In Search of the Century's Best Books
by Brian Kunde

Note: This article serves as an introduction to my web project The Best English-Language Fiction of the Twentieth Century: a Composite List and Ranking.

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     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.
     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 unfamiliar titles.
     "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 no consensus?
     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:

http://www.stanford.edu/~bkunde/best/bl-intro.htm
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.
     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...

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In Search of the Century's Best Books

Posted Apr. 3, 1999, and last updated May 16, 2008.

Originally published in Calliope, 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.