Gore Vidal’s recent death led me to the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century. The list has been around since 1999, but I didn’t realize it was online (as of course it was bound to be). There are actually two lists–one from the Modern Library board, the other based on votes from readers–and the latter was hilarious hijacked by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard zealots (also Charles de Lint fans, for some reason).
Vidal isn’t on either list. I hadn’t expected him to be, although I enjoyed the two or three novels of his that I read. On the board’s list there is no John Updike, no Thomas Pynchon (although V and Gravity’s Rainbow are on the readers’ list), no Don DeLillo, no John Barth, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, or John Irving. Surprisingly, John O’Hara makes the list, as does Thornton Wilder. I was pleased to see John Cheever represented, although he was primarily a short-story writer. The board’s science fiction choices are standard: 1984, Brave New World, Slaughterhouse-Five, Lord of the Flies, and A Clockwork Orange. No Tolkien. Too much D. H. Lawrence and Saul Bellow for my taste.
I’ve read a little over half the novels on the list. In particular, I seem to have missed a bunch of early twentieth-century American novels that the board thinks highly of — An American Tragedy; Winesburg, Ohio; Sister Carrie; the U.S.A trilogy; the Studs Lonigan trilogy; The Magnificent Ambersons…. Are they worth my time?
The list-making doesn’t amount to much, I suppose, except to get me (and others) to add books to their endless readling lists. Same for the new list of the top movies of all time. Is Vertigo really better than Citizen Kane? Who cares? Seen ’em both; liked ’em both. But I’ve never heard of Sunrise, and it’s now in my Netflix queue. And I guess I’ll give Sherwood Anderson a try, too.