When the Modern Library released their list of The 100 Greatest English Language Novels of the 20th Century in 1998, I was a bit surprised I hadn’t read more, even though I was way ahead of anyone else I knew. I had read 33 at the time and decided, first, that a lot of the list didn’t belong, and second, that if I was going to criticize it, I needed to know it. So over the course of the following two years I read the other 67. With their list completed, I set to work writing my own.

I have spent the last several years reworking my own list. I follow the same criteria as the Modern Library: written in English (except Darkness at Noon, which was on their list, so I put it on mine), novels, published in the 20th Century. This eliminates a lot of great fiction of course, including all foreign novels (The Stranger, 100 Years of Solitude, The Trial, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle), all 19th Century works (although outside of the Russians the only novels I love from the 19th Century are A Tale of Two Cities and The Red and the Black) and short story collections (Dubliners, Interpreter of Maladies, Stories of John Cheever, Where I’m Calling From). Also, of course, we also have a new group of fantastic novels it eliminates: those from the current century (Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, Bel Canto). These may all be the subject of future lists.

Due to the length of the list, and the quotes I have included from each novel, Veronica has asked me to do this list in parts. It will be appearing over the next couple of weeks. But here are numbers 100 through 76 of the 100 Greatest English Language Novels of the 20th Century:

100 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig)

“It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.” (last line)

99 – Wapshot Chronicles (John Cheever) – ML list #63

(this includes both Wapshot Chronicle and Wapshot Scandal)

“Then, before the rain began, the old place appeared to be, not a lost way of life or one to be imitated, but a vision of life as hearty and fleeting as laughter and something like the terms by which he lived.” (p 306)

98 – Scoop (Evelyn Waugh) – ML list #75

” ‘Yes, but it’s not quite as easy as that. You see, they are all Negroes. And the Fascists won’t be called black because of their racial pride, so they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called black because of their racial pride. So when you say black you mean red, and when you mean red you say white and when the party who call themselves blacks says traitors they mean what we call blacks, but what we mean when we say traitors I really couldn’t tell you,’ ” (p 43)

97 – The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton) – ML list #58 / Pulitzer Prize

“He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime.” (p 360)

96 – The Poorhouse Fair (John Updike)

“We grow backward, aging into our father’s opinions and even into those of our grandfathers.” (p 162)

95 – The Painted Bird (Jerzy Kosinski)

“The voice lost in a faraway village church had found me again and filled the whole room.” (p 213)

94 – The Great American Novel (Philip Roth)

” ‘A book is a book, no more. Who would want to kill himself over a novel?’ ” (p 35)

93 – Shame (Salman Rushdie)

“I must reconcile myself to the inevitability of the missing bits.” (p 66)

92 – Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich) – National Book Critics Circle Award

“I never wanted much, and I needed even less, but what happened was that I got everything handed to me on a plate.” (p 89)

91 – The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer) – ML list #51

“All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.” (p 7)

90 – I, Claudius (Robert Graves) – ML list #14

“I was thinking, ‘So, I’m Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I’ll be able to make people read my books now.’ ” (p 432)

89 – Go Down Moses (William Faulkner)

“The face was black, smooth, impenetrable; the eyes had seen too much.” (p 351)

88 – The Rainbow (D.H. Lawrence) – ML list #48

“She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the overarching heaven.” (last line)

87 – Player Piano (Kurt Vonnegut)

“It was the miracle that won the war – production with almost no manpower.” (p 9)

86 – Them (Joyce Carol Oates) – National Book Award

“A person, a girl, imagines the mirror will show no reflection of her.” (p 326)

85 – The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)

“I’m too tired to go on with this story.” (p 166)

84 – White Noise (Don DeLillo) – National Book Award

“I invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968. It was a cold and bright day with intermittent winds out of the east.” (p 4)

83 – Sabbath’s Theater (Philip Roth) – National Book Award

“He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.” (last lines)

82 – Sister Carrie (Theodore Dreiser) – ML list #33

“Passion in a man of Hurstwood’s nature takes a vigorous form. It is no musing, dreamy thing.” (p 152)

81 – Dune (Frank Herbert)

“There is no escape. We pay for the violence of our ancestors.”

80 – Babbitt (Sinclair Lewis)

“It was the best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments, including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent dial. Babbitt was proud of being awakened by such a rich device.” (p 7)

79 – The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)

“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.” (p 30)

78 – Ragtime (E. L. Doctorow) – ML list #86

“Of course Freud’s immediate reception in America was not auspicious. A few professional alienists understood his importance, but to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. At least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever.” (p 39)

77 – Shoeless Joe (W. P. Kinsella)

“My father said he saw him years later playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in California, wearing shoes and an assumed name.” (opening line)

76 – U.S.A. (John Dos Passos) – ML list #23

(trilogy includes The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money)

“The lookout put his hand over his mouth. At last he made Charley understand that he wasn’t supposed to talk to him.” (last line of The 42nd Parallel)

#75 to 51 will be later this week, with a discussion of specific novels you won’t find on my list

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