the complete review Quarterly
Volume I, Issue 1   --   February, 2000

Books o' the Ages:
A Millennial/Centennial/Decennial/
Annual Reassessment

A Literary Saloon Dialogue

The Scene:

       New Year's Eve should be like any eve at the Literary Saloon. That is what is expected; the Literary Saloon is a timeless sort of place that affects being unaffected by its the world at large. Occasions occasionally demand otherwise, or impose themselves. The millennial end -- that New Year's Eve -- intrudes even into the Literary Saloon, packed as it hasn't been since the early 1970s.
       There's nothing special planned at the Literary Saloon, no grand bang or whimpering transition. There's not even any champagne on ice (they'll be popping lukewarm porter and cheap bottled beer, if anything). There is no big screen television, no countdown clock. The Literary Saloon revels in its sameness, and maybe that's it: tradition attracts, especially when facing the unknown.
       The large room is filled with smoke and din. Loud exchanges are not uncommon here, but this evening they are often drowned out by bursts of halfhearted, forced revelry. It is an uneasy mix, and alcohol hardly a panacea.

       A sits at the bar, ignoring the press of would-be drinkers trying to place their orders around him. A's small laptop rests open on the bar; between drags on his cigarillo he types in URLs and clicks on links, searching without much apparent satisfaction.
       The stool beside him, tucked half under the bar-overhang, remains unoccupied. The carousers prefer to stand. It is B, squeezing through the crowd, that finally claims the seat. A nod to the barkeep and to A, and he turns to look the room over while waiting for his whiskey.

The Dialogue:

B:    Despite the crowd and the the occasion, and despite your computing contraption, this place looks decidedly rooted in the old, don't you think ?
A:    I like to think of it as beyond time, regardless of spites or causes. After the third beer I'm usually quite convinced.
B:    There's not much room for novelty here -- your laptop notwithstanding. Looks like novelty generally wouldn't be admitted.
A:    On the contrary. The vision here is a grander one. Beyond our scope, I sometimes think. You see, it is trendiness that is turned away. True novelty always finds a place. Here today, gone tomorrow may have a more immediate effect, but the only thing that is interesting is that which is lasting.
B:    What about changing with the times ? One has to adapt, keep up.
A:    Agreed. But the vision has to be a long-term one. Advancement isn't incremental -- in fact, it is often surprisingly circular, leading back to what we thought we had long left behind. Embracing all that is new for the sake of its newness serves little purpose.
B:    What future are you looking to on your computer screen ?
A:    I haven't found much that suggests or points to what will come. People trumpet the revolution, but they're all hidebound. So I'm looking back, over the year and years, the century, the millennium.
B:    A general survey ?
A:    More specific, and more trivial. The old (and every year renewed) arguments about the book of the year -- or of the decade or the ages or what have you.
B:    And what have you got ? What's your book of the year for 1999 ?
A:    Oh, it'll be years before I can make that judgement. Have to wait for the dust to settle. Have to wait to get a better sense of whether there is anything lasting to the books that might come into question. Have to wait for all the foreign stuff written in the languages I don't read to be translated. Have to wait to work my way through a few hundred more titles.
B:    The newspapers and magazines have come up with their suggestions. You don't agree with those ?
A:    They're sometimes decent overviews, giving a general idea about significant works that have appeared in the past year. But fiction -- and fiction is the only thing that's interesting, for all intents and purposes -- needs a longer gestation time.
B:    So The New York Times Book Review editors' choices, or Time magazine's selection don't mean anything to you ?
A:    They are an interesting reflection of the moment -- a glint in the mirror -- but they are generally too close to the moment to judge it with any objectivity.
B:    A criticism that applies to most of the literary prizes as well.
A:    Absolutely. And between Bookers and Pulitzers and all the National Book this and Critics that and PEN bestowals I don't find much that is particularly useful. Not that these estimable institutions always select and reward bad books, but the jurors tend to be lost in that instant, unable to see for the ages.
B:    So what books of the year are you seeking out on the vast web ? Are you up to 1972 or 1973 yet ?
A:    No, I'm not quite there, either. I'm looking for the bigger picture.
B:    Millennial books !
A:    And everything in between.
B:    Yes, I've read a lot about those Book of the Century lists. One of those schlock publishers came out with a heavily publicized one, didn't they ?
A:    Random House. A house of some repute, incidentally.
B:    Weren't all the books on the list published by them ?
A:    Not quite as bad as that, though that was one of the criticisms levelled against it. But the list is a useful starting point. In fact, there were four lists. Two for fiction -- one assembled by the editorial board of the Modern Library imprint, and one by online users. Similarly, there were two for non-fiction.
B:    As I recall, the list made by the readers and that by the gang on the editorial board differed greatly.
A:    True. Let's look at the editorial board selections first.
B:    Fiction first -- because that's all that counts ...
A:    Correct.
B:    James Joyce's Ulysses at number one .....
A:    Well, before we get to that, note the qualification to the list: English-language fiction. A limitation so severe that it ignores the vast majority of the world's literary output. And many an acknowledged classic.
B:    It's what we know best.
A:    Nevertheless, it so limits the body of work to be considered as to make the list of hardly any value.
B:    Well, within these limitations, what do you think of it ?
A:    It is an acceptable list. There are questionable choices and notable omissions ...
B:    Such as ?
A:    The Way of all Flesh at number 12, I, Claudius at number 14, The Studs Lonigan Trilogy at number 29. The list is clearly too heavily weighted towards American writers. The order of the books is ... unusual. The omission of certain authors such as Patrick White is incomprehensible. The omission of others, such as Thomas Pynchon, is also questionable.
B:    Is the readers' list better ?
A:    Hardly. Whereby it must be mentioned that there is some question regarding its validity. First, because Random House kept meddling with the votes -- striking made-up titles, as well as popular works such as "William Shatner"'s Tek War books. Secondly, because there were obviously some individuals and/or groups intent on stuffing the ballot box.
B:    What makes you say that ?
A:    The reading public may, occasionally, display strikingly bad taste, but to believe that any representative group could possibly consider four novels by Ayn Rand to be among the eight best English-language works of fiction of the twentieth century, and three works by L. Ron Hubbard to be among the top ten defies all belief.
B:    Point taken.
A:    The list shows some originality, but there is too great an emphasis on science fiction, and too little on quality.
B:    Ulysses made it at number eleven
A:    Close to L.Ron, but not quite. Note too that Ayn and L.Ron finished 1-2 on the readers' non-fiction list.
B:    I can see why you leave that one well enough alone. But what about Ulysses ? Book of the century ? Does anyone really read that book ?
A:    A criticism that I find baffling. There seems little question that it is among the two or three best novels written in English this century, by any measure. It is also an eminently readable, highly entertaining, beautiful book. My understanding is that it is widely read and commonly enjoyed. I have read it, you have read it, and a great number of people have read it. It is not an elitist piece of highbrow art.
    The same can not be said of Finnegans Wake -- 77th on the Modern Library list, and a work that no one I know has read. It may be great, but there I would allow the possibility that it is too ... demanding to be included among the great books of the century.
B:    You don't think it belongs on the list ?
A:    I'm torn. I suspect it does, but a book that comes close to defying all efforts at being read and that has such a limited audience seems almost unworthy of inclusion. I have similar difficulty with the inclusion on the non-fiction list of the Principia Mathematica by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, a book -- books ! -- which I have never even seen, and which I believe no one of my acquaintance has either.
B:    I'm sure I've seen a copy at the local bookstore.
A:    What you find there is the introduction, it alone filling one fat volume. The actual text is an enormous multi-volume work.
B:    What other lists are there ?
A:    There is the Radcliffe list of 100 best English-language works of fiction of the century. A mixed bag again. There's the Hungry Mind Review list of 100 best American books of the century.
B:    How does that one stack up ?
A:    Clearly defined -- American, fiction and non-fiction. No poetry. A bit too politically correct. Four Toni Morrisons but only one Saul Bellow (Herzog) and one American Nabokov (Lolita). And then they disqualify themselves by misspelling some of the authors' names.
B:    Come on ...
A:    Look "Tillie Olson". "Nathaneal West".
B:    Unbelievable.
A:    State of the arts in the US of A. What do you expect ?
    There are some tendentious lists -- the woman writers list (feminista !), the black-list (BET).
B:    Blacklist ?
A:    From the Black Entertainment Network. They specifically asked their panel "to list the most important books of the 20th century." The list, however, is all of one shade.
B:    Isn't that implied in the question ?
A:    Not from how they phrased it.
B:    And the list itself ?
A:    Chinua Achebe slips in at number 18. Otherwise it is US-centered, largely devoted to black-American issues.
B:    Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress comes in at number six, I see.
A:    Well, sure, no question that that tops Ulysses.
B:    And the feminista ! list
A:    Programmatic. Yawn. Though I suppose it serves its purpose. Some of the choices are debatable, but at least they also clearly define what their list means to be.
B:    The New York Public Library list of Books of the Century ?
A:    "The perspective is American and urban, but the list ranges worldwide." Some international aspirations, which is a breath of fresh air. And they include poetry. Perhaps the most interesting of the centennial lists.
    The National Review list of 100 best non-fiction works is of vague interest -- but non-fiction is a different issue entirely, literary merit becoming a secondary consideration, artistic merit tertiary.
    The IMBA list of 100 best mysteries is decent, covering the whole century. There are some odd choices (and they missed E.C.Bentley's Trent's Last Case). And they pretend to be all-inclusive and then have only one non-English title (a Sjowall/Wahloo mystery (in their spelling) -- not even a Simenon).
    There's also Anthony Burgess' list of 99 Best English-language novels from 1939 to 1983.
B:    Yes, I've read that.
A:    I like the approach. And it makes for an interesting survey. I don't quite agree with many of the choices, but it is a starting point.
B:    Waterstone's had some list of readers' choices -- but I see you can't link to it directly.
A:    You can find the list from their main page easily enough. A bit higher standard than the US equivalent, but still some questionable choices.
B:    Neither Ayn Rand nor L. Ron in the top ten.
A:    They don't even make the list. But Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer ...
B:    Last on the list.
A:    Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho at number 77. Too modern a list, but of some interest.
B:    And did anyone take a broader sweep ?
A:    There is the Harvard Book Store list of top 100 recommended titles in any subject. Tiers of books. International, at least, and covering more than just this century.
B:    With what ... seven titles written before 1900 ?
A:    Yes, odd that. There's an interactive Country Bookstore list of the best books of the millennium, also fairly heavily weighted towards the contemporary. And they have a similar list of the 100 best authors of the millennium.
B:    Martin Amis, author of the millennium ?
A:    You're not a fan ?
B:    With Shakespeare at number eight ?
A:    Right behind John Grisham and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
B:    Beyond entertainment value, do you think there is anything to these lists ?
A:    Well, it gets people talking. And literary partisanship is always interesting ...
B:    On this level ? Grisham versus Shakespeare ?
A:    True, there's not much point in that.
B:    So what are the arguments for such lists -- and what should they look like ?

the dialogue continues: here

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© 2000 the complete review Quarterly
© 2000 the complete review