The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century


I'm not much of a list person. In my life, lists generally fall into one of two categories: the 'TO-DO' list or the 'shopping' list, and judging from how long I've put off going to the bank now or how many times I've gone to the store for eggs, only to come home with everything but, I'm not very good at making (or following!) lists. So I figured, if I'm really going to get through the Modern Library "Best Books of the Century" list, I need to be clear about just what it is I'm committing to.

TO-DO lists itemize tiresome things;
  1. clean the bathroom;
  2. dentist, 9am;
  3. bank;
  4. mom-in-law, birthday!
boring things that responsible adults are loathe to leave undone. However, there are only so many hours in a day – only so many hours in our lives, how depressing! – and since no one wants to waste them doing chores, these wearisome tasks have a disturbing tendency to be 'forgotten' in lieu of fun things, like drinking wine, having sex, meeting your girlfriends for a bitchfest. Hence, the need to write chores down. We don't need to list the fun things because few people 'forget' to take a long, bubbly soak in the tub with a glass of Bordeaux. For some reason, I think a 'TO-DO' list is not the best way to think of the Modern Library (ML) list, especially since my 'TO-DO' lists never seem to actually get done. And I never want reading to become a chore. It should stay one of the fun things I don't have to write down.

But is it really better to think of the ML list as a shopping list? I'm sure Random House (the Modern Library is a Random House imprint) hopes so. Consider the taboo of opening someone else's fridge. Fridge interiors are intimate, personal. And not just what's in the fridge – because that's obvious enough – but the organization, the brands, the storage (Tupperware containers vs. washed-out margarine tubs) that say so much. As long as the taboo remains – and fridge doors remain opaque – there isn't likely to be a top-100 grocery list (100 best local-vore, slow-foods?). No one but your closest friends need know you love banana baby food or drink vanilla Ensure. But bookshelves aren't refrigerators and you commit no gaffe by looking them over while your host is somewhere else, dealing with your jacket, fixing you a drink, answering the door. And as you slyly skim the titles on the shelves, admit it, you judge. We all do, just as we all shelf certain books (Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, The Man Without Qualities) where others can see them, tucking our guilty-pleasures (J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steel, Dan Brown) deep into our bedside drawers. 'Best-of' book lists take advantage of this – here are the 100 best books of the last century and if you don't want people to think you are a complete doofus, you better buy (if not, actually read) at least some. Trust me. These are tough times in the book world, and Random House wouldn't have devoted resources to compiling the list if they didn't expect it to sell some books.

Reading is a transformative experience, one that cannot, and shouldn't be, reduced to another to check on a list or something else to buy at the store. We tend to forget what a privilege it is to enter these other, often wonderful worlds. I'm a writer today just because many years ago, I experienced the magic of books.

Books, like people, are individual and complex, so perhaps that is the key to thinking about this list; a list of complicated characters, something like a guest list. Albeit a guest list for a party far more distinguished than I usually go to, but a guest list, nonetheless. Sure, this party is a WASP-y sausage-fest (but hey, Oktoberfest is fun), and people who should've been invited, haven't been. Where are Beloved and Toni Morrison? Doris Lessing with her Golden Notebook? You have to wonder who they pissed off to get snubbed ( A.S. Byatt – a little Nobel envy, perhaps?). And shouldn't we boycott a party that discriminates against some of the best and most influential works of the last century, just because they weren't originally published in English?

But, no party's perfect. I guess I'm just glad I can work the room, and while I know I won't love everyone, I look forward to getting to know them, before I judge.

Oh yeah. You're invited too.

So let's party on.


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