Modern Library's List of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century


This list was crazy controversial when it came out years back. Still is. But it's a conversation starter. Or argument starter. Still, who doesn't love best-book lists? I've put them in ascending order.

I think it's a sin against the English language that Blood Meridian and Gravity's Rainbow weren't included, but that's just me. Also Beckett, O'Connor and Morrison didn't make the cut. Yet 'Darkness at Noon' is number 8? Great book, but, better than 'Wise Blood' or 'The Bluest Eye?' C'mon.

I don't feel Modern Library made their list lightly; I'm sure it was agonizing to choose exactly 100 novels for exactly 100 years, and only in English no less. Their list remains largely awesome; I'd personally swap out maybe 20 or so to insert titles that I feel are 'greater.' That sort-of happened already with Radcliffe's Top 100, a list compiled as a critical reply to ML's list: there's a lot of overlap. Then there's the fanatical Rand/Hubbard-ridden Top 100 Reader's List that ML generously still has posted on their site. It's a bit bonkers. Though it DOES have Blood Meridian and Gravity's Rainbow on it, so it's not all bad. Still, crazy. And, to my thinking, uncritical. Sayeth the snob.

One more thing I think is interesting. If you truncate exactly at 1901 and 2000, you get an artificial sampling in terms of literary eras. (Putting on my academic hat here.) The first decades of the 20th c are more akin to the 19th c -- Henry James, Wharton, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis can feel like holdovers from the Victorian/Gilded age. Meanwhile novels published in 2001, like The Corrections, Atonement and Empire Falls, 'fit in' better with the 20th century. Ulysses, published in 1922, is truly a benchmark, and much of what was written after was inescapably influenced by Joyce's masterwork. So a list that starts at 1923 and comes up to the present (like TIME Magazine's excellent list) feels more organic. To back it up I'd ideally have a list from 1810 to 1922 (Austen to Joyce) as well, rather than 1801-1900.

See my other lists on Riffle for the 100 Non-ML best novels and 100 Translated Non-ML best novels. In the notes I'll discuss a bit more what some of the supposed shortcomings of this original ML are.

Comments, complaints or plaudits can be tweeted @jeremytescher.

  • The Magnificent Ambersons: (A Modern Library E-Book) (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)

  • The Ginger Man

  • The Postman Always Rings Twice

  • The Sheltering Sky

  • Sophie's Choice

  • Under the Net

  • Wide Sargasso Sea (Norton Critical Editions)

  • The Magus

  • Ironweed

  • Tobacco Road: A Novel (Brown Thrasher Books Ser.)

  • Midnight's Children: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)

  • Loving; Living; Party Going (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)

  • The Call of the Wild and Selected Stories (Signet Classics)

  • The Old Wives' Tale (Penguin Classics)

  • Ragtime: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)

  • Modern Classics Lord Jim (Penguin Modern Classics)

  • The Death of the Heart

  • A Bend in the River

  • Angle of Repose (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)

  • The Adventures Of Augie March

Modern Library Editorial Board, 1998