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The Books of Our Lives

By Richard Cohen
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, July 23, 1998; Page A19

It turns out I have read the last page of the first book on the list of 100 best English-language novels published this century – "Ulysses" by James Joyce. The rest of the book I found impenetrable. It turns out I tried another book on the list about five times. That's Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," which placed 8th. I never got past Page 30. For me, Koestler brought on darkness way before noon.

It turns out that there is one book on the list, "Zuleika Dobson," by Max Beerbohm, which I had never heard of. It came in at No. 59, right between Edith Wharton and Walker Percy. I am told "Zuleika Dobson" is a satire of life at Oxford. The same friend who told me that also told me he owns a copy. He then paused – long, hard and pregnant – and confessed he had never read the book either. Now, that's a true friend.

It is required of me to state here and now that all lists are silly and we should pay no attention to them. This one, compiled by the editorial board of the Modern Library – alias Random House – is no exception. It follows the one put out by the American Film Institute, listing the top 100 movies. That list was given a big sendoff by Newsweek, which – along with Time – is where most lists of these sorts originate. U.S. News & World Report confines itself to dour lists of hospitals, colleges and such.

Having now fulfilled my obligation to make light of these lists, let me add that I take them mighty seriously. That is because they are not mere lists; they are tests – SATs for out-of-college types. I read them, as I bet you do too, not merely to learn which is the best English book of the 20th century – after all, the choice is a consensus pick – but to see how many of the 100 I have read. In my case, it is 30 – although the number would be far higher if I could include stage or screen adaptations. For instance, I never read "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Muriel Spark (No. 76), but I did see the movie. Liked it a lot, as a matter of fact.

I also read "Call It Sleep" by Henry Roth, which the critic Morris Dickstein considered "arguably one of the half-dozen best American novels of the 20th century." The late Alfred Kazin was no less enthusiastic, and the book has sold more than 1 million copies since it was reissued in the 1960s. Unfortunately and outrageously, it did not make the Modern Library list.

I have done some sleuthing. "Call It Sleep" was one of the 404 books originally nominated, but it failed to make the next cut. It had its champions, but they could not prevail, and the board of literary eminents – Gore Vidal, Daniel Boorstin, Edmund Morris, William Styron, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian, Christopher Cerf, A. S. Byatt, John Richardson and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. – moved on without much discussion of this classic at all. From the very first, "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov moved into the top tier (it finished 4th), and "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker was dropped from sight. It came in 404th.

Interestingly (or, maybe, ominously) only five of the books on the Modern Library list made it to the AFI list when they were adapted for the screen – "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Maltese Falcon," "A Clockwork Orange," "From Here to Eternity" and "A Place in the Sun," which was 92 on the AFI list and adapted from No. 16, Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy." Say what you will for the book, it didn't have Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift.

Some of the best films, "The Godfather" (No. 3) and "Gone With the Wind" (No. 4), for instance, were adapted from mediocre works. As for the No. 2 picture, "Casablanca," it's a preposterous story that cannot bear the slightest scrutiny. It is, though, a wonderful, wonderful movie, and I've seen it far more often than No. 1, "Citizen Kane."

There is, though, one list yet to be done – not of the very best books, but of those that meant the most to you at certain stages in your life. "Of Human Bondage" and "The Catcher in the Rye" were the two great books of my teenage years. Hemingway, recognized by the Modern Library savants to their credit, taught me much about writing and, I once thought (and still do a little), about manliness. And, of course, there's the much-attempted but never-finished "Ulysses." It has taught me over and over again that I am not as smart as I sometimes think.

Yes? Yes?

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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