I stumbled over Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present the other day, and I was a little disappointed. I'm a list guy. I eat these things up. Whether it's a list of the 100 best outfielders in baseball history or the 100 best living songwriters doesn't matter. If it is a list, then I'm arguing with it and making up my own alternative grouping. I've been keeping my own favorite novels list ever since the Modern Library came out with their rankings seven years ago.
The most surprising and disappointing aspect of the Time's list was how it was put together. Two critics, Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, picked all of the books themselves. They each made an initial list and had about 80 books in common, so those all went on the final list. Then, they just divided up the remaining spots between them. I mean, this sounds like a good method if you're 17, stoned with your best buddy and trying to come up with the greatest rock guitar licks of all time. But to present this list as the "best" novels for a publication as widely read as Time seems a little slack. With only two men makng the choices, there will inevitably be novels left off because neither had read them, and some titles included based just on one opinion. Perhaps this is why I'm just hearing about this list now. It was originally presented in 2005.
I was also disappointed that Grossman and Lacayo didn't have the gumption to rank the novels. There's a big difference between number one and number 100. It would have been interesting to see a top 10 without James Joyce in it. Joyce nabbed two of the top three spots on the Modern Library list. Time chose 1923 as a start date because that was when the magazine -- and the world as we know it -- began. But hey, is it any less arbitrary than 1900?
There were a few things, however, (including the fact that I have actually read 40 of their picks) that delighted me. Included on the list were: The Assistant by Bernard Malamud, one of my all-time favorite novels; Atonement by Ian McEwan, the second-best novel of the 21st century that I've read; Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a perfect little gem of southern literature; and the right graphic novel, The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
I also like the diversity of the selections. African-American women authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison found their way onto the list, as well as a plethora of Jewish males, including Philip Roth, Henry Roth, Malamud and Saul Bellow. Science fiction masters Philip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson are present, along with the old British stalwarts Robert Graves and Evelyn Waugh.
Perhaps, Grossman and Lacayo were right to leave out the committee and keep in some esoteric picks. Plus, you can read Time's original reviews of most of the novels. You can view the list and reviews at http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/the_complete_list.html.
I thought I'd stick my neck out and list my 20 favorite English-language novels since 1900. I make no claims that they are the best, just my favorites.
Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
Color Purple by Alice Walker.
Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
Native Son by Richard Wright.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.
You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates.
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
Fixer by Bernard Malamud.
Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth.
Surface of the Earth by Reynolds Price.
1984 by Geogre Orwell.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
No, they aren't ranked either. My list of 100 is segmented into five groups of 20, that I haven't had the heart to rank. Of course, if Time magazine was going to publish my list, I'd come up with some numbers.
And just for the record, the greatest rock guitar lick for my money is Richard Thompson's live solo on "Can't Win" that appears on his three-disc set Watching the Dark. You don't even need to be stoned to enjoy it.
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