21 July 2010

I know you all love a book list


  
  
I have written about his before in passing and on comments in and around the blogosphere. But in my recent list mania, it seemed like this would be a good topic for a post and a new tab up top.

Anticipating the end of the century back in 1998, the Modern Library promulgated a list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. Like any such list, this one engendered much discussion in the media. The list after all is very white and very male. Two responses to the furor were kind of interesting. The more thoughtful was a rival list created by students of the Radcliffe Publishing Course that is much more diverse in its makeup. Much, much, much less thoughtful was the online voting that the Modern Library allowed to create a reader's list. Being 1998, Internet usage was not what it is today and the reader's list was quickly jammed with Scientologist nuts, Ayn Rand disciples and Star Trek geeks. None of which qualify for literary accolades. For a laugh you can look at it alongside the official list here.


Despite its shortcomings I used the Modern Library list to guide my reading for several years. These certainly weren't the only books I read, but the list came in handy many times when I wasn't sure where to turn next. Of course I don't have that problem these days but I still look at it from time to time for ideas.

I used to have a goal of reading the whole list but I have realized that life is too short to spend too much time on books that just aren't going to be enjoyable for me. I highly, highly doubt I will will ever read any, and certainly not all, of the James Joyce and William Faulkner on the list. I feel like I have already spent enough time in those two prisons.

The thing I found with some of these classics is that they aren't as daunting or unreadable as that moniker might imply. On the other hand, some of them were exactly as daunting and unreadable as that moniker implies. Some of the books I had read before the list came out and others were totally new to me. It was this list that first introduced me to some of my favorites like Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark.

To see the list and which ones I have read click here or on the tab at the top of the page.
  

11 comments:

  1. Very cool! I thought I was pretty in the know when it came to published works (even if I haven't read them), but there were quite a few on this list that I'd never heard of.

    Also, I laughed when you referred to Faulkner as a prison. Amen!

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  2. I also at one time thought of reading the list from last to first (and maybe also skipping the Joyce novels), but that desire has pretty much faded away. Still, it's not a bad list to draw ideas from and I refer to it now and then as well.

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  3. I have several times in the past set myself the goal of reading from some list or other. I don't know if this in one I ever thought of tackling, though. But I've come to the same conclusion as you--that life is too short to pin myself to a list just for the sake of completing it when I know I won't enjoy several books on it. But I do like looking at lists like this and often get new ideas of authors and books to look into.

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  4. I've been intrigued with Burgess's 99 Best Novels list lately. Some very idiosyncratic and intriguing choices and a number that I've never heard of.
    http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/11/30/home/burgess-bestnovels.html

    And ... am I the only who enjoyed Joyce's Ulysses? Also, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist was one of my favorite books at one time (high school, I think).

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  5. Lists are always enjoyable (and debatable!). I thought the modern library list very American, and think with some exceptions, the reader's list may actually be more relevant in 50 years time. The BBC did a similar list of 100 best books in 2003, and this more reflects the books that were popular at that time, plus a lot of children's books, as many schools took part. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/bigread/top100.shtml

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  6. I can't believe any list with Ayn Rand in it. I actually to read Atlas Shrugged for my book group next month. Aarghh...read Fountainhead years ago and was not impressed.

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  7. Steph: Maybe one day when e-readers have killed the publishing industry old copies of Faulkner may be my only choice.

    Danielle: I agree. Slavish devotion to this list would be unfulfilling in more than a few ways.

    Mystica: Glad it is useful.

    Teresa: They are great for inspiration and helping one get out of a comfort zone.

    Steve: I can't wait to check out that link. And lots of people like Joyce I am just not one of them. Oddly, I tend to shy away from literature from the U.S. South and Ireland.

    Michelle Ann: Debatable is right. It would be interesting to see the next tier down from the top 100. What would end up in 101-200?

    Mrs B: I can't believe your book club is forcing you to read Ayn Rand. I think I would develop a 24-hour flu before that meeting.

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  8. I think we've already discussed my devotion to Joyce and Faulkner, so I won't press The Sound and the Fury upon you.

    Of those I've read that you have yet to read, I'd strongly suggest I, Claudius and Zuleika Dobson. The first being a charming, well-told historical fiction about Emperor Claudius' unlikely rise to power in ancient Rome. The second is really just a bit of silliness, but lovable nonetheless.

    Needless to say, I've been eating and breathing The List for quite sometime, and my fidelity (even to those novels that I find repugnant) is tenacious at best and foolish at worst.

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  9. Snooping around and looking at various lists I found this convenient compendium of the Modern Library/Radcliffe and others lists (saves me a lot of time because I was compiling one myself!)
    http://www.stanford.edu/~bkunde/best/bl-crank.htm#T

    Also a much more self-consciously inclusive list out of Minneapolis (not all fiction though).

    http://www.interleaves.org/~rteeter/grthungry.html

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  10. Dormouse: Thanks for those recommendations. I've been pondering which onces to look at next. Your blog helped convince me I should finally write about this.

    Steve: That Stanford list is a little crazy. If you were thinking of compiling one yourself you must share my love of Excel.

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