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A Century's Best Novels, Chapter 2: Readers Vote

The Top 100: From Lee to 'Livingston,' Burroughs to 'Beloved,' book lovers reviewing the Modern Library's choices say the publisher's list missed.

July 24, 1998|TONY LIOCE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Where's Harper Lee? Where's Margaret Mitchell? Where's Ayn Rand? Where's John Irving? Where's William Burroughs? No Raymond Chandler? OK, they included Faulkner, Nabokov, Steinbeck and Hemingway. But where's "Absalom, Absalom!"? Where's "Laughter in the Dark"? "Of Mice and Men" and "East of Eden"? "The Old Man and the Sea" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls"?

Today at Radcliffe College, the Modern Library's editorial board officially will announce what it considers the 100 finest English-language novels published in this century, a list that starts with James Joyce's "Ulysses" and ends with Booth Tarkington's "The Magnificent Ambersons."

The list has been in circulation since Monday, though, and reaction to it has been swift and hot. Too many white authors. Not enough women (and not a single black one). Too many dead/old people. Only one author who didn't/doesn't live in the U.S. or England. Too many books published by the Modern Library itself or at least its parent company.

This week we asked Times readers what they think, and which of their favorite books and authors they were surprised to find missing.

Of all the books left off the list, the three that got the most votes from Times readers-- "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Gone With the Wind' and "The Fountainhead"--are by women (Lee, Mitchell and Rand, respectively). The most popular ignored man was Irving, whose "The World According to Garp" tied for fourth with Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."

Other books ignored by the Modern Library but receiving multiple nods from Times readers included "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry, "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon, "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker, "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck, "The Raj Quartet" by Paul Scott ("a scandalous omission," wrote Donald Marcus of Pasadena), and "2001: A Space Odyssey" by Arthur C. Clarke.

Also "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kesey, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith, "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame, "White Noise" by Don DeLillo, "Wise Blood" by Flannery O'Connor, "The Sot-Weed Factor" by John Barth, "Molloy" by Samuel Beckett, "Post Office" by Charles Bukowski and "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles.

And "The Bonfire of the Vanities" by Tom Wolfe, "The Thorn Birds" by Colleen McCullough, "The Time Machine" by H.G. Wells, "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe, "The Bounty Trilogy" by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury, "I, Robot" by Isaac Asimov, "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert A. Heinlein, "Interview With the Vampire" by Anne Rice, "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath and "The French Lieutenant's Woman" by John Fowles.

*

"Book Review editor Steve Wasserman rightly points out [in a piece in Wednesday's Life & Style] that 'issues of merit, nationality, race and gender loom large' about [the] list of 100 best novels. He overlooked the issue of sexual persuasion. So did members of the Modern Library editorial board, who included not one single novel by a known gay novelist writing about the gay experience.

"William Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch,' John Rechy's 'City of Night' and Christopher Isherwood's 'A Single Man' altered our culture by exploring, in expert prose, lives otherwise unseen, lives the editorial board has implicitly attempted to push back into hiding with its list."

Michael Snyder

Los Angeles

"I looked at the list a few times and I could swear that 'Lord of the Rings' by J.R.R. Tolkien wasn't on it. This seems strange, particularly as it was No. 1 on a similar list issued about 18 months ago in Britain. This must be my mistake so I will look again."

--Chris Sullivan

Los Angeles

"Most egregiously missing from the list is 'A Confederacy of Dunces' by John Kennedy Toole. It's hilarious . . . brilliantly [weaving] together seemingly disparate story lines into a laugh-out-loud reading experience. I'd put it in the top 10."

--Jennifer Boller

Los Angeles

"I find it appalling that John Updike is not among the authors included. His 'Rabbit' quartet alone should be on any list of the century's great novels."

--Margery Baragona

Santa Barbara

"I think it is a travesty that none of Thomas Wolfe's novels is on the list."

--Rebecca Reagan

University of La Verne

"It's a shame that Truman Capote's work is not represented on the list.

"At least Capote would have been pleased that Gore Vidal didn't make the list either."

--Kevin D. Dawson

Sunland

"Nothing by Nelson Algren? 'Never Come Morning'? 'The Man with the Golden Arm'?"

--Dave Kilcrease, no address given

"No Toni Morrison! No Nadine Gordimer! No Alan Paton! 'I, Claudius' is on the list? Give me a break. Since when is 'Winesburg, Ohio' a novel, by the way?"

--John Shannon

Culver City

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