library feature

Digging into the Modern Library top 100 novel list

Jun 4, 2013
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For the last five years I’ve been casually working my way through Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. I had a fair jump on the list before I started trying to knock books out. And the list is helpful when I can’t seem to find an appealing book to pull from my library. I’m at 51 right now, but, looking the list over the last couple of days, I’ve decided the task might never be completed.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. Some of the books I’ve started and hated: V.S. Naipaul‘s “A House for Mr. Biswas,” at number 72 on the list, I found cumbersome to the point of frustration and I tossed it aside after about 100 pages; Muriel Spark‘s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” at number 76, was eye-rollingly silly and I didn’t buy the characters and story she was feeding me; and I’ve started “Nostromo” by Joseph Conrad at least a half dozen times only to get distracted like some ADHD sailor floating down the Nile. I doubt I’ll ever get around to reading “The Maltese Falcon” or “From Here to Eternity” because I’ve seen the movies. The movies are iconic and since I already know the ending, why read the book? After all, I’m not Harry Burns. 1

The major reason, however, is that I’m starting not to believe in the list. I recently read “Appointment in Samarra” by John O’Hara, and though I thoroughly enjoyed the book, ranking it ahead of books like “On the Road” and “Clockwork Orange,” and putting it ahead of anything by D.H. Lawrence might be the most absurd thing I’ve heard since finding out people actually enjoy playing fantasy baseball.

Up to this point, through the top-21 books, 2 an argument could be made the list reads flawlessly. Of course, as I’ve stated before, these sorts of things are full of subjectivity. But there was a solid argument in favor of at least the top-20. Now that I’ve read “Appointment” and the three books that follow it at number 23, “U.S.A. (Trilogy)” by John Dos Passos, 3 I’m starting to believe this list is like any other on the internet: full of personal opinion.

What I want to do here, since I have proven to myself the list doesn’t really mean much 4, is to list some books I think were unrightfully omitted. But they’d need an empty spot so I’ve also gone ahead and offered up books to be bumped off. Here’s to complete and utter conjecture:

“Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf to replace no. 32 “The Golden Bowl” by Henry James

Henry James is more boring than Joe Flacco. That’s, of course, just my opinion, man, but more importantly, James has three books in the top-32. Come on, Modern Library. If your name isn’t James Joyce, you don’t deserve that much praise.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace to replace no. 46 “The Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad

I think this might be starting to sound as if I don’t like Conrad. That couldn’t be further from the truth; however, he has four books on the list and for some unknown reason they buried one of his best, “Heart of Darkness,” at number 67. I think “Agent” is one of his weaker efforts and since Wallace’s opus got snubbed, 46 is a perfect spot for it.

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison to replace no. 72 “A House for Mr. Biswas” by V.S. Naispaul

As I said before I found Naispaul’s book undeserving of a top-100 ranking. With that said, there are two books by Naispaul on this list and there’s no reason to be doubling up unless it’s one of the titans of the 20th-century. Morrison isn’t represented and that is an outrage to me. The “Reader’s List,” which seemed to be compiled by Ayn Rand fanatics, does acknowledge Morrison and it’s one of the few times I agree with it.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon to replace  no. 75 “Scoop” by Evelyn Waugh

I’m a huge Waugh fan and I’ve never read “Scoop.” I will say that “A Handful of Dust” and “Brideshead Revisited” are great and I also believe, from what I’ve read of Waugh, those two selections make for a suitable summation of his work. Again, this is more about not saturating the list with books by the same author. Pynchon’s scathing satire about war and technology deserves a spot on this list.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy to replace no. 88 “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London

Listen: London has his place, but I read and enjoyed “The Call of the Wild” in the eighth grade. I had yet to see a woman naked and hadn’t yet tasted Scotch. What I’m saying here is that McCarthy’s gritty western landscape is a more mature and well-rounded choice than a tale about a wild dog that many adolescent boys find enjoyable. “Blood Meridian” is for men, much like naked women and Scotch.

“The Fool’s Progress” by Edward Abbey to replace no. 100 “The Magnificent Ambersons” by Booth Tarkington

I know nothing about Tarkington and his book. It could be the best thing ever written, but I’m getting Abbey’s masterpiece on this list. “The Fool’s Progress” is in my top-five books of all-time. It follows Henry Lightcap—the pure definition of autobiographical fiction—as he looks back on his life and travels across America to revisit his hometown. Of course, all of this is just my opinion. With that said, I’ll leave you with my favorite Abbey quote of all-time: “Your criticism is greatly appreciated, but fuck you all the same.”

Notes:

  1. Currently the staff here at Bro Jackson is doing a “movie characters draft.” I now know more movie character names than I ever believed I would.
  2. “Appointment in Samarra” is ranked 22nd.
  3. I liked Dos Passos’ novels, but they are overly sentimental and the writing and story-telling isn’t special in the way that makes any three of the trilogy top-25 in the last century.
  4. It doesn’t matter whether you think I’ve proven anything or not.

Kenneth Griggs is a writer and bartender living in Chicago, IL. He has hitchhiked through the Australian Outback; lived in a small fishing village in Japan; climbed Mount Kilimanjaro; and ran with the bulls in Pamplona. He spent six years as a feature writer for a daily and weekly newspaper and has two unpublished novels to his name. But his finest accomplishment is not yet sprouting a gin blossom nose.