It's no secret that the second half of the twentieth century is more likely to prove a headache for me, during A Century of Book, than the first half. I'm rather dreading getting to October and finding only post-1950 years left to read. But then I was reading dovegreyreader (not to be confused with dovegreybooks, the lovely online book group I'm in) the other day, and spotted that Lynne had posted about a book called The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950, edited by Carmen Callil (of Virago fame) and Colm Toibin (of, y'know, some books. That I haven't read.)
Normally I'd have dismissed the book as a bit of a gimmick, or perhaps something that wouldn't be especially useful to someone like me, who normally avoids post-1950 fiction unless he has a very good reason for reading it. But under A Century of Books I thought it might be a very useful resource... and, after all, I do love a list.
There is a contents, where the books are listed by year. This points one off to the main body of the book, which is organised alphabetically by author. And then each book is given a page, which amounts to a mini blog review, really (although it doesn't say which editor, if either, wrote each one.) As a nice touch, in the small author biography underneath each recommendation, it gives their age at the time of their book's publication.
Some years have quite a few books suggested (1991 has ten) whereas some get no entries at all (1974, for instance.) But it should come together to an interesting list.
Let's look, for instance, at the year of my birth: 1985. What do Callil and Toibin recommend?
Family and Friends Anita Brookner
Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy
Lonesome Dove Larry McMurtry
Black Robe Brian Moore
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit Jeanette Winterson
Well, I've not read any of them. I've not even heard of McMurty or Moore. The only book I've read by Brookner was (as you might remember) rather a failure with me. But I quite like the mix of lastingly famous and slightly obscure. Oh, and the back of the book has useful lists of prizewinners, for everything from the Booker to the Miles Franklin Prize to Stakis Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year.
Flicking through The Modern Library, there are quite a few books which often appear on lists and make me sigh. I would expect more from Callil and Toibin than to see them join the The Catcher in the Rye/The Bell Jar school of lists (both hugely overrated, in my eyes.) And Captain Corelli's Mandolin, really? But at the same time they pick out some lesser known authors whom I love - Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ivy Compton-Burnett...
So, it's not a resource I shall follow unquestioningly. It doesn't provide the unknown gems that I find everyday across the blogosphere, nor would I have needed this book to tell me that To Kill a Mockingbird is worth reading. But I think it'll still come in handy, should I start to panic about finding anything to read in, say, 1975, or 1988.
If there is a year for which you'd like to know the list, just let me know... but my overriding thought is - wouldn't it be wonderful to compile a book like this from blogs? I suppose A Century of Books will eventually provide a similar overview - one for each of the blogs participating, indeed - but I suppose there's no guarantee that these will be good books...