch a break. His last bid for an international spotlight, his death, was the most haplessly timed of the century, occurring as it did on Nov. 22, 1963.

Don't expect the Modern Library controversy to end anytime too soon. Board members from Edmund Morris (in the Times Book Review) to William Styron (in the New Yorker), will soon be publishing their own spin. Christopher Cerf, the board chairman, has already been heard from, calling the process of making the list "to some degree a scam," but "a good scam," since it is promoting a spirited national debate about literature at a time when we might otherwise only be thinking about "the latest scandal."

It's not yet clear whether the debate is so much about literature as it is about electoral politics, hype, race and gender—in other words, the same topics every other national debate is about. But if Americans really do return from summer vacation having actually read Ulysses, Modern Library will have at last plunged a stake into the heart of its ruthless competitor, Cliff Notes.

Margo Jefferson (essay date 10 August 1998)

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SOURCE: "The Primal Need to Escape into the Mind of a Writer," in The New York Times, August 10, 1998, p. E2.

[In the following essay, Jefferson investigates the psychology of "best-books" list-making, drawing distinctions between public and private modes of reading.]

Why are we still ranting, dissenting, defending, brooding and quarreling—gloating when writers we love appear, ready to hurl thunderbolts when they don't—about the Moderns Library board's hubris-ridden list of what it considers the best novels published in English since our century began?

It isn't just the obvious sight of canons clashing. It's the fact that the literary industry is manipulating us exactly as the fashion industry does: imposing dictates that seem omniscient when they arc just the result of personal taste and a determination to maintain or regain an idealized status quo. And the result is to mingle the demands of public reading and the rewards of private reading in a distasteful way.

Public reading is part of our education, our work, whether that work consists of being a student, a scholar or an ordinary citizen-reader keeping up with cultural news. Public reading is also a continuing mass entertainment that lets us be audience and players simultaneously, as when we join book clubs or read self-help books and best sellers. And public reading is what leads to the making of best-books lists, whether they are readers' lists of the century's greatest, compiled by the English bookstore chain Waterstone's last year, or the Modern Library list, complied by an editorial board of 10 and announced last month.

This list is now on the Internet, side-by-side with a Readers' Top 100. And the pairing can remind you of those "What kind of person are you?" tests that magazines so love to run, where none of the answers remotely fit you. If the Modern Library's top pick is Ulysses, a masterpiece I wish never to read again, and the readers' top pick is Atlas Shrugged, a mastodon I wish never to go near again, to whom do I turn?

Maybe lists like these can operate like allergy shots and send us all back, brains and sensibilities unclogged, to the pleasures of private reading. Private reading is what we do because we want to, and it can range from the compulsion that marks the thriller binge to the more contemplative quest for linguistic and emotional harmony that certain poems bring.

Are you, like some actors, a reader who likes to play out (and play in) certain kinds of scenarios again and again, to stay in one century or another, at most two continents, where you always know your way and the thrill comes from tracing it over and over with variations in tone and mood? Are you one who sets out to master every text, the reader as intrepid conqueror or contestant, underlining and talking back in the margins, or the sort who wanders through the sounds, sights and stories, happy to suspend judgment until the experience is complete?

Actually, the reading groups that are so popular right now seem to combine the private and public modes very well. Explorers, pedagogues and homebodies can all be accommodated. And on a good night, you can get the intellectual pleasures of the best college seminars plus the confessional tension that marked your private talks about literature in those years—years when what you read and how you responded to it seemed to say everything about who you wanted to be.

Lists usually combine the two less honorably. A word like "best" can cover a book that many acknowledge to be a masterpiece whether or not they love or even like it. (I'm not alone in finding Ulysses the most obvious example.) But it is just as likely to apply to a definite nonmasterpiece that someone wanted to be deemed "the best" simply because he or she loved it so. (Deliverance and Lord of the Flies, anyone?)

The Waterstone's readers' list, which used the word "greatest" and included nonfiction, will give everyone something to gag at, but it is the most honest in its display of tastes and motives. There are children's books like Winnie-the-Pooh and James and the Giant Peach; there is science fiction; there is Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course, for heaven's sake. And while I have no wish to see Gone With the Wind and Jurassic Park take up space anywhere, they qualify because it is clear that readers take "the greatest" to mean not simply the best but the most shamelessly (or shamefully) entertaining, as in "the greatest show on earth."

The Modern Library list strikes one (certainly this one) as disingenuous. There are what look like trade-offs involving fine minor writers. (You can have Henry Green if I can have Dashiell Hammett.) There is the virtual 50-50 split between British and American writers. English-speaking African writers simply don't exist: no Chinua Achebe, no Nadine Gordimer, with their narrative ambitions and complexities. Britain's post-World War II women are deft and tidy sorts like Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark; nothing impressively large-scale like Pat Barker's World War I trilogy. And no living American woman, certainly not, amid all those living American men. (Might Toni Morrison be getting a wrist-slap for winning a Nobel prize before any of them did? And why ignore John Updike while paying homage to John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer?)

But back to a pleasanter topic: the business of how we live our private reading lives. An analyst could tell as much about us by our books as by our dreams. Some needs are as simple and as primal as childhood's: William Blake, to infuse oneself with a kind of visionary courage; the haiku of Richard Wright, to see and feel a powerful human will merge with the impersonal precision of the natural world. Pleasures have to be worked for in different ways.

When I read Shakespeare I know that I am going to have to slow down for the words and phrases I don't know, which isn't at all the same thing as slowing down to savor one of his gorgeously worked-through chains of images. When I read the stunningly banal prose of Mary Higgins Clark, I grit my teeth and resolve to charge through her bald yet coy sentences for the sake of the girl-Gothic thrills I crave at that moment.

I consider every 19th-century novel I read, however wise, bold or terrifying, a form of escapism. They are costume dramas now; they give us disguises and shield us from the present, even as they show us things we need to know (or things we are missing and still want). I don't look down on escapism, because the greatest literature offers escape of every sort. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is a noble escapist creed; it aims to help us flee what is law and dishonest in our lives and create something finer.

But every 20th-century novel of quality gives us something we cannot do without: the rhythms and dissonances, the evasions and the inevitabilities of the way we live now. What a safe, timid little "we" the Modern Library board has chosen to define itself as, and in what a small, circumscribed way it has chosen to live now.

Jonathan Yardley (essay date 10 August 1998)

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SOURCE: "The Voice of the People Speaks. Too Bad It Doesn't Have Much to Say," in The Washington Post, August 10, 1998, p. D2.

[In the following essay, Yardley decries the prominence of "otherworldly fantasies and ideological potboilers" in the on-line readers's list of novels, disparaging the business of list-making.]

From somewhere out in cyberspace a desperate reader, hair so high on end it's "like a fright wig," prayed last week for an inquiry into the Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. No, not the list compiled by its "board" of lit'ry eminences—that's already been taken to the cleaners in this space—but the counter-survey of ordinary readers conducted by the Modern Library on its Web site,

It took approximately 1.46 seconds to see that my correspondent, hair so magnificently on end, had if anything under-reacted. The vox pop list—Readers' 100 Best, as the Modern Library calls it—brings whole new universes of meaning to the word "bubbleheaded." If this be democracy, what, pray tell, can we do to hire a monarchy?

You think Barnum was wrong when he said, "There's a sucker born every minute"? You think Texas Guinan was fooling when she welcomed customers to her speakeasy with the acerbic greeting "Hello, suckers?" You think Mencken was just being snotty as per usual when he said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people"?

If that's what you think—if you think vox pop is the distillation of wisdom, taste and common sense—then let me direct your attention to the Reader's 100 Best list. There you will find that, in their collective wisdom, the common readers of these United States have declared the best novel in English of the 20th century to be—are you sitting down?—Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. The rest of the Top 10, when last I looked, were as follows:

  1. Dune, by Frank Herbert
  2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
  3. The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien
  4. The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
  5. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
  6. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
  7. The Stand, by Stephen King
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  9. And Trail Mix Rained From the Sky, by Philip Travisano

And so it goes, in the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five, No. 57, Cat's Cradle, No. 75): an interminable parade of science fiction, fantasy, romance, sentimentality and—all praise be to Ayn Rand—objeclivist claptrap. Not until positions 15 (Ulysses, by James Joyce) and 16 (The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner) does the voice of the people get around to choosing books that actually have some claim to belonging there, and these are immediately followed by—saints preserve us, Lord have mercy—Tek War, by William Shatner!

Onward: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams! Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard! Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn! Continental Drift, by Russell Banks! The Source, by James Michener! Underworld, by Don DeLillo! One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey! The Color Purple, by Alice Walker!!!!!!!!!

As the late Jack Benny would have put it: Well. As the immortal Charlie Brown would put it: Arrrrggghh!! All of a sudden the original list, whatever its faults and however suspiciously the Modern Library may have jiggered the figures, starts to look rather good.

Good, that is, in the circumstances. If the readers' list is dreadful, and Heaven knows it is, this no doubt has more to do with the willingness of certain people to e-mail the Modern Library over and over again on behalf of Ayn Rand than with the collective reading tastes of the American public, which are probably, in truth … even worse than this list suggests. By the same token, if the original list is bad, and Heaven knows it is, it reflects not merely the idiosyncratic judgments of the panel but also the inescapable truth that English-language fiction of the 20th century just isn't half so good as we 20th-century folk like to think it is.

That point was made a few days ago by Richard Bernstein of the New York Times in the most trenchant commentary I have seen to date on this whole silly business. Not merely does the original list make all the obligatory, tedious bows to modernism and experimentalism and the avant-garde—the Holy Trinity of contemporary highbrow culture—but it reminds' us, however unwittingly, how much meatier and durable is the greatest English-language fiction of the 19th century.

Mister Dickens, he dead. This is cause for celebration among the illuminati and despair among the ordinary readers upon whom they gaze so condescendingly. Over the years yours truly has argued, ad infinitum and ad nauseam, that the reason why so many readers are alienated from contemporary "literary" or "serious" fiction is its willful inattention and hostility to the daily lives of ordinary readers. If readers are starved for serious novels about people like themselves living in worlds they can recognize, who can blame them for turning to the otherworldly fantasies and ideological potboilers that are, as the Readers' 100 Best list suggests, the chief diet now available to them?

Enough. Let's say the last rites over these lists, sprinkle the grave with holy water and ship them six feet under. Lists are hogwash, words I write full knowing that I have compiled more than my share and that the pearly gates surely will be closed against me as punishment. Lists remind us that people are sheep—why else would Ulysses, numero uno on the first Modern Library list, now be a bestseller?—and that popular taste unerringly gravitates to the lowest common denominator.

So what else is new?

Paul Lewis (essay date 15 August 1998)

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SOURCE: "Modern Library Agrees to Pick 'Best' Better," in The New York Times, August 15, 1998, pp. B7, B8.

[In the following essay, Lewis reports plans to improve the selection and ranking methods of a proposed best nonfiction books list by the Modern Library.]

Faced with widespread criticism of the list it released last month of the 100 best English-language novels published in this century—most piercingly, in comments by two of the judges who helped compiled it—the Modern Library says it will significantly overhaul the way it picks its choice of the century's hundred best English-language nonfiction books' later this year.

In separate articles published this week, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian, and the novelist William Styron, who were among the l0 judges who drew up the list, distanced themselves from the final outcome as well as from the methods by which the books were chosen.

Writing in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Schlesinger said most panel members were "astonished by at least the last two of the top five choices." Those were Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which followed James Joyce's Ulysses, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby and another of Joyce's works, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

He pointed out that while the panel had been asked to rate these top five novels in order of merit because they had appeared on nearly every judge's list, the members did not rank by number the other books they nominated as being among the hundred best.

Instead, Modern Library editors ranked them according to the number of times they appeared on individual judges' lists. When two or more novels tied with the same number of votes, the editors rather than the judges decided what order they should be placed in, a fact first reported in the Washington Post.

Mr. Schlesinger also noted that Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, in eighth place, had no business being on the list at all since it was originally written in German.

Nevertheless, he came down in favor of the Modern Library's attempt to choose the 100 greatest novels in general terms, saying that "anything that provokes people to read novels and debate their merits is a cultural victory." Writing in the current issue of the New Yorker, Mr. Slyron said he "cheerfully" assented to the view that the Modern Library's final list was "weird" and that it displayed a "generally oppressive stodginess." He also acknowledged that the panel of judges that made the selection was "entirely white, predominately male and somewhat doddering." Mr. Schlesinger had calculated their average age at 69.

As Mr. Schlesinger did, Mr. Styron said that many books placing high on the list owed their positions not to their relative merit but to the view of eight or nine judges that they should appear "somewhere among the anointed hundred."

In his opinion, a luncheon meeting of the panel with "good wine that allowed for lively disputation" would have produced a more satisfactory result, eliminating such "toothless pretenders" as Booth Tarkington's Magnificent Ambersons and Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson.

In recent interviews several other members of the judges' panel expressed reservations about the final Modern Library list.

Modern Library officials said they would change the process in drawing up a planned list of the century's 100 best nonfiction books so that the panel would be more diverse and the voting system more rigorous.

Calling the selection system employed "not particularly scientific," Ian Jackman, the Modern Library's managing director, said he would discard the current tie-breaking system, which had been used, he said, because it was not practical to refer every dead heat back to the full panel of judges. Instead, the Library will use a ranking system based on "weighted voting."

He said he was also committed to adding new judges to the panel, which is made up of members of the editorial board of Modern Library, to lower the average age and make it more representative of society.

The British novelist A. S. Byatt is the only woman and non-American so far on the panel, and it has no members of racial or ethnic minorities. Other members are Gore Vidal; Daniel J. Boorstin, a former Librarian of the Library of Congress; the historian Shelby Foote; Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation; Edmund Morris, a historian, and John Richardson, the Picasso biographer.

James Wood (essay date 17 August 1998)

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SOURCE: "Bookdumb: The List To-Do," in The New Republic, Vol. 219, Nos. 7-8, August 17, 1998, p. 14.

[In the following essay, Wood assesses the weaknesses and strengths of the Modern Library list in terms of aesthetics and literary influence.]

Xerxes wept at the prospect that, 100 years on, not one of his soldiers would be alive. We feel the same, said Schopenhauer, while perusing publishers' catalogs, stunned at the prospect that none of the books before us will last a century. A list of the century's best novels in English, such as the Modern Library published last week, ought to make us feel the opposite of Schopenhauer; here, by some miracle of literary cryogenics, are the books that have lasted a century, and that may frozenly outlast many more.

Yet, oddly, lists are as depressing as catalogs, because both disclose the same thing: that only a very few books are truly great and truly longeval. A list is already an act of desperation, an aggravated mnemonic. To be put in a list is to be in refreshed danger of falling off it, and one recalls the original Elizabethan usage of "list," which meant to be enlisted in battle. Even the finest list is largely full of Xerxes's soldiers—posterity's corpses.

The Modern Library list is certainly not a fine list; it is unusually silly, both in design and in execution. The collective decision of the library's editorial board (overwhelmingly comprised of historians, not literary critics or writers), it demotes aesthetics and favors novels with "powerful content." Thus The Grapes of Wrath, Darkness At Noon, and I, Claudius are deemed better novels than anything by Theodore Dreiser, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, or Joseph Conrad. It is, of course, pointless to rank 100 novels: there arc no meaningful criteria whereby Lolita (fourth on the list) can be judged 43 books better than Conrad's great Nostromo. And a list that purports to gather the century's best novels in English, but that omits Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, Patrick White's Voss, and anything by Samuel Beckett, instantly soils itself.

Still, despite itself, the Modern Library list confirms a few truths and offers several pleasurable sensations. One is the sight of Gore Vidal, an editorial board member, agreeing to a list which omits any of his own fluorescent and vulgar novels, while voting for two great books by Saul Bellow: this is exactly the right way round, peon to pasha. Another, less trivial, confirmation is that the list accurately reflects, I think, the feebleness of postwar English fiction. It sometimes seems as if a treaty must have been signed in 1945, in Westminster, outlawing all artistic experiment, all seriousness and nobility in English fiction for the next 50 years. The last great English novelists were Lawrence and Woolf, and the trail went cold with Henry Green's beautiful novel Loving. Almost dutifully, the Modern Library includes William Golding's Lord of The Flies, along with novels by Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, and Elizabeth Bowen. But these are very small achievements alongside Invisible Man or The Adventures of Augie March.

Chiefly, the Modern Library list suggests that a century will not yield 100 great novels in one language, even a language as diasporan as English. Perhaps 30 of the selected novels are great. This in turn reminds us of another, and related, truth, which is that great novels do not really influence other great novels. More often than not, greatness is the culmination of something rather than its opening. Ulysses, for instance, which people always claim as enormously influential, is undeniably a great novel. But Ulysses was, in fact, the inheritor of a century of literary influence: Joyce's great innovation, the stream of consciousness, was the logical conclusion of the developments in this area by Flaubert, by Hamsun, by Dostoevsky, and by Chekhov. Ulysses had almost no influence at all on English fiction: Joyce and Woolf discovered stream of consciousness simultaneously. And, although it has had greater impact on American writing (Bellow, Pynchon, and DeLillo have all been influenced by Joyce), American fiction would look almost the same had Joyce never existed, for no American novelist—except perhaps Henry Roth—has really pushed the stream of consciousness to Joycean levels. The greatest books often close a development while appearing to open it. The best postwar American novel, The Adventures of Angie March, magnificently terminates and fulfills the line of Melville, Twain, and Whitman. It has had few imitators. In fact, bad books, like Paul Bowles's sensationalist The Sheltering Sky (number 97 on the Modern Library list), are often much more "influential" than great books.

Once we realize that greatness is always sparse, and often curiously isolated and unrepeatable, a list necessarily seems a peculiar foolishness. The novel, because it is the loosest of all aesthetic forms, is perhaps the hardest about which to generalize and the hardest to discriminate between. This is not to say that the act of discrimination is invalidated by the failure of any list, more that there is a great difference between ranking and discrimination. A list ranks things with the implication that everything is being ranked by one set of criteria. But lists rank things only because they are lists: Since a list must have lots of members, it must rank them. A list creates the phantom problem it so confidently appears to solve: where to list something. But if, instead, one works on the truer assumption that only about ten or 20 novels written in this century in English are really great, one has hardly enough books to compile a list, and the curious imperative of listmaking quite falls away. This other activity, the activity beyond list-making, is called criticism—and might also be called reading.

Edmund Morris (essay date 23 August 1998)

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SOURCE: "The Top 100," in New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1998, p. 27.

[Morris is a biographer and member of the Modern Library's editorial board. In the following essay, he describes his interactions with—and opinions of—other board members during the selection process for the Modern Library list.]

As one of the ten white-on-white, mostly male and middle-aged members of the Modern Library's editorial board, I suppose I should stick up for our list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. We potent, grave and reverend signors debated our choices over many ruminative lunches (ruminare, to chew on: a more than normally necessary exercise when you're browsing at the Century Club), and we certainly weren't short of titles to choose from. In fact, Harry Evans, who was then the president and publisher of Random House and the original dreamer-up of the idea, casually asked each of us to come up with our personal 100 favorites. If we had taken him at his word, the resulting master list—allowing for a duplication rate of, say, 25 titles that everyone was likely to nominate—would have totaled something like 750.

Fortunately, few of us managed to come up with that many. I haven't read a hundred "great" 20th-century novels in my life (although I must have read some a hundred times), and rather sheepishly handed in a list of 58. Of course, we all kept our submissions secret from one another: only Ian Jackman, the managing director of the Modern Library, knows the true poverty of our erudition. I'm sure A. S. Byatt had no trouble filling her quota, since it is obvious from her exquisitely cultivated conversation that she has read every novel ever written since Boccaccio's Filocolo. And I'm sure Shelby Foote built his list on an irreducible minimum of 18 titles, all by William Faulkner. At any rate, we ended up with an aggregate of 404 novels, with Lolita at No. 1 and The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, in the position commonly euphemized as "last but not least."

Those two rankings seemed to me about right, if only because I had just finished reading Lolita for the eighth time (in Alfred Appel's fascinatingly detailed annotated edition) and was, as usual, in a state of deep despair over the impossibility of ever writing a sentence that could compare with any of the flashing, floating lines that Nabokov released with such lepidopteral prodigality: at the bottom of the hill, in the summer dusk, a furry warmth, golden midges.

As for Alice Walker, I made a rash attempt to persuade my colleagues to exclude from consideration any author who described herself as a practitioner of "womanist" prose, but was met with such steely glances from Ms. Byatt and Ann Godoff, Random House's current president and editor in chief, that I withdrew the motion, and subsequently voted for every nominee who didn't shave.

There were other tense moments, inevitable when you have 10 literary sensibilities demonstrating over and over again the old truism that everybody reacts differently to everything. Or to put it another way, one man's Arnold Bennett is another woman's Chinua Achebe. There is as much polite aggression in "book chat" as you will hear in, say, bipartisan meetings at the White House. When Harry announced, early on, that we should confine ourselves to novelists writing in English, I welcomed the restriction on the ground that it eliminated Faulkner. Shelby Foote is the soul of Southern courtesy, but ever since then I have been aware of an invisible Mason-Dixon line stretching between us.

Arthur Schlesinger scoffed heartily at Dan Boorstin's suggestion that we narrow our list by nominating only one book per writer, saying that if Henry James published three 20th-century masterpieces in a row, then each should be eligible on its merits. For a moment Arthur was my hero, but then he spoiled it by speaking so slightingly of Brideshead Revisited that I was tempted to have at him with the bread rolls. He saved himself, however, by pleading for the inclusion of some of Evelyn Waugh's earlier, savagely funny novels, two of which show up with Brideshead on our final list.

Notwithstanding my love for Dolores Haze, I had to agree, as Ulysses began to rise like a great whale to the top of our subsequent polls, that no other novel of the century bulks as large, or gives off such wild underwater music. Nor do I recall much dispute—how could there be?—over The Great Galsby. But what Brave New World and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are doing in the top five instead of, say, The Ambassadors and A Passage to India is a mystery explicable, I should think, only by statisticians who understand the mathematics of voting. Huxley's novel is a scintillating social satire (its riffs on cloning and child sex creepily relevant today) but clever rather than great, and Joyce's is really an autobiography, for all its poignancy no more a novel than Nabokov's far superior Speak, Memory.

The trouble with group decisions, as anyone who has ever followed piano competitions knows, is that the uniqueness of this or that contender, or the urgency of a maverick judge, tends to be blunted by democratic process. In our case, although we had all read Ulysses (or pretended to), many of us had not read the less-well-known books that judges individually pushed for. Ms. Byatt, for example, spoke so eloquently about Peter Carey, the author of Oscar & Lucinda, that I was sorry to admit I'd never heard of him, or it. One can't vote for a book one hasn't read. For the same reason, I could not get any support for some of my own more outré recommendations: an achingly beautiful little novel by A. G. Mojtabai entitled Autumn (1982); another meriting exactly the same description, A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr (1980); a melancholy comedy by the South African novelist Ahmed Essop, The Visitation (1980); and above all James Gould Cozzens's forgotten masterpiece Guard of Honor (1948). Again, if anyone else had read them, these books might have stood a chance, but nobody had, so they didn't.

As a result, our list consisted in large part of Usual Suspects, arranged in an order that has only a general approximation to the way God might rate them. (I would hope that He, in His wisdom, would exchange Slaughterhouse Five at No. 18 with A House for Mr. Biswas at No. 72.) But a certain silliness is bound to ensue when a bunch of adults are given a sheet of paper with titles down one margin and boxes spread out from left to right and are asked to draw in little crosses, no more than one per line. (Damn! I wanted to vote for Molly Keane's Good Behaviour 10 times!)

Critics of our list are right when they say it values past over present writing, and Eurocentricity, if there is such a word, over Ethnicity. Willy Whitebread no longer represents the English-speaking world's literary norm; every novelist of note in Britain these days seems to be an Indian. Personally, I'd welcome the recruitment of some younger, darker people to our board, and the more women the better. They tend to be franker in their opinions.

Imbalance is something Random House can correct. Indeed, there has been a move afoot for some time to expand and diversify board membership. But we can't do much about our unhipness. The Modern Library's mandate is to perpetuate titles that have, as the cliché goes, stood the test of time.

I did make one gesture in the direction of contemporary fiction by suggesting that we nominate only the 99 greatest novels of the 20th century, and leave the 100th title up to a nationwide vote on the Internet—announcing it on Dec. 31, 1999. Rather a neat publicity idea, I thought, and likely to produce a genuinely good book. But the silence that followed reminded me of that moment in The Ambassadors when Strether makes a remark to Maria Gostrey and waits for it to plop in the well of her taciturnity. Except now there was no plop at all.

Having a seat on the Modern Library board is something I cherish, but I'm sure I'm not the only member who secretly feels that all lists are dumb. They sure do attract attention, though, and I suppose that was Harry Evans's main intent. If a million or so more readers can be made aware of works like Henry Green's Loving, Richard Wright's Native Son and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, then we'll at least have done something to revive their power. Now we can go back to our regular business of republishing other books we believe will endure. One of these, I'm happy to say, is Guard of Honor.

In the meantime, if any contemporary novelist has a "great" work under his belt (or her girdle), I'd recommend delaying publication until after the millennium. Then you might make our next list.

R. Emmet Tyrrell, Jr. (essay date September 1998)

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SOURCE: "Booklists," in American Spectator, Vol. 31, No. 9, September, 1998, pp. 16-17.

[Tyrrell is a weekly syndicated columnist for Washington Times. In the following essay, Tyrrell estimates the status of late twentieth-century American novels on the basis of the Modern Library list.]

The Modern Library's editorial board has just announced the 100 best English-language novels of the century, as esteemed by its board members. Many of the novelists mentioned are not actually English-language novelists. They are Americans.

They wrote in American. That should make the patriotic juices flow in all of us, save for one lamentable detail: Most of the American novelists are dead or pretty much in retirement—more evidence, that, of the unhealthy condition of the American novel.

No, this is not going to be another column on the Boy President and his cadre of slippery extenuators. You Clinton-haters out there arc going to have to repair to some other fountainhead of malign commentary. Try the op-ed page of the New York Times, whose columnists have grown condignly critical of the White House cabal with each new allegation of felony, misdemeanor, or encroachment on civil liberties. Or look back to a Pat Buchanan column from mid-July.

Buchanan, a former Nixon aide, made the useful and original point that "Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate came of misplaced loyalty. He was trying to protect his people. In Mr. Clinton's case, the reverse is true. His aides, to a man, were innocent of any culpability in this squalid Monicagate matter when it broke. It is Mr. Clinton who is dragging everyone in and everyone down. Nixon's aides brought him down; Mr. Clinton is bringing his own people down." And Buchanan went on to point out that in August of 1974, after Nixon administration officials such as himself discovered that their boss was lying, they called on him to resign. Yet today, "Clinton's defenders assure us that even if he committed perjury … it is of no consequence because it was, after all, 'only about sex.'"

Well, let us allude no further to the hate-Clinton commentary. It leaves James Carville vile. I am turning my mind over to the Modern Library's assessment of the twentieth century novel. Besides, I just completed a Lexis-Nexis search of how frequently over the past six months journalists linked Bill Clinton's name with that of Warren Gamaliel Harding, hitherto recognized as America's most corrupt president. I found 390 listings. So much for speculation on Bill Clinton's legacy. Even before he receives his day in court or in an impeachment hearing, his image in history has taken shape. And President Harding had the good fortune to die in bed before a friendly electorate got wind of his scandals and before the historians began their rants. Bill Clinton is lucky but not that lucky. His retirement is going to be gruesome.

So back to the Modern Library's Top Forty Plus Forty Add Twenty. The list is attracting spitballs. The affirmative action charlatans are at work. The Modern Library's editorial board did not factor in race, color, creed, gender, and—who knows—maybe disability. In fact only one board member was a woman. Astounding though it may be, the board considered only literary merit. How shocking to assess a work of art solely on its artistic merits. The novelist Cynthia Ozick was not shocked. She remarked, "I don't believe there should be women for the sake of women. There should be books for the sake of books." The remark smacks of bookism.

Actually these bookists at the Modern Library did a very good thing. Just as Americans were breaking for their summer vacations they gave us 100 books to bring along. The list is, as all such lists are, open to debate. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is probably merely "a period piece," as historian Kenneth Lynn asserts, worthy of a place on a longer list but not in the century's top 100. The titles mentioned by such masters of the literary art as Conrad, Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce, and Waugh are too limited. Yet not one of the books listed is unworthy of our attention.

Every author on the list introduces us to interesting people caught in interesting situations. Each author is to one degree or another a great literary talent. In fact that is one of the merits of this list. It reminds us that there are varying degrees of literary talent. Unfortunately, when it comes to writing novels it does not seem that today's best literary talents write them. Rather, they write history or biography. Lynn says that today it is "in history and biography that you find people and narrative. Whereas in a lot of the fashionable fiction of our time you find neither." Instead you find some novelist's neurosis and narcissism.

Yet the American novel is about to get a jolt of life. Tom Wolfe will come out with his first novel in a decade this fall. Called A Man In Full, it has an abundance of people and the narrative that Lynn longs for. But for now take a look at the Modern Library's list. Dreiser's American Tragedy is rated sixteenth. Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is rated thirty-sixth. Alas, I promised no further allusions to Boy Clinton in this column. Accept my apology.

Karen Angel (essay date 14 September 1998)

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SOURCE: "Modern Library Helps Bookstores Promote 'the List,'" in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 37, September 14, 1998, p. 24.

[In the following essay, Angel describes the impact of the Modern Library list on bookstores and their customers.]

Tapping the conversation about books sparked by the Modern Library's list of the "100 Best Novels of the 20th Century," Random House has shipped promotional kits to 2700 independent and chain bookstores. The kits contain a reading-group guide, an easel-back counter display, bookmarks listing all 100 chosen books and easy-peel stickers to put on books from the list. The kits are designed "to give stores an opportunity to merchandise around all the commentary about the 100 Best Novels." said David Ebershoff, publishing director of the Modern Library and publishing manager of Random House. "A lot of people have come into bookstores—the place they go to talk about books—to continue their rants" about the list.

Kepler's Books & Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., saw a 75% jump in sales of titles that appeared on the list after placing them in a window display, according to inventory director Deborah Tassie. Though this display was just dismantled, Kepler's plans to feature the titles in future displays and to use the new promotional materials to highlight them. "The promotion was very successful for us, and the public really seemed to enjoy it," Tassie said. The store also printed about a thousand copies of the list and distributed them to customers.

For other stores, though, the promotional material will arrive too late. Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., has taken down its window display and has no plans to bring it back, even though it helped move eight copies of Ulysses. "I would be surprised if we used the promotional material," said Caroline Ketcham, floor manager. The store is preparing to post its own list of the 100 best novels, compiled from suggestions e-mailed by some 50 customers. But the customer lists are as disappointing as the one assembled by the Modern Library's editorial board, according to Kelcham. "I wouldn't call Partnoy's Complaint or Catch-22 great literature," she said.

And then there are stores that prefer to ignore the list altogether. Olsson's Books & Records in Washington, D.C., has taken this route. "We were ambivalent about the list, and we thought the books that looked most interesting were the most difficult to obtain—they were either out of print or from small publishers," said John Sherer, assistant general manager.

The Modern Library is trying to address this concern by reissuing five out-of-print titles on the list. On September 1, Modern Library released new editions of The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler; The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad; The Call of the Wild, White Fang and To Build a Fire by Jack London; The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington; and Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm. "We saw a publishing opportunity in this," Ebershoff said. "But we separated the publication of these books from the announcement of the list to deflect any accusations that this was all a stunt about publishing books. The list was created regardless of the publisher. People like Gore Vidal are not going to create a list to help Random House publish books."

Random House currently has in print at least one edition of 59 of the titles on the list. It plans to publish 10 more titles, all in the public domain, by summer 1999.

Since the list was announced, the Modern Library has sold the same number of copies of Ulysses that it usually sells in two years and has gone back to press for 7500 more. Other publishers may also be benefiting: Scribner's The Great Gatsby (#2 on Modern Library's list) was recently ranked #8 on's paperback bestseller list. And indicating the high degree of interest the list has kindled, the Modern Library's Web page saw a huge surge in visitors, by 4600%, from 1367 the week before the list appeared to 62,771 the week after.

Despite the criticisms of the methodology behind the list that Politics & Prose booksellers voiced freely on a recent NPR broadcast, Ketcham and other booksellers support the idea. "The very fact that it generated so much comment and interest can do nothing but good for these classic books and reading," she said.

The Modern Library has responded to some of the objections—primarily, that the list reflected the biases of its aging, white male architects—by adding five new board members. Mary Carr, Elaine Pagels, Ron Chernow, Caleb Carr and David Remnick will help select the 100 Best Non-fiction Books of the 20th Century. Three to five more appointments may follow.

Erica Jong (essay date 16 November 1998)

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SOURCE: "I've Got a Little List," in The Nation, Vol. 267, No. 16, November 16, 1998, pp. 32-5.

[Jong is the author of Fear of Flying and a feminist critic. In the following essay, Jong discusses the literary achievements of women in the twentieth century, observing their marginalization by patriarchal culture and featuring her own list of novels written by women.]

When Random House's Modern Library imprint issued a list this past summer of the best novels in English published during the twentieth century, surely I was not alone in noticing that only nine books written by women were among the designees. The list created controversy—as lists are meant to do.

There was plenty of printed reaction to the Modern Library announcement, but none I saw seemed to offer an alternative list. The Random House Web site was deluged with reactions from angry readers who wondered where their favorite novels were, but nobody (not Harold Bloom with his Western Canon, nor Camille Paglia with her six-shooter, nor the Modern Library itself) thought to come up with a list of women writers in English who published novels in this century. Surely a century that produced Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf, Colette, Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir and Edith Wharton has been an extraordinary one for women authors. Released from compulsory pregnancy every year, released from having to pretend niceness, goodness, meekness and amnesia toward our own anger, women have produced an astonishing literature in English—and a host of other languages. The twentieth century has been the first in which women publicly roared. Why then have the good people at the Modem Library not heard? Well, women's achievements tend to be overlooked even by the enlightened who think themselves sensitive to such things. A woman's name on a book practically guarantees marginalization—which is why so many geniuses, from the Bronte sisters to George Sand and George Eliot, chose to use male noms de plume.

And yet I find myself thinking—in 1998!—that we have abandoned that practice at our peril. Oddly, books written by women tend to be marginalized by both male and female reviewers. Yes, it is true that certain hunky male authors like Sebastian Junger and Ethan Canin have been reviewed for their jacket photos, but generally the practice of reviewing the writer's photo rather than her text, her personal life rather than her novel, her love affairs rather than her literary style, is the fate reserved for women authors. A recent example of a writer's life being reviewed even before her book is published is Joyce Maynard—but many authors, from Charlotte Brontë to Colette, have met this fate. Why this automatic response? Surely, given the works of Sappho, Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen, it should be clear that a vagina is no obstacle to literature. Yet in a sexist society, both women and men automatically downgrade women's work. A poetess is never as good as a poet. An actor is more serious than an actress. An aviator navigates better than an aviatrix. The response today may be more unconscious than deliberate, but, alas, it remains. (I suggest that some compulsive scholar do a computer search of the typical weasel words in reviews of women's books. They are: "confessional," "solipsistic," "self-aggrandizing," "self-indulgent," "whining.") For a woman to claim to have a self is, I suppose, "self-aggrandizing."

I have been the recipient of this sort of literary "criticism" for so many years that it makes me snort and laugh rather than smart and weep, but my heart goes out to the novice female writers who run this gantlet with their first novels and are so wounded they never show up for the second act. This is, of course, the point. Boo the women off the stage with catcalls and rotten tomatoes and get them back to their proper womanly duties—editing men's books, feeding the egos of male writers, writing theses about James Joyce, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway—as if we didn't already have enough.

Political correctness has rapped us on the knuckles for doing this to writers of color who are female. As a result, those artists are starting to be reviewed on their merits rather than their gender. This is a welcome change. As recently as twenty-eight years ago Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, was turned down by Random House (where she then worked as an editor) because it was assumed that African-Americans did not buy books and that nobody else would want to read novels about black people. The arrogance of those assumptions has long since been dispelled. But while it is clearly racist to attack writers of color, women writers who appear to occupy no minority niche are still fair game. Women are the scapegoats of the human race, and if scapegoats don't exist in nature, they have to be invented. The Modern Library list contained only eight women because a ratio of 92 to 8 probably seems normal to literary folk. (Edith Wharton accounted for two of the nine titles.) Diversity has come to mean racial diversity rather than gender fairness. Wherever possible, the token woman on a committee, a panel, a list, is apt to be endowed with melanin. This is a condescending way of including two "minorities" in one fell swoop. But women are not a minority; we are 52 percent of the population. We are, in fact, an oppressed majority. If we didn't already know this the Modern Library list would have made it abundantly clear.

I've no particular wish to dump on the Modern Library. That venerable venture, started by legendary twenties publisher Horace Liveright and sold to Random House long before it was a vast agglomeration of formerly independent imprints, has always had a worthy mission: Bring good books to the people inexpensively. The Modern Library was clever to devise the 100 best list as a way of getting column inches for books. It worked. Anything that gets people talking about books in a video culture is to be applauded. The composition of the original list was, however, hard not to quarrel with….

Ulysses by James Joyce, a formerly banned book that is now safely verified as a masterpiece because nobody reads it in its entirety, was the safest of safe top choices. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita gave the list a bit of derring-do, circa 1955. Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, a personal favorite of mine, is a wonderful satirical novel about how the press starts wars, then covers them, but it is in no way as large a portrait of the world as The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. The Modern Library did make an attempt to include writers of color—V. S. Naipaul, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin—though women were not among them. Of the women on the list, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are inevitable rather than courageous choices. (I would probably give a limb to have written The House of Mirth, but it hardly takes imagination to praise Wharton this long after her death—in 1937—and recent transfiguration into film.)

The Random House readers who posted their choices on the Web site wound up with a list that puts four Ayn Rand novels in place of Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22 and Darkness at Noon. Since Ayn Rand is not my cup of tea, I'm not impressed, but the readers' list is far more gender neutral than the original and doesn't discriminate against sci-fi or horror authors. (Robert Heinlein and Stephen King figure prominently.)

The attempt to create a women's fiction list proved a fascinating exercise. I wrote to the 250 or so distinguished women writers and critics whose correct addresses I have in my database. I posted a notice on the rather lively writers' forum that's on my Web site (, and then, for good measure, I wrote to about thirty male novelists, critics and poets whose judgment I respect and whose addresses I happen to have.

The results of this informal survey were instructive. Because I promised anonymity to my respondents, they were frank with me. They apologized for liking certain books that they deemed to be important in their own lives—Gone With the Wind and Interview With the Vampire are two examples—but that they suspected Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom might pooh-pooh. The scholars responded quickly—as if they had been list-making all their lives. The poets' and novelists' lists dribbled in more slowly. Pretty much everyone I wrote to tended to take the project seriously. They congratulated me on raising the question of a women's list at all—whether or not they had seen the original Modern Library list. Sometimes they included lists from their best friends, members of reading groups or seminars.

Here are the books most frequently repeated (after 1. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and 2. Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire):

Virginia Woolf

3. To the Lighthouse

4. Mrs. Dalloway

5. The Waves

6. Orlando

Djuna Barnes

7. Nightwood

Edith Wharton

8. The House of Mirth

9. The Age of Innocence

10. Ethan Frame

Radclyffe Hall

11. The Well of Loneliness

Nadine Gordimer

12. Burger's Daughter

Harriette Simpson Arnow

13. The Dollmaker

Margaret Atwood

14. The Handmaid's Tale

Willa Cather

15. My Ántonia

Erica Jong

16. Fear of Flying

17. Fanny

Joy Kogawa

18. Obasan

Doris Lessing

19. The Golden Notebook

20. The Fifth Child

21. The Grass Is Singing

Harper Lee

22. To Kill a Mockingbird

Marge Piercy

23. Woman on the Edge of Time

Jane Smiley

24. A Thousand Acres

Lore Segal

25. Her First American

Alice Walker

26. The Color Purple

27. The Third Life of Grange Copeland

Marion Zimmer Bradley

28. The Mists of Avalon

Muriel Spark

29. Memento Mori

30. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Dorothy Allison

31. Bastard Out of Carolina

Jean Rhys

32. Wide Sargasso Sea

Susan Fromberg Shaeffer

33. Anya

Cynthia Ozick

34. Trust

Amy Tan

35. The Joy Luck Club

36. The Kitchen God's Wife

Ann Beattie

37. Chilly Scenes of Winter

Zora Neale Hurston

38. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Joan Didion

39. A Book of Common Prayer

40. Play It as It Lays

Mary McCarthy

41. The Group

42. The Company She Keeps

Grace Paley

43. The Little Disturbances of Man

Sylvia Plath

44. The Bell Jar

Carson McCullers

45. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Elizabeth Bowen

46. The Death of the Heart

Flannery O'Connor

47. Wise Blood

Mona Simpson

48. Anywhere But Here

Toni Morrison

49. Song of Solomon

50. Beloved

Stella Gibbons

51. Cold Comfort Farm

Sylvia Townsend Warner

52. Mr. Fortune's Maggot

Katherine Anne Porter

53. Ship of Fools

Laura Riding

54. Progress of Stories

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

55. Heat and Dust

Penelope Fitzgerald

56. The Blue Flower

Isabel Allende

57. The House of the Spirits

A. S. Byatt

58. Possession

Pat Barker

59. The Ghost Road

Rita Mae Brown

60. Rubyfruit Jungle

Anita Brookner

61. Hotel du Lac

Angela Carter

62. Nights at the Circus

Daphne Du Maurier

63. Rebecca

Katherine Dunn

64. Geek Love

Shirley Jackson

65. We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Barbara Pym

66. Excellent Women

Leslie Marmon Silko

67. Ceremony

Anne Tyler

68. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

69. The Accidental Tourist

Nancy Willard

70. Things Invisible to See

Jeanctte Winterson

71. Sexing the Cherry

Lynne Sharon Schwartz

72. Disturbances in the Field

Rosellen Brown

73. Civil Wars

Harriet Doerr

74. Stones for Ibarra

Jean Stafford

75. The Mountain Lion

Stevie Smith

76. Novel on Yellow Paper

E. Annie Proulx

77. The Shipping News

Rebecca Goldstein

78. The Mind-Body Problem

P. D. James

79. The Children of Men

Ursula Hegi

80. Stones From the River

Fay Weldon

81. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil

Katherine Mansfield

82. Collected Stories

Rebecca Harding Davis

83. Life in the Iron Mills

Louise Erdrich

84. The Beet Queen

Ursula K. Le Guin

85. The Left Hand of Darkness

Edna O'Brien

86. The Country Girls Trilogy

Margaret Drabble

87. Realms of Gold

88. The Waterfall

Dawn Powell

89. The Locusts Have No King

Marilyn French

90. The Women's Room

Eudora Welty

91. The Optimist's Daughter

Carol Shields

92. The Stone Diaries

Jamaica Kincaid

93. Annie John

Tillie Olsen

94. Tell Me a Riddle

Gertrude Stein

95. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Iris Murdoch

96. A Severed Head

Anita Desai

97. Clear Light of Day

Alice Hoffman

98. The Drowning Season

Sue Townsend

99. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Penelope Mortimer

100. The Pumpkin Eater

That is the preliminary culling. It gives us, at least, a starting point. An equally long list could be made of memoirs, poems and novels in languages other than English.

All lists are highly arbitrary. And this, like all such efforts, is a work in progress. If you will write your favorites to me at my e-mail address (, the next edition will surely include books I and my respondents have missed. This exercise may turn into a publishing project, so I hope to be as inclusive as possible.

Ranking the listed books seems to me like a useless exercise. Books are not prizefighters. They don't compete against one another. It may even be that many worthy volumes escaped the notice of my helpers because they were printed in tiny editions and disappeared into the pulping machine before they were even discovered. Many good women's books doubtless go unpublished. What the list chiefly teaches us is the extent of our own ignorance. I don't claim to have read all these books, but it strikes me that this list would make a fascinating beginning course in women's literature. If we could only begin to immerse ourselves in the riches of the writers who came before us, we would see that we had an excellent broth to nourish our future efforts.

It interested me greatly to learn how hard it was for most of my respondents to name 100 books. I received scribbled notes that said things like: "Don't forget Angela Carter!" Or "What about the short story writers whose novels are less good?" Since the list was of novels written in English, I had to exclude favorites of mine—like Colette, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Yourcenar. Memoirs like Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior were excluded because there will be a separate list of memoirs. Poetry was excluded because that, too, must wait for a future tally. (Women poets in English in this century could fill a very large library.)

Assembling the preliminary list, I kept being reminded of Emma Goldman's wise words: "When you are educated, when you know your power, you'll need no bombs or militia and no dynamite will hold you."


Representative Works: The Modern Library List


Further Reading