My Interesting (and Occasionally Painful) Journey Through the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century

Probably 15 or so years ago, when I was first struggling with writing and realizing I needed to read a lot more fiction, an author I knew suggested looking at the Random House Modern Library Board Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. As he noted, the list was controversial (the main criticism being “too many dead white males”), but whether or not you agree that these are the best 100 novels from the century, they’re still 100 really good books.

When I first saw the list, I’d read 13, mostly in various high school and university English classes. I’m now up to 95. It’s been an interesting and occasionally painful journey.

The great thing is that I’ve been introduced to authors I wouldn’t have otherwise known. Take John Dos Passos, for example. Although a contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he is not near as well known. And yet his U.S.A. trilogy (which, even in a Penguin paperback, runs almost 1200 pages – a perfect read for a two-week solo vacation in the Greek Islands) is a brilliant book, with interesting experimental touches and a unique style, that captures a whole era.

Or Ford Madox Ford, another author I’d never heard of, whose The Good Soldier fascinated me with its “unreliable narrator.” The story seemed to change from page to page, which made for interesting, if challenging, reading. Other finds (i.e. books I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise) include Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.

It also introduced me to books like Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that reminded me that some problems haven’t gone away. All the King’s Men had a similar effect: even though it was written in the 1930s, it could have come out yesterday.

The bad thing is that I occasionally find works that are a bit painful. I actually had to take a break after reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I totally understood why it’s on the list – his intense stream-of-consciousness descriptions of the artistic process and Paris, combined with stark descriptions of the gutter life (not to mention the mixing of real life and fiction) is groundbreaking, but I felt dirty every time I read it. Seriously. I wanted to shower after each chapter.

I had a similar reaction to Lolita. As with the Miller book, I know why it’s on the list: Humbert Humbert has an incredible voice. His observations about the U.S. and his sly sense of humor in these observations are spectacular. But the sadness of the character and the squirminess of the situation make for an uncomfortable experience as a reader.

Henry James’ The Golden Bowl is another tough read: soooo much interior monologue. As with the above, I can see why it’s on the list – its in-depth portrayal of infidelity and one woman’s growth from naivete to knowledge – but I struggled to read this over 6 weeks. I normally finish a book within a week.