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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century

There are many problems with a list like this. It heavily favours white American males, and in its myopia manages to avoid mention of some of the 20th century’s best novelists while including other names which really shouldn’t be there.
The list was compiled by the editorial board of the Modern Library, which is a division of Random House Publishers.
Nevertheless, it is a list, and therefore, to me, irresistible.

1. “Ulysses,” James Joyce
2. “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” James Joyce
4. “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov
5. “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley
6. “The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner
7. “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller
8. “Darkness at Noon,” Arthur Koestler
9. “Sons and Lovers,” D. H. Lawrence
10. “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck
11. “Under the Volcano,” Malcolm Lowry
12. “The Way of All Flesh,” Samuel Butler
13. “1984,” George Orwell
14. “I, Claudius,” Robert Graves
15. “To the Lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf
16. “An American Tragedy,” Theodore Dreiser
17. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” Carson McCullers
18. “Slaughterhouse Five,” Kurt Vonnegut
19. “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison
20. “Native Son,” Richard Wright
21. “Henderson the Rain King,” Saul Bellow
22. “Appointment in Samarra,” John O’ Hara
23. “U.S.A.” (trilogy), John Dos Passos
24. “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson
25. “A Passage to India,” E. M. Forster
26. “The Wings of the Dove,” Henry James
27. “The Ambassadors,” Henry James
28. “Tender Is the Night,” F. Scott Fitzgerald
29. “The Studs Lonigan Trilogy,” James T. Farrell
30. “The Good Soldier,” Ford Madox Ford
31. “Animal Farm,” George Orwell
32. “The Golden Bowl,” Henry James
33. “Sister Carrie,” Theodore Dreiser
34. “A Handful of Dust,” Evelyn Waugh
35. “As I Lay Dying,” William Faulkner
36. “All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren
37. “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” Thornton Wilder
38. “Howards End,” E. M. Forster
39. “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” James Baldwin
40. “The Heart of the Matter,” Graham Greene
41. “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding
42. “Deliverance,” James Dickey
43. “A Dance to the Music of Time” (series), Anthony Powell
44. “Point Counter Point,” Aldous Huxley
45. “The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemingway
46. “The Secret Agent,” Joseph Conrad
47. “Nostromo,” Joseph Conrad
48. “The Rainbow,” D. H. Lawrence
49. “Women in Love,” D. H. Lawrence
50. “Tropic of Cancer,” Henry Miller
51. “The Naked and the Dead,” Norman Mailer
52. “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Philip Roth
53. “Pale Fire,” Vladimir Nabokov
54. “Light in August,” William Faulkner
55. “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac
56. “The Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett
57. “Parade’s End,” Ford Madox Ford
58. “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton
59. “Zuleika Dobson,” Max Beerbohm
60. “The Moviegoer,” Walker Percy
61. “Death Comes to the Archbishop,” Willa Cather
62. “From Here to Eternity,” James Jones
63. “The Wapshot Chronicles,” John Cheever
64. “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger
65. “A Clockwork Orange,” Anthony Burgess
66. “Of Human Bondage,” W. Somerset Maugham
67. “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad
68. “Main Street,” Sinclair Lewis
69. “The House of Mirth,” Edith Wharton
70. “The Alexandria Quartet,” Lawrence Durrell
71. “A High Wind in Jamaica,” Richard Hughes
72. “A House for Ms. Biswas,” V. S. Naipaul
73. “The Day of the Locust,” Nathaniel West
74. “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway
75. “Scoop,” Evelyn Waugh
76. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Muriel Spark
77. “Finnegans Wake,” James Joyce
78. “Kim,” Rudyard Kipling
79. “A Room With a View,” E. M. Forster
80. “Brideshead Revisited,” Evelyn Waugh
81. “The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow
82. “Angle of Repose,” Wallace Stegner
83. “A Bend in the River,” V. S. Naipaul
84. “The Death of the Heart,” Elizabeth Bowen
85. “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad
86. “Ragtime,” E. L. Doctorow
87. “The Old Wives’ Tale,” Arnold Bennett
88. “The Call of the Wild,” Jack London
89. “Loving,” Henry Green
90. “Midnight’s Children,” Salman Rushdie
91. “Tobacco Road,” Erskine Caldwell
92. “Ironweed,” William Kennedy
93. “The Magus,” John Fowles
94. “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Jean Rhys
95. “Under the Net,” Iris Murdoch
96. “Sophie’s Choice,” William Styron
97. “The Sheltering Sky,” Paul Bowles
98. “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” James M. Cain
99. “The Ginger Man,” J. P. Donleavy
100. “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Booth Tarkington

Where is Hamsun? Camus? Marguerite Duras? Gide? Proust? Thomas Mann? Franz Kafka? Gunter Grass? Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Robert Musil? Beckett? Chinue Achebe? Pasternak? Bulgakov? Natalia Ginzburg? Margaret Atwood? Solzhenitsyn? Borges? Puig? Clarice Lispector?

And what is it about lists?

23 Responses to “Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century”

  1. Lee says:

    The titles you’ve struck through: because you’ve read them, reviewed them, or think they don’t belong on the list? Or something else?

    jb says: Sorry, Lee. I’m a communicator. 🙂 I read the ones I struck out.

  2. “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson was a revelation to me when I was a teenager. I’ve always been an avid reader of short stories and the many-faceted microcosm Anderson created in that collection I found endlessly fascinating.

    jb says: I’ve never understood the reluctance of most publishers to the short story form. It is very different to the novel, but the best short-stories are endlessly fascinating. And the craft itself is much closer to poetry than to other forms of narrative.

  3. susan says:

    While many would say it’s silly to put stock in lists, I think that such a list is a great guide for someone who really wants to read some of the best literature ever written. And these lists aren’t put together willy-nilly; there is a basis for why these have been selected. There are some missing in my opinion, and some that are there that wouldn’t make my list, but overall it’s a generalized agreement as to literary value.

    You’ve read quite a large number of them! I’m working my way through a similar list, and have used some of these compiled lists to stock my library.

    jb says: Almost any list will draw me. I can go through a drawer and find a shopping list from several years ago and read it from top to bottom. And I love it when novelists use lists within a narrative. Not just me, is it?

  4. Someone asked:

    Where is Hamsun? Camus? Duras ? Gide? Proust? Thomas Mann? Franz Kafka? Gunter Grass? Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Robert Musil? Beckett? Pasternak? Bulgakov? Solzhenitsyn? Borges? Puig?

    The compilers of list must have restricted their choices to novels written in English.

  5. Nils says:

    If I could cross out the ones I have, but haven’t read (yet), I’d go a long way on this list. But I’m happy to say I did read I, Claudius. Surprisingly, it seems as if no one else ever has.

    jb says: I didn’t read I, Claudius either. Once I thought I might do it, but I was wrong.

  6. Kelly says:

    To Nila: I read I, Claudius, and liked it quite a lot.

    My list would be different. (For one thing, Thomas Mann would be on it! For short and long fiction!) But presumably the list is limited to books written in English. Even with that restriction, though, my list would be somewhat different.

    jb says: Hi Kelly. I think that with 100 titles, almost everyone’s list would be different. But that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

  7. Andrew says:

    A quick search yielded this confirmation:
    ‘In 1998 the Modern Library, a division of Random House, New York, released this list of “the 100 best novels written in the English language and published since 1900.” ‘

    jb says: It’s good to have these things cleared up.

  8. Andrew says:

    I think Andrew Noselli must surely be right that this list was restricted to English language books.

    jb says: Yes, Andrew, I think so, too.

  9. Andrew says:

    Seeing as everyone does seem to love a list, how about compiling your own literature list, John?

    jb says: Tempting. But it would be a long list, always missing something important. By this stage of the game I’ve read a lot of books and although they’re still there, there’s always the odd one or two which are in hiding.

  10. Andrew says:

    This is getting ridiculous but just to add, I love the quotes section of this site.

    jb says: You might be the first one to have noticed it.

  11. Andrew says:

    Would Celine make your list, John? Must re-read Journey to the End of the Night soon. He probably comes to mind for the comparisons one could make with Hamsun; Mysteries being one of my favourite novels.

    jb says: Speak to the hand . . .

  12. Ria says:

    Ah, they forgot Doctor Zhivago…How sad. And just where is the brilliant Kafka? I can’t seem to find him in anywhere of these lists. You’re right; what is it with lists? Sigh.

  13. Akron says:

    For me the best of that list is Tropic of Cancer, as you said there are missing a lot of good authors including also Cortazar, Nin, Vargas Llosa, Pynchon, Kabawara and many more.

  14. Eduard says:

    Interestingly, one can not restrict oneself to the English language books even if tries. Lolita was written by Nabokov presumably in English first. However, the Russian translation seems to be written either simultaneously, or very soon after. Some of the word-play can only be understood in (or created specifically for) Russian version.

  15. robin says:

    This is the list of the best 100 books written in english since 1900. that’s why Camus, kafka, proust, mann,… are not on the list even if they are some of the greatest writter ever.

    jb says: Hi Robin, thanks for that. But Camus wasn’t born until 1913, so I guess most of his writings came after that. Kafka’s Metamorphosis was published in 1915, and his other novels later still. Proust published the first part of Remembrance of Things Past in 1913. And Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain appeared in 1924. So they do qualify for the list, but they still didn’t get on it.

  16. The Literary Critic says:

    To me, 1984 isn’t fiction – it’s a warning. The threat of political manipulation is always present, as long as the innate desire for power exists in man. We might be past 1984, but I’m not really quite sure we’re safe yet.

    jb says: It is fiction. That doesn’t make it any less true, in fact, it probably makes it more so.

  17. Andrew says:

    As formerly established, the criteria for this list is originally published in English and written after 1900. Lists are imperfect by nature, but speak to a consensus no matter how narrow. Overall, Modern Library has compiled a list that is honest not only to the popular, but also to the artistic- by that I mean the novel that eludes the understanding of the population-at-large and who cannot appreciate its merits. For me, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano cannot be ranked high enough. It is truly a unique, timeless modernist classic. A couple items I would like to see here are Aldous Huxley’s Island and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. It is a shame that Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray barely misses the assigned window of time.

  18. Terrianne says:

    Yes, the list is a compilation of the best English-language novels of the twentieth century, however, in and of itself, I feel that’s completely absurd.

    Some of the best, and most important books in American literature just so happen to have been written in another language initially, but this, in no way, should lessen or diminish the gravity of influence and enlightenment they’ve lent to American literature, the American reader, and books, period!

    It’s been said before, our own lists’ would look quite different, and that’s the beauty of reading- what we take from it is often unique and individual.

    I just feel not being more inclusive, i.e. diverse, does an injustice to the universality of literature.

  19. david says:

    Where’s Cormac McCarthy? “Blood Meridian”, “Suttree”, “Child of God” – masterpieces all.

  20. Alistair Gordon says:


    I agree with Susan above – the list presented in 1998 gave me the structure to work with. Today I have ordered from the bookshop ‘Studs Lonigan’ and it will complete the full set for me. Very few presented a real challenge and boredom was never an obstacle, though I am not afraid to say the James Joyce deposited me in a wilderness!

    I recall at the time each of the panelists insisting that a great many of their own personal choices were sadly ‘traded off’ in order to get a concensus. So I’m sure that a good number of those books mentioned by your correspondents would have been in the minds of the panel when reaching their final list.

    I congratulate them on their choice and thank them for introducing me to world I never knew was out there.

  21. Dan says:

    As a product of a drug and gang banger infested public school (Los Angeles Unified), where a student’s day is occupied by the thought of staying alive or not getting stabbed by avoiding hallways, stairways, and restrooms, and later to sit for many years in watered down to appease the masses, State University classrooms, I would have to ask the question “Have any of these books made an impact on my life?”

    My arguement will be, most of the skills I now possess are self-taught. And the ability to read, which I began prior to any public eduction, I stick at the top. A number of these books have had a profound influence on my ability to make personal decisions. The #2 book, “The Great Gatsby” probably had the most impact on my life, helping end an obsession with a cocaine addicted woman, when I was young. And in a round about way changed my life.

    I would continue to argue reading a number of the books on the list, therefore would influence the way I would tell someone about by life, or how I would tell a story. Many of the American author’s– Caldwell, Dreiser, Steinbeck, London– have help this uncultured fool, without much in family, and often penniless to define himself.

    I believe this list to be a wonderfull starting point.

  22. […] Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century | John Baker's .Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. john baker, February 10th, 2007. 21 comments. Filed under […]

  23. Sarah says:

    Great list, my favorite is Lolita from Nabokov.
    I love this novel.

    by sarah