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Jewish World Review /August 3, 1998 / 11 Menachem-Av, 5758

Clarence Page

Clarence Page A list about lists

WASHINGTON - When I overheard a couple of red-vested women in our neighborhood's volunteer security patrol discussing how many of the "100 best English-language novels" they had read, I realized several things:

1. My neighbors haven't found the list's No. 1 winner, James Joyce's "Ulysses," to be any more readable than I have.

2. My neighbors agree with me that the No. 2 book, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" should have been No. 1.

3. Random House has pulled off one heck of an effective publicity stunt.

4. Americans love lists, even if only to give them something to argue about.

The "100 best English-language novels" list was decided by 10 members of the advisory board of the Modern Library, the division of Random House that publishes old classics and newer books that are becoming classics.
Should Toni Morrison
be considered one of
modern literature's greatests?

Predictably the list has sparked heated arguments among the literati. Greatness, after all, is largely in the eye and the heart of the beholder, and this particular group of beholders has tastes that apparently have changed very little since 1955.

The distinguished panel was all white and, except for British novelist and critic A.S. Byatt, all male. It also included authors William Styron and Gore Vidal; biographer Edmund Morris; art critic John Richardson; historians Daniel Boorstin, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and board chairman Christopher Cerf. Their average age was 69.

I cannot help but wonder how much this group's age, gender and racial profile contributed to their omission of all but six books that have been published in the past 25 years.

Or why they included no non-whites except the very worthy Ralph Ellison (19), Richard Wright (20), James Baldwin (39), V.S. Naipaul (72 and 83) and Salman Rushdie (90).

Or why they left out such leading lights as Zora Neale Hurston and John Updike or such newer lights as Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Alice Walker and Don DeLillo.

And that's OK because Random House freely admits this was a publicity stunt or, as Ann Godoff, its president and editor-in-chief, called it, "a way to bring Modern Library to public attention."

It worked like a charm. Newspapers, newsmagazines, radio talk shows and other outposts of cultural criticism grabbed the list and thrust it to new prominence in the public spotlight, either to praise it or condemn it.

Why? Let me count the ways. Better, let's make a list of the ways.

1. Where a list does not exist, Americans feel compelled to make one. Long before the American Film Institute's 100 greatest films or David Letterman's "Top 10" lists there was the "Book of Lists," which back in the 1970s made the national best seller lists.

2. More than lists, Americans love rankings. What good is it to be simply good in this country if you don't know how you stack up next to everyone else, especially those who are not as good as you?

3. We are emotionally invested deeply in rankings that concern intelligence. We yearn for objective, numerical ways to judge merit in our society.

Nowhere is this argument more volatile than it is in the affirmative action debate. Critics of affirmative action in college admissions say colleges should rank admissions by grade-point averages and SAT scores.

Colleges like the University of Michigan, in one currently pending high-profile case, want more freedom than that.

They want to be able to consider not just test scores but a range of other factors, including geographic origins, sports talent, music talent, family hardships and racial-ethnic background.

Gee, next thing you know, they'll be saying education doesn't only come from books. Won't that be a scandal.

Nevertheless, the Modern Library list serves at least one important redeeming purpose. It offers an alternative to the "best seller list," which is a measure of popularity, not quality, unless your idea of high art is Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel.

The "100 Best" list, then, should be viewed not as the last word, but as a beginning. It doesn't contain all the great books, but it contains enough to prepare you for a lifetime of discovering other great books.


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©1998, Tribune Media Services.