Welcome to the massive, anguished, exalted undertaking that is the ALL TIME 100 books list. The parameters: English language novels published anywhere in the world since 1923, the year that TIME Magazine began, which, before you ask, means that Ulysses (1922) doesn’t make the cut. In May, Time.com posted a similar list, of 100 movies picked by our film critics, Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel. This one is chosen by me, Richard Lacayo, and my colleague Lev Grossman, whom we sometimes cite as proof that you don’t need to be named Richard to be hired as a critic at TIME, though apparently it helps. Just ask our theater critic, Richard Zoglin.
For the books project, Grossman and I each began by drawing up inventories of our nominees. Once we traded notes, it turned out that more than 80 of our separately chosen titles matched. (Even some of the less well-known ones, like At-Swim Two Birds.) We decided then that we would more or less divide the remaining slots between us. That would allow each of us to include books that the other might not have chosen. Or might not even have read. (Ubik? What’s an Ubik?) And that would extend the list into places where mere agreement wouldn’t take it.
Even so, there are many titles we couldn’t fit here that we’re still anguishing over. Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood dropped in and out. Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point hovered for a while at the edges. There were writers we had to admit we love more for their short stories than their novels—Donald Barthelme, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty. We could agree that some of Gore Vidal’s novels are an essential pleasure, but it’s his non-fiction that’s essential period. Then there was the intellectual massif of Norman Mailer, indisputably one of the great writers of our time, but his supreme achievements are his headlong reconfigurations of the whole idea of non-fiction, books like Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song. Dawn Powell, Mordechai Richler, Thomas Wolfe, Peter Carey, J.F. Powers, Mary McCarthy, Edmund White, Larry McMurtry, Katherine Ann Porter, Amy Tan, John Dos Passos, Oscar Hijuelos—we looked over our bookcases and many more than 100 names laid down a claim. This means you, Stephen King.
This project, which got underway in January, was not just a reading effort. It was a re-reading effort. It meant revisiting a lot of novels both of us had not looked into for some time. A few titles that seemed indispensable some years ago turned out on a second tasting to be, well, dispensable. More common was the experience I had with Saul Bellow’s Herzog, about a man coming to terms with the disappointments of midlife by directing his questions everywhere. It was one of the first adult novels I attempted in late adolescence. It left its treadmarks on me even then, but this time his experienced heart spoke to me differently.
There were also first time discoveries. Having heard for years that Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road was one of the great but underappreciated American novels, I searched it out. I have spent the months since then pressing it into the hands of anybody who will take it, including yours. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s great story of a black woman surviving whatever God and man throws at her, was not part of the required reading list when I was in school. It is now part of my personal canon. Henry Green? Hadn’t read Henry Green. Finally read Loving. Loved it.
Lists like this one have two purposes. One is to instruct. The other of course is to enrage. We’re bracing ourselves for the e-mails that start out: “You moron! You pathetic bourgeoise insect! How could you have left off…(insert title here).” We say Mrs. Dalloway. You say Mrs. Bridge. We say Naked Lunch. You say Breakfast at Tiffanys. Let’s call the whole thing off? Just the opposite—bring it on. Sometimes judgment is best formed under fire. But please, no e-mails about Ulysses. Rules are rules.