The first list I paid any attention to was this one from Modern Library, released in 1998. In 2002, I was intimidated by how many my friend Tim had read and how many I hadn’t. Now a couple of times a year I read books from the list. It has been widely criticised because of its lack of women writers and its American focus. Fair criticisms – it is really a list of the 100 greatest American male novels written before 1960, with a couple of extras.
I only recently discovered how the list was chosen, and it made me like it less – nine writers were asked which, of a list of 400 books (published in the Modern Library) they would recommend. The books were ranked by numbers of recommendations.
That is a very limiting way to make a list! And yet I’ve made some amazing discoveries from the lists – books which have become favourites of mine, including John Updike’s Rabbit series; John Cheever’s Wapshot Chronicles and Graham Greene’s The heart of the matter.
I think the Board’s choice of James Joyce’s Ulysses as number one is a good one. It is one of my favourite novels, and an incredible literary accomplishment. I think it shows what it is to be alive better than anything else written in the twentieth century.
I have now at least begun reading 42 of the books, up from 25 back in 2002.
Being aware of the list’s limits, I would recommend it. (But you should totally ignore the Readers’ List. It is a victim of vandalism by fans of Ayn Rand, L. Ron Hubbard etc – internet freaks who think distorting the list will make more people read their crazy books. They’re probably right.)