Information Update - Fall 1998
This past summer the Modern Library Board of Random House Publishing Company selected and ranked what it considered to be the 100 greatest English language novels of the twentieth century (www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100best/). Topping the list was, not surprisingly, James Joyce's Ulysses. From there the list descended into a mix of obvious choices and controversial exclusions- Included were such dubious choices as Zuleika Dobson (#59), The Magnificent Ambersons (=100), The Old Wives' Tale (=87), and A High Wind in Jamaica (=71). Absent from the list were any works by such authors as Thomas Wolfe, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, or Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, and Pearl Buck. As controversial as this list is, however, it has not generated as much negative publicity as the American Film Institute's 100 greatest American films list (afi.100movies.com/), which also came out last summer, and which included such dubious crowd-pleasers as Jaws, Dances with Wolves, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
I was not surprised to find that I had seen 97 out of 100 of the AFI's list of films. I had, however, despite my master's degree in English, read only 44 of the Modern Library's novels. Of course, I could always excuse myself by saying that reading even a short novella takes more time and effort than watching a long movie. Or, if I wanted to be snobbishly highbrow in an avant-garde sort of way, I could always tell myself and others that cinema, not fiction, is the true art form of this century. Nonetheless, my inability to reach even the 50 per cent mark made me uneasy. Doing an informal, totally non-scientific check with a few of my colleagues, I found that most of them had read between 30 to 45 of the novels; some had read fewer. One person I know had read 60 of them; she has never completed her undergraduate degree, however, and is truly an autodidact (look it up).
How well are these hooks read in the general population? Once again, I conducted a quick unscientific survey by looking at the collection of the Weinberg Memorial Library- I am proud to report that the Library owns all except three of the books; Salman Rusdie's Midnight's Children (=90), VS. Naipaul's A Bend in the River (=83), and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer (=60) are not in our collection. One cannot say that we are entering the twenty-first century unrepresented by the best of the past.
But are these hooks actually read? I wasn't about to check the circulation of everyone of these books (I do have some real work to do); but I made a spot check on several that I thought might be a little less than popular, checking the date due slips in the backs of the books. What I found was no clearcut pattern. Of course, books that are read in class assignments always go out. The old war horses, like The Great Gatsby (=2) and A Farewell to Arms (=74), always circulate; students read them, whether they want to or not. Retired war horses circulate less. Does anyone still read The Old Wives' Tale or The Way of All Flesh (#12), musts on reading lists 30 years ago? Not our copies, which haven't been out in awhile. Other novels are not read simply because of the nature of the book. John Dos Passos's U.S.A. (=23) trilogy is intimidating at over a thousand pages; our copy was last out in the 1970's. But size isn't what always counts; Henry Green's Loving (=89), a smallish novel, has not circulated since 1964. Nor are readers always true to their favorite authors. We can't keep copies of Nabokov's infamous Lolita (=4) on the shelf; but his other books, including Pale Fire (=53), rarely circulate. Brave New World (#5) also goes out constantly, but Huxley's Point Counter Point (=44) hasn't circulated since 1982. And finally there are anomalies such as Finnegans Wake (#77).
Our two copies circulate regularly, their bindings showing wear and tear. But open the books and the pages are pristine, leading one to doubt how man' readers actually make it through this difficult novel.
While conducting my survey among my colleagues, several of them jokingly asked if seeing the movie version counted. This made me wonder how film compares with fiction in popular culture. Certainly most of us see more movies in a year than we read novels. However, the "longevity" of a film, even a classic one, seems to be shorter than that of a book. While the Modern Library's list is heavy (maybe too heavy) with works from the early part of the century, the AFI's list has only three films from before 1930- Although most people today could read and enjoy The Great Gatsby with little difficulty, silent film classics from the 1920s such as Sunrise or The Crowd (neither of which made AFI's list), require more patience and familiarity with the genre than the average movie watcher wants to give. Perhaps the imagination that is required in reading a novel causes it to be reinvented and thereby "rewritten" by each new reader. Film, being more tangible, shows its age more readily. Of course. these "best" lists are really only valuable as a means of reviving interest in books or films that many of us may have forgotten- It is worth noting that Ulysses rose to third place on Amazon.com's paperback bestseller list following its selection as best English language novel of the century. Let's hope some of the buyers take time to finish this magnificent book. We don't want to get donations of Ulysses to the Library twenty years from now with bookmarks still firmly in place on page 25.
Did You Read the Novel? No, But I Saw the Movie