It seemed like a simple enough question to ask: Which books, published during the 20th century, did you appreciate the most? In soliciting opinions from some of January Magazine's favorite authors and contributors, we weren't so keen on defining the "best" books produced over the last 10 decades as we were on taking the emotional pulse of our respondents, trying to determine which volumes had struck personal chords or somehow influenced the behavior of these ardent readers.
Answers to our questionnaire came in quickly, from writers as diverse as Ian Rankin and Piers Anthony, Tess Gallagher and Ridley Pearson and Merilyn Simonds. And with few exceptions, each began with some version of the disclaimer, "This is an impossible task. But let me try to answer you, anyway..."
In some respects, the results of this survey were to be expected. Most of the century's Big Name wordsmiths -- from Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler, to Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison -- are represented here. (There are even a couple of names from the 19th century, our respondents sneaking them in among the rest with the excuse that their books have at least been reissued during the last 100 years.) Equally predictable was that few of today's heavily hyped, yet usually forgettable, bestsellers made our cut. There's nothing here by Tom Clancy or Jackie Collins or John Grisham.
However, given our limited polling, it's surprising to see several books and authors mentioned repeatedly. Frank Herbert's Dune, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, George Orwell's 1984, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Ross Macdonald's The Chill and a few other titles appear to have had a lasting impact on a wide range of readers.
It is also interesting to note how many books that scholars might deem "important" didn't make this list. Where, for instance, is Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis? Or Henry James' The Ambassadors? And what of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt or Lord of the Flies, by William Golding? Perhaps because we are compelled to read these volumes in school, we don't value them as greatly as we do books that we select on our own. Less easily explained is the absence from this roll of works -- such as Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, or John Irving's The World According to Garp -- that are usually considered to have a broad, even cultish following. And we can only assume that, had we consulted another 40 or 50 writers, somebody would have mentioned Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, Larry Niven's Ringworld, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, David Reuben's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky -- all of which probably belong on a rundown of the most intriguing works of the 1900s.
No doubt you will argue with some choices made here, and you'll want to suggest other 20th-century favorites -- as we invite you to do on our Comments Page. But we hope that you will also read this list with a feeling of discovery, finding some titles and authors that pique your interest for the future. Before we leap into the next millennium, let us take this moment to appreciate the riches that this century's writers have laid before our weary eyes. | December 1999