One byproduct of our culture’s ravenous appetite for media is a serious and insatiable addiction to lists. Have you guys noticed this? We just love organizing and ranking things, we’re all secretly obsessed with the whole nerdy taxonomy of classifying and comparing. Just check out the most popular stories on Digg right now, I’m sure that a list recounting “The Top 20 Whatevers” is somewhere on there (at the time of this writing it was the “24 Coolest Steampunk Weapons from Another Era,” but I’m sure that it will subtly change to reflect my point as time goes on). Yes, lists are great, especially for blog posts; after all, by their very nature they foment discussion (give people an excuse to argue about things that are arbitrary and impossible to prove).
But oh man there is one list out there with the weight of a venerated publishing house behind it, a serious list that puts all our other compulsive comparisons to shame. I first encountered it on the inside jacket of a copy of Ulysses that I was reading in college, and I’ve been in awe of its ambition and badassedness ever since. I’m talking about the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels.
Not familiar? In 1998 the Modern Library (a division of Random House) tasked the eight members of its editorial board, luminaries that included Gore Vidal, Shelby Foote and the “Raging Dwarven Hammer” Vartan Gregorian with the formidable job of ranking the best books published in the English language since 1900. Their objective was, ostensibly, to “get people talking about great books.”
Well, they certainly achieved their goal; upon its publication the list generated massive amounts of controversy. An especially pronounced wave of fury came from those who claimed that women were underrepresented on the list – with Virginia Woolf the first woman to clock in at number 15, and with a mere 3 out of the top 50 authors as women, it would appear that these dissenters certainly have a case. (The fact that only one out of the eight Modern Library editorial board members was female may have had something to do with this.) This wasn’t the only complaint though; people were also irked by the list’s proclamation of Joyce’s controversional and hilariously pornographic Ulysses as the greatest novel of all time, the lack of writers from other cultures (no Toni Morrison!?), and also about the fact that the Modern Library just so happened to sell many of the highest ranked books.
(This is a tangent, but perhaps even more disturbing than these omissions though were the results of the “100 Best Novels, Reader’s Poll,” which was an online survey that the Modern Library ran in 1999 to allow the public the chance to weigh in against the pretentious and misogynistic editorial board. Unfortunately for everyone, The Modern Library apparently held this poll when the Internet was still under the control of the creepily geeky: out of the top ten “Greatest Novels”, 3 were by L. Ron Hubbard.)
Despite its considerable flaws though, I personally find the original list kind of interesting. Quite frankly, I liked rooting for my favorites: Pale Fire clocks in at a respectable 53, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is ranked extremely high at 17, Salinger sneaks on there at 64, etc. However, I’ve got to admit that there are far more titles on the list that I’ve never heard than ones I’m familiar with. Like oh, I don’t know, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (ranked 81). But then, this was the whole point of the list, right? To expose people to books they’ve never heard of? In fact, given our cultural obsession with lists, I’m thinking that maybe I should start a blog that chronicles my own personal journey to read every title… detailing my thoughts and feelings as I wade through these revered classics, connecting these ancient authors to a new era of readers, Julia & Julia style (I assume that’s what that movie was about, I never actually saw it). It’ll be a huge success and… oh wait, dammit, it seems that like at least twelve people already had this idea. Ah well. Now at least I don’t have to read The Wapshot Chronicles (number 63). Some of the tenacious bloggers who are currently doing wading through the list so that we don’t have to:
http://sonjag.blogspot.com (My favorite)