Last year the Modern Library raised a ruckus with its “hundred best novels of the century” list. It also sold a ton of books–which made a “hundred best non-fiction books” list inevitable. It will be released at the Los Angeles BookExpo in April.
The first complaint about the earlier list (aside from the basic crassness of the enterprise) was that it had been made from a checklist prepared by experts. But experts turned out to be not such a bad thing. When Random House asked readers to vote, 7 of the top 10 novels were by either Ayn Rand or L. Ron Hubbard. (Only Orwell’s 1984, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird cracked the magic circle.)
A second complaint: The panel was too white and too male. So the new panel has: Maya Angelou, Daniel Boorstin, A.S. Byatt, Caleb Carr, Christopher Cerf, Ron Chernow, Shelby Foote, Stephen Jay Gould, Vartan Gregorian, Charles Johnson, Mary Karr, Jon Krakauer, Edmund Morris, Elaine Pagels, John Richardson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Carolyn See, William Styron, and Gore Vidal.
It will be hard to make this work. Another problem is that there’s vastly more good non-fiction than fiction.
And what is “non-fiction”? Does it include science, clearing a path for Thomas Kuhn and Lewis Thomas? Philosophy, psychology? Camus’s The Rebel is an automatic. But do you include dazzling prose writers like Sigmund Freud and William James? Does Nietzsche’s posthumous (1908) Ecce Homo get safe passage out of the 19th century, as Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh so bizarrely did on the fiction list?
Literary reportage ought to make up the bulk of the list. Rebecca West should get a half-dozen listings but will be lucky to get one (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon). Ditto A.J. Liebling (probably for The Earl of Louisiana). How fictional can this non-fiction be? Does Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song get on? How about Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves? Prize-boards being present- centered and friendship-bound, Tom Wolfe and John McPhee could interlope.
A lot of absolute crap could make it: Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Good stuff will be lost. Feminists could shut out Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as too tame. If Maya Angelou doesn’t argue for Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age (and she won’t), who will? Someone must argue (it’s Gould’s job) for Jim Bouton’s exquisite Ball Four, the first modern sports book. And what about those journalistic models–Orwell, Dwight Macdonald, Cyril Connolly–who never, strictly speaking, wrote a real prose book?
Is there an automatic place for the top consciousness-raising tracts of the fifties (David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd), sixties (Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body), seventies (Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism), and eighties (Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind)? A tempting (and sensible) option is to split the difference between influence and style by picking the top books about the major events of the century: Communism (snubbing Whittaker Chambers’s Witness would be a scandal), race and colonialism (Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude); modern art (Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, alas; Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle, if To the Finland Station misses under Communism); and the Holocaust (with Anne Frank’s diary likely to top the whole list).