In Search of the Century's Best Books
by Brian Kunde
This article serves as an introduction to my web project
The Best English-Language Fiction of the Twentieth Century: a Composite List and Ranking.* * * * *
With the last days at hand, or
at least the last of the second millennium A.D., the world is afflicted
by a fever of summing up. It infects everything from the daily newspaper
to daytime talk shows. Sober documentaries, CD sets of yesteryear's pop
music, ponderous coffee table books, flippant "M&Ms" ads - all force
on us a hyperventilated nostalgia for an era we haven't yet lost. By the
time 2000 does roll around, media overkill may well extinguish all interest.
All constructive criticism is welcome. Feel free to pan or
praise, and subject it to the same rigorous and skeptical scrutiny all
such lists should provoke. Hopefully, whatever your thoughts, you will
also find it useful in pursuing your own literary interests.
In the meantime we enjoy, or
suffer, each new sensation as it turns up. Like last year's contribution,
harnessing the premature nostalgia to that Great American Obsession, the
list. Specifically, the list of "bests," such as the New York Times' bestsellers
list, or David Letterman's inane yet inescapable Top 10s. Every organization
with pretensions to molding public taste released its selection of the
best whatever of the past fifty to two thousand years. Events. People.
Films. Music. And, of course, books. All were controversial, all much derided,
much debated, and much dismissed, but for all that - actually useful. A
statement that can hardly be made about the millennium fever in general.
We may take exception to what
got on the lists. We may protest over what was left off. But we do learn
what others considered notable in our culture — and discover how much of
it we've neither experienced, thought about, or heard of.
Those of us with a literary
bent noted the Modern
Library's entry into the fray last summer, its list of the century's
best novels. Many no doubt judged it in terms of their own reading,
bridled at the exclusion of their favorite books - and found quite a few
"You know, I always meant to
read this book, but never got around to it."
"I think I saw the movie version
of this one, once."
"How can this be among the best
when I've never even heard of it?"
"Just how many of these have
I read, anyway? Uh oh..."
These were the kind of thoughts
running through my mind, anyway. Not only had I read distressingly
few of this century's "best" books, but half of what I had read
had been under duress, in assigned readings from high school and college.
I immediately turned this "best list" into a personal reading guide, and
went to work. The rewards have been great.
Of course, the Modern Library
list was not and could not be the last word on the subject. Newspapers
quoted expert and not-so-expert quibbles, and soon competing lists came
out. Some were useless, the prime example being the poll-like "readers'
list" the Modern Library put together to complement its own. Skewed
in favor of computer users and hijacked by multiple voters intent on placing
their favorites at the top, the results were extremely strange. Other lists,
more legitimate, did provide valuable alternative views. But as the number
of lists grows and the number of titles they tout multiply, the question
must arise: just what books are the best of the century? Is there
To answer this question, at
least to my own satisfaction, I thought it would be useful to see if the
competing lists could be merged and reconciled. Taking four I felt to be
the most representative and rigorous in their standards, I undertook to
do so. These four were the original Modern
Library list, the Library
Journal list, the Koen
Book Distributors list, and the Radcliffe
Publishing Course list.
Bringing the titles tallied
in each together in a master list was comparatively easy - finding a good
way to reconcile or average the four disparate ranking systems proved more
difficult. There were rewards along the way - some titles, common to three
or four lists, obviously do represent a consensus of what the best
books are. There were also pitfalls - I soon found each list had its widely
varying standards on what to include. All purported to include fiction
written in English during this century, but the Library Journal
list accepted translations from other languages while the others didn't,
and the original Modern Library list excluded children's books, which the
others admitted. There were also biases built into the lists - the Modern
Library slights recent works in favor of titles published during the first
half of the century, the Library Journal reflects the tastes of
librarians and Koen those of booksellers, while the Radcliffe list bears
an academic slant.
Finally there were errors, some
of them egregious. Not one list proved to be perfect, even by its own standards.
A translation crept into the Modern Library list, and a few non-fictional
works into the others. Several works from the nineteenth century
infected the Koen and Radcliffe lists. And despite a universal limit to
single works, trilogies show up in the Modern Library and Library Journal
lists, as well as a series in the former. I dealt with such issues as best
I could, generally by excluding erroneous items.
And the end result of all this
effort? Admittedly, yet another list, but one with all the others behind
it, which I believe represents a better overall sampling of the best English-language
books of the twentieth century. Certainly, it should make a worthy reading
list for anyone. As our century ticks into oblivion, perhaps lists like
this, whatever the hoopla that birthed them, will remind us of the good
things it has held, and steer us towards a greater appreciation of what
they have to offer.
You can find my list at:
As for me, I've caught the list
bug. I plan to further refine the twentieth century list and supplement
its general literature focus by bringing together best lists of books from
more specialized genres. I also hope to compile similar lists from previous
centuries. Plus, I still have a lot of books to read...
* * * * *
In Search of the Century's Best Books
Apr. 3, 1999, and last updated
May 16, 2008.
Originally published in
an electronic publication dedicated
to promoting the creative endeavors of the online community, April 3, 1999.
Published by Fleabonnet Press.
© 1999-2008 by Brian Kunde.