Real readers don't need a list 'Great books' lists miss the point: Reading should be a joyous discovery, not a duty.

July 26, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Another day, another list, another controversy.

Actually, it's two lists this time, but on the same subject and both announced last week: The top 100 "great" English-language books of the 20th century. The first was compiled by the editorial board of Random House's Modern Library (which happens to publish most of the 100 selections on its list). The second came from students in the Radcliffe publishing course, and also was compiled under the direction of Random House's Christopher Cerf.

Both lists are provocative. Lists always are. If, for some reason, you wish to call a great deal of attention to yourself, make up a list. Circulate it to major news agencies and watch the fun begin. How do you think Mr. Blackwell got started?)

Yet the generational/gender schisms inherent in such an exercise should have been predictable. The Radcliffe students included children's classics such as "Charlotte's Web"; the Random House panel skewed toward books written in the 1930s and '40s. Rather than analyze the lists -- and, by extension, their makers -- it might be more interesting to analyze the way we react to such pronouncements.

I asked the 3,000 members of the DorothyL "listserv," a daily Internet digest to which I belong, to write about the Random House list. DL, as its members call it, is for passionate aficionados of mystery fiction. But it is first and foremost a list of readers - well-educated and opinionated.

Their posted responses show, as one put it, that there may be as many as 100 ways to respond to the top 100.

* Meredith Gillette, of Milwaukee, who is working toward a Ph.D. in English and has read most of the 100: "I think the list is laughable -- seems to me to have a heavy emphasis on the male fantasy life -- both sexual and otherwise (and there's not much otherwise.) Tells a lot more about the judges than I care to know."

* G. Miki Hayden, author of "Pacific Empire," a New York Times summer reading pick: "In reality, once the book is read, we only remember certain key portions anyway, usually our reaction to the book and not the book itself. The whole thing is a futile endeavor of the kind to which human creatures and their surfacey minds are partial."

* Laurel Kristick, physical sciences coordinator, Oregon State University: "I looked at the list not as something I had to read, but to check how my reading reflects the list. I've read 12 of the 100 titles and some of those books I wouldn't classify as a great 20th century novel."

* Steve Brewer, mystery writer, Albuquerque, N.M.: "People get argumentative about lists of best books because they consider themselves well-read, and a list like the Modern Library's Top 100 shows how many holes exist in their knowledge."

* Beth Foxwell, editor and writer, Alexandria, Va.: "Lists of 'the best' works invariably provoke comment for their reliance on 'dead white men,' but they are a good starting point for young readers. In this video-obsessed age, any way that people, especially young people, are impelled to pick up a book is laudable. (Although I have never recovered from being forced to read 'Moby Dick' in high school.)"

Foxwell's point brings us to the personal portion of this program. As a child, I read what my older sister read, and I read what was forbidden, implicitly or explicitly. I read "Lolita" (No. 4) when I was 12. I began my compulsive consumption of Philip Roth ("Portnoy's Complaint," No. 52) because someone told me you could not be a feminist and a Roth fan.

By the same token, an early force-feeding of William Faulk- ner's "The Sound and the Fury" (No. 6) backfired. A high school teacher was so intent on "proving" that Faulkner was better than my then-hero, John Steinbeck ("The Grapes of Wrath," No. 10) that the joy of discovery essential to the reader-writer relationship was forever compromised.

The Random House list reminded me of books I intend to read ("The Alexandria Quartet," by Lawrence Durrell, No. 70; John Dos Passos' "U.S.A." trilogy, No. 23; Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," No. 8). But it can't persuade me to try those books already discarded under the "life's too short" rationale. Yes, that means "Finnegans Wake" (No. 77).

The last list that shaped my reading habits was in "American Literature, the Makers and the Making," published in 1974 by Cleanth Brooks, R.W.B. Lewis and Robert Penn Warren.

Why that list? Because I was still young (read: malleable) and it was very short, with only nine "musts." I read all nine. But, perverse as ever, I preferred the "optional" list, which introduced to Theodore Dreiser ("An American Tragedy," No. 16; "Sister Carrie," No. 33) and Richard Wright ("Native Son," No. 20).

A few years ago, Esquire was the literary controversy of the moment, after publishing an alphabetical "canon" from Yale scholar Harold Bloom. For a while, I had that list on the refrigerator, thinking I might work through Bloom's books. I never made it past Walter Abish.

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