Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Modern Library List- By the Numbers

Yesterday we looked at a number of Top 100 lists. Today we break one of them down to see how much merit there is in having a committee curate a reading list by force-ranking various works of literature.

Here is how the books break down by decade of publication:

What can we learn from this first graph? Lesson #1 is never write a novel in the last two decades of a century, because you have no prayer of making the centennial "best-of" lists. In all seriousness, though, preference is obviously given to works that have stood the test of time. That’s probably as it should be. But if that’s the case, then the body of work ought to marinate for a generation or so before we start force-ranking individual books.

Another possible explanation is that wars and empires are good for fiction. That’s a subject big enough for a post of its own, but if you look at the original list and tally the authors and books that touch on those themes, I think there’s a strong case to be made. For a more modern example, consider how Khaled Hosseini would rate with modern readers without assists from Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush. It’s something to think about.

Here are the authors who landed multiple titles on the list:

This second chart is equally interesting. Who would have guessed that Polish-born Joseph Conrad would come away with top honors- the only author with four Top 100 novels to his credit. And who would have guessed that we’d see more Evelyn Waugh than Ernest Hemingway, or more E.M. Forster than F. Scott Fitzgerald? John Steinbeck is on the list just once? Yet V.S. Naipaul pulls off the two-fer? I can’t say that I’ve read much more than a fifth of the total books listed, but I’m already beginning to scratch my head.

And finally, here is how things break down across geo-political boundaries*:
As you would expect, the bulk of English-language novels come to us from the U.S. or Great Britain. But nothing from Australia? A giant goose egg from South Africa? And India only registers because I assigned Salmon Rushdie to his ancestral homeland? Again, one is forced to scratch his head.

At the end of the day, we can probably only conclude that while "best-of" lists are useful starting points for the reader, they should not be considered the be all and end all of what constitutes a worthy read. For that, you need to follow

Just kidding.

Well, half kidding anyway. You really should be following us.

* notes on nationality below

Saul Bellow emigrated from Canada to the states at the age of nine, and became a citizen by age 26. I’ve lumped him in with the Americans.

Joseph Conrad became a British citizen by the age of 30, but for much of his life he was really a citizen of the high seas. In the end, his politics and his refusal of British Knighthood due to a family legacy of Polish nobility led me to classify him as a Polish writer.

As a consolation prize, I gave American-born Henry James to the English. He became a British subject only one year before his death, but after his pond-hopping early years, he had spent the bulk of his life in England.

V.S. Naipaul was born a British subject, but since his homeland earned its independence in the sixties I have called him Trinidadian.

Similarly, Salmon Rushdie was born in British India, and right or not, I left him with India since much of his fiction is based on the sub-continent.


  1. Interesting numbers. Again, it helps give a place to start (and increases the place to end).

    When I look at which lit to pick up, I like starting with the ones that made the biggest dents in "our" culture. That drove most of why I read any of the Harry Potters.

    Can a reference be made to something about a book by people who have never read it? How many people know who Sherlock Holmes is, or about Tom Sawyer and the whitewashed fence without having read those books?

    Movies and other media do a lot to drive these things, but as a bit of a pop culture nut, I love reading the books that are part of the western conscious. Sometimes that's more important to me than reading something well written. I'm interested in the lit that left a mark on everyone, not just academia. Maybe I should try more Joyce and less Jules Verne or L. Frank Baum.

    Anyway, I'm digging the site so far. Keep it up.

  2. Hey, I read "Around the World in 80 Days" last year, and I'm about to launch into Baum's "Life and Adventures of Santa Claus" for Christmas. Nothing wrong with those authors.

    And I'm with you on cultural impact. Italo Calvino said "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say." I'm all about lyrical beauty in the things I read, but I think I could agree with that definition.

  3. I have Calvino in my queue. My wife bought me "If on a winter's night a traveler." I keep hearing good things about him/it. I need to get started on it.

    I'm currently struggling through a book a friend loaned me. It's not bad enough to quit, and not good enough to be a page turner.

  4. Wow, this list made me go back over my reading list of classic I wanted to read. I am sadly lacking most of what they consider the top 100. Oh well, I don't regret my reading history and now I just have to add more titles to my list- Dang

  5. Thanks for the stats, MacEvoy.

    South Africa, while sadly short of twentieth century stalwarts has my favorite current writer: J.M. Coetzee.

    Look out twenty-first century list!

  6. I'd say that Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country deserves to be in the conversation for last century. I absolutely loved that book.

    But what's Coetzee accomplished? Only two Bookers and a Nobel? Pfft!