As if to assert that there was a literary canon even before Oprah, the scholars that be have recently spoken out and the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century have been determined.
E-mail list servers and online bulletin boards have been abuzz with gripes and groans about the (mostly male, mostly white) selection. To take a gander at the magnificent 100, saunter on over to http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100best/. There you can inspect the list as chosen by the publishing imprint Modern Library, a division of Random House.
The Web site offers Netizens a chance to vote for their own selection of literary favorites and places it side to side with the original list. While the Modern Library's board selected James Joyce's "Ulysses" No. 1, the readers selected Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." (Some Web conversations have suggested that Rand "fanatics" stuffed the ballot box; she shows up again at No. 7 with "The Fountainhead.")
The Web site has links to pages telling how the list was tabulated and who the board members were who made the selections. There is also a forum where the books are discussed--often heatedly.
Many people who partake of online culture employ the Internet as a wired way to bring oneself up to speed; autodidactism is just a click away.
Start with "Ulysses." Cynics have said that the board selected Joyce's uber-novel as No. 1 to introduce a level of intellectual elitism to the selection. High-brow wannabes who can't make heads or tails of Joyce's abstruse prose might tiptoe over to http://www.bway.net/ ~hunger/ulysses.html, where they'll encounter "Ulysses for Dummies," a stripped-down, revved-up version of Joyce's great work.
In cheerful color, undulating Java and naively rendered pictorials, the 18-chapter novel is simplified with a focus on plot.
"June 16, 1904. 8:00 A.M." begins the abbreviated version. "Stephen Dedalus, a young schoolteacher, speaks to his friend, stately, plump Buck Mulligan, in the dis-used Dublin watchtower where they live."
The second greatest book of the century, according to the Modern Library's esteemed arbiters, is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." To get the gist (the Web is a fine tool for this purpose) of this elegant Jazz Age novel--without bothering to actually read it--surf on over to http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Quad/5170/gatsby.htm, where you can skip the Great Gatsby trivia test and go straight for the correct answers.
Sample questions: Which Egg do Nick and Gatsby live in? What kind of drinks do Gatsby, Jordan, Tom and Daisy have at the hotel? (West Egg, mint juleps are the correct answers.)
Another fine way to fake a literary education is to periodically quote the first line of a variety of great works. The good people at http://pc159.lns.cornell.edu:80/firsts/have compiled a whopping lot of first lines, from classic literature to modern masters.
Many of the first lines listed at this site are hyper-linked to locations on the Web where the complete text can be found and you can read the book intact. If you're into that kind of thing.
Erika Milvy is a freelance writer. You can check her out at http://www.goplay.com