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'Adams' Named Best Nonfiction Book

April 30, 1999|From ASSOCIATED PRESS

Choosing one of the most idiosyncratic of literary memoirs, the Modern Library pronounced "The Education of Henry Adams" this century's best English-language work of nonfiction.

William James' landmark study "The Varieties of Religious Experience" came in second on the publishing house's top 100 list. It was followed by Booker T. Washington's autobiography "Up From Slavery," a founding document for the philosophy of black self-help.

The Modern Library released its top 100 on Thursday, the eve of BookExpo America, the industry's annual national convention, held this year in Los Angeles.

After the Modern Library's top 100 fiction list was criticized as being overwhelmingly white and male, the publisher expanded its selection committee. Two women, Elaine Pagels and Carolyn See, were added, as was a black author, Charles Johnson, and such younger writers as Jon Krakauer and Caleb Carr.

In other efforts at more variety, no writer was permitted more than one title on the list and each of the 13 committee members was allowed to add one book of his or her choice. As with fiction, selections were made regardless of publisher. Members worked from a master list of 900 titles.

The nonfiction top 10 included one black, Washington, and two women: Virginia Woolf was ranked fourth for her feminist classic "A Room of One's Own," and Rachel Carson was No. 5 for "Silent Spring," which helped inspire the environmental movement.

Two other black writers, James Baldwin ("Notes of a Native Son") and Richard Wright ("Black Boy"), and two more women, Barbara Tuchman ("The Guns of August") and Gertrude Stein ("The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas"), made the top 20.

"It sounds like they sort of learned their lesson from the fiction list," said novelist and essayist Mary Gordon. "It sounds like a pretty good list."

Adams' book, published privately in 1907, became as talked about for what it omitted as for what it contained. Missing was any reference to his wife's suicide or to his well-known earlier books. Instead, referring to himself in the third person, this descendant of two American presidents told a melancholy, fascinating story of his intellectual and spiritual life.

Vladimir Nabokov, whose novel "Lolita" ranked No. 4 on the fiction list, was the only writer to make the top 10 in both categories. His memoir "Speak, Memory" was No. 8 for nonfiction.

But with only 100 getting in, there will be questions about those left out. Among the missing: Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast," James Agee and Walker Evans' "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique."

Another problem was deciding what qualified as "nonfiction." Truman Capote's novelistic "In Cold Blood" made the list. But such acclaimed Norman Mailer books as "The Executioner's Song," which many believe equally "true," didn't make it.

1. "The Education of Henry Adams," Henry Adams; 2. "The Varieties of Religious Experience," William James; 3. "Up From Slavery," Booker T. Washington; 4. "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf; 5. "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson; 6. "Selected Essays, 1917-1932," T.S. Eliot; 7. "The Double Helix," James D. Watson; 8. "Speak, Memory," Vladimir Nabokov; 9. "The American Language," H.L. Mencken; 10. "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money," John Maynard Keynes.

11. "The Lives of a Cell," Lewis Thomas; 12. "The Frontier in American History," Frederick Jackson Turner; 13. "Black Boy," Richard Wright; 14. "Aspects of the Novel," E.M. Forster; 15. "The Civil War," Shelby Foote; 16. "The Guns of August," Barbara Tuchman; 17. "The Proper Study of Mankind," Isaiah Berlin; 18. "The Nature and Destiny of Man," Reinhold Niebuhr; 19. "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin; 20. "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," Gertrude Stein.

21. "The Elements of Style," William Strunk and E.B. White; 22. "An American Dilemma," Gunnar Myrdal; 23. "Principia Mathematica," Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell; 24. "The Mismeasure of Man," Stephen Jay Gould; 25. "The Mirror and the Lamp," Meyer Howard Abrams; 26. "The Art of the Soluble," Peter B. Medawar; 27. "The Ants," Bert Hoelldobler and Edward O. Wilson; 28. "A Theory of Justice," John Rawls; 29. "Art and Illusion," Ernest H. Gombrich; 30. "The Making of the English Working Class," E.P. Thompson.

31. "The Souls of Black Folk," W.E.B. DuBois; 32. "Principia Ethica," G.E. Moore; 33. "Philosophy and Civilization," John Dewey; 34. "On Growth and Form," D'Arcy Thompson; 35. "Ideas and Opinions," Albert Einstein; 36. "The Age of Jackson," Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; 37. "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," Richard Rhodes; 38. "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," Rebecca West; 39. "Autobiographies," W.B. Yeats; 40. "Science and Civilization in China," Joseph Needham.

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