modernlibrary

The Modern Library Reading Challenge

[NOTE: On October 25, 2013, our intrepid reader also began The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, a nonfiction counterpart to this fiction list.]

There comes a time when you need to raise the stakes.

I’ve stayed away from the many reading challenges offered by other book blogs. I don’t have anything in particular against these challenges. I’m delighted that they encourage people to read. The problem is me.

I like big books, but the Chunkster sounds like a sloppy peanut butter sandwich that I’ve tried to make after a night of heavy drinking. And even if I commit to the Chubby Chunkster entry level, I’m worried that I’ll be confused with a chubby chaser.

The Shakespeare Reading Challenge is more my speed, but the last time I fell down the Shakespeare rabbit hole in my early twenties, I nearly ended up in bed with someone from SCA.

The Bronte Sisters Reading Challenge has me worried that I’ll end up locking myself in an attic. I’m also concerned, that because Charlotte Bronte was the oldest living sister (dead at 38, an age not that far away from my present chronological state), the reading challenge could play out in a similar way.

The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge may very well turn me old and/or French. And if I must become old and/or French, I’d like to do so on my own terms.

A good reading challenge needs to cut across a wide swath. It also needs to be ridiculously ambitious. Like running a triathlon or climbing Everest.

The one thing I don’t like is having to read a set number of books in a set period of time. That’s a bit like filing your taxes. Shouldn’t the fact that you’ve read the books count more than the speed in which you’ve read them?

I also wanted a reading challenge that could bring different types of readers together. Those who read only some of the books can step in on individual titles and leave their comments. Those who have no intention of reading any of the titles and who simply wish to watch my slow descent into insanity can also leave comments.

I think I’ve stumbled onto a reading challenge that will take me several years.

Enter The Modern Library Reading Challenge.

In 1998, the Modern Library decided to enlist a revered group of writers (mostly white guys) to name the top 100 novels of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the authors that the Modern Library selected were mostly white guys. (Only eight women are on the list.) Nevertheless, it’s exceedingly difficult to scoff at a list featuring the likes of James Joyce, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph Conrad.

Now the Modern Library list isn’t really a hundred books. When you tally up all the series, what we’re really talking about is 121 books. Nevertheless, 121 books — including Finnegans Wake and The Ambassadors (the latter made me dream that I was having a stroke the first time that I read it) — is a fairly hardcore list.

Now I love staying on top of contemporary literature. I also love being challenged by literature. And at the turn of the new year, it occurred to me that nobody has written at length about reading all the Modern Library books. Sure, you’ve got Christopher Beha’s The Whole Five Feet. But if we assume that 121 books have an average width of 1.5 inches, that’s 181.5 inches. Or about fifteen feet!

What I’m hoping to do here is something a bit more ambitious. I want to write about 1,000 words for each and every volume, and I want to see if I can track some quirky course of literature while I’m doing this. I’ve read some of these books; others are new on me.

But I can tell you this. I plan to read forever or die trying.

So the plan is this. Read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1 in order (with the exception of The Rainbow and Women in Love, since the latter is a sequel to the former). In fact, at the time that I’m writing this (January 10, 2011), I’ve already read Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons and I’ve started to read J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. I’ll have an entry for #100 up eventually.

But in the meantime, this page will serve as an index. As I write about the books, I will add the links (along with the dates of the posts). Don’t be a stranger. Feel free to read, follow along, or leave a comment if you have additional thoughts.

100. Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (January 17, 2011)
99. J.P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man (January 31, 2011)
98. James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (February 2, 2011)
97. Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (February 24, 2011)
96. William Styron, Sophie’s Choice (April 4, 2011)
95. Iris Murdoch, Under the Net (April 19, 2011)
94. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (April 22, 2011)
93. John Fowles, The Magus (April 23, 2011)
92. William Kennedy, Ironweed (May 8, 2011)
91. Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road (May 17, 2011)
90. Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (July 4, 2011)
89. Henry Green, Loving (September 8, 2011)
88. Jack London, The Call of the Wild (September 26, 2011)
87. Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (October 10, 2011)
86. E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime (October 30, 2011)
85. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (November 30, 2011)
84. Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (January 6, 2012)
83. V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River (February 15, 2012)
82. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (April 10, 2012)
81. Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (June 27, 2012)
80. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (August 1, 2012)
79. E.M. Forster, A Room with a View (August 2, 2012)
78. Rudyard Kipling, Kim (November 20, 2012)
77. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
76. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
75. Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
74. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
73. Nathaniel West, The Day of the Locust
72. V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas
71. Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica
70. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet (Four books: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea)
69. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
68. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street
67. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
66. W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
65. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
64. J.D. Salinger, A Catcher in the Rye
63. John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle
62. James Jones, From Here to Eternity
61. Wilia Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
60. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
59. Max Beerbohm, Zulieka Dobson
58. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
57. Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End (Four books: Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up…, and Last Post)
56. Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
55. Jack Kerouac, On the Road
54. William Faulkner, Light in August
53. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
52. Phillip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
51. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead
50. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
49. D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love
48. D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow
47. Joseph Conrad, Nostromo
46. Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
45. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
44. Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point
43. Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (12 novels: A Question of Upbringing., A Buyer’s Market, The Acceptance World, At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, The Kindly Ones, The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, The Military Philosophers, Books Do Furnish a Room, Temporary Kings, and Hearing Secret Harmonies)
42. James Dickey, Deliverance
41. William Golding, Lord of the Flies
40. Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
39. James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain
38. E.M. Forster, Howards End
37. Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
36. Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
35. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
34. Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust
33. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
32. Henry James, The Golden Bowl
31. George Orwell, Animal Farm
30. Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier
29. James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan (Three books: Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day)
28. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
27. Henry James, The Ambassadors
26. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
25. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
24. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
23. John Dos Passos, USA Trilogy (Three books: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money)
22. John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra
21. Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
20. Richard Wright, Native Son
19. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
18. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
17. Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
16. Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
15. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
14. Robert Graves, I, Claudius
13. George Orwell, 1984
12. Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh
11. Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
10. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
9. D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
8. Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
7. Joseph Heller, Catch-22
6. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
5. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
4. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
3. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
1. James Joyce, Ulysses

(Image: sassenach)

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39 Comments

  1. So you want to throw down, huh? I envy you the extra ten feet. Good luck, and I’ll be following closely. Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy is something that I’ve always wanted to read and suspected I would never pick up, so maybe I’ll join you when you whenever you get there.

  2. Don’t go hating on “The Ambassadors.” I wrote about it recently for The Millions (not sure when it will appear) and I eventually liked it enough so to read it again, and I’m pretty sure that won’t be the last time. Henry James is a great writer and a very hard sell.

  3. I like Henry James. It’s those late period sentences that I have a problem with. Rest assured that I plan on reading all the books here — even if I didn’t care for them the first time around. I’m very much hoping that this project will result in transformative thinking!

  4. Dear Mr. Champion, Congratulations on this incredible challenge. I’ll be on the sidelines cheering, reading, and commenting. I love this idea, but must disagree with something you’ve said. As you read the top 100 novels of the 20th century, you won’t be descending into insanity, you’ll be ascending into it. It is great literature, after all.

  5. Edward,

    I love this challenge. I started down this path about 4 years ago and have read 98 of the list, discovering so many great ones along the way — Zuleika Dobson, Darkness at Noon, The Alexandria Quarter, to name a few–that I probably would have otherwise missed out on. Check out http://www.philippatrick.net/?p=25 if only to see a scan of my marked up and highlighted list.

    Good luck, happy reading. It is a great voyage.

    Philip

  6. This amazing! You’ve inspired me, and I think I may have to take up this challenge. Looking forward to the progress!

  7. I’d be glad to commission a tracksuit for this gig, Ed. Complete with wristbands and tubesocks.

    I’ve read sixty-odd of the list, and may well be compelled to take a few laps with you when you hit those I haven’t yet touched. Of course, that may mean reading them to you in the drooling dotage of an asylum somewhere. Meanwhile, good luck.
    – Mtte.

  8. Good luck! That’s an impressive challenge. I think it’s important to set your own reading goals and your own pace(it never seems to work when someone else lines it up, ya know?). And this will make you a pro at crossword puzzles!

  9. I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines. But I warn you, finishing the books on this list is what prompted me to start a book blog and led me to signing up for things like the Chunkster Challenge (but never the Bronte one — I have a fear of ending up wandering the moors, similar to your fear of ending up in an attic). It also led me to other lists, like the Radcliffe copycat, the Observer’s Top 100, and the All-TIME best novels. So this may be the tip of an iceberg for you.

    Here is my general post about the Modern Library list. Please let me know via a comment on my post if I can link your challenge post there. I keep a list of people working on this list.

  10. [...] se pare să fie motoul lui Edward Champion, care a decis să citească toate cărțile de pe lista Modern Library. Când am văzut pentru prima dată postul lui, nu mi-a venit să cred. Încă nu mi-am revenit. [...]

  11. Good afternoon,

    I really like your plan and i’ll be supporting and reading you! I only read 17 books from the list but u gave some ideas for the time when i can’t decide what book i’ll read next :)
    thank u and good luck!

  12. Interesting challenge! There are several here I hope and intend to read – they glower at me from the shelf – so I’ll be keeping an eye on your MLRC.

    Were you tempted to read them according to whim or preference (or in chronological order), rather than countdown-style?

  13. The ML list came out in late 1999, and I recall being a bit shocked that I’d only read 55 of them at the time, but I began reading 1 or 2 a month semi-assiduously and rather belatedly completed it in 2003, the last book being “Finnegan’s Wake”.

  14. Good luck on your challenge! I may find myself inadvertently joining you on your quest. The fact that you want to stick to a strict order is really impressive. I don’t know if I would be able to maintain the order. That would be more of a challenge than the challenge for me.

    However, that’s not really why I decided to comment. I decided to comment because I just spent the last ten minutes laughing hysterically over “…(the latter made me dream that I was having a stroke the first time that I read it)…” This is not an exaggeration. I have not laughed this hard in quite a while, and I just wanted to thank you for that.

  15. Huzzah! I was just saying there aren’t nearly enough literary gimmicks these days. Maybe you should try to do it in one year’s time, so the eventual book deal will be that much easier to package. A Reluctant Year with the Classics? You are most definitely NOT a hack.

  16. Wow, ambitious list! It is definitely a shame about the lack of female writers on this list, though. Not to mention its equally shameful lack of different ethnic groups (i.e. Dead White Guys being the predominant contributors to this canon), but I guess you can’t have everything.

    Still, I think that this list’s major violation is the extreme repetition of certain authors. Yeah yeah, we all get it: Hemingway, Joyce and Lawrence are awesome. There’s a similar list out there published by the BBC where it seems every single Charles Dickens and Jane Austen book is listed. Can’t we just pick their best title and leave it at that? That’s the Desert Island rule, after all, no? You can’t load up your list with lots of books by the same authors; you have to pick ONE.

    So, I will be curious to read your reviews of these books, for sure, but would give the gears to this Modern Library for being so repetitive and short-sighted in their choice of what constitutes a “modern classic.”

  17. [...] Edward Champion joins LifetimeReader and I in taking part in 2011 book marathons! Thanks, Dystel for tipping me off to this one. Like me, Edward’s finish line is 100 books, though I’m not sure of his time line. [...]

  18. [...] is the first entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to [...]

  19. [...] after six years at a large New York law firm, I am feeling a little under-read. So when I saw that Edward Champion had resolved to read all the books on the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 novels of the [...]

  20. Not French, Belgian! And what’s the list on the right-hand side of the photo, featuring Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard??

  21. Geoff: Of course! It was a joke. And the list to the right is the reader’s favorites (as opposed to those selected by the committee of white guys).

  22. I think the Wake should be its own reading challenge. I’ve started and abandoned it on several occasions, even with Joseph Campbell’s “Skeleton Key” as a guide. I’ve heard it’s best read with a group.

    In any case, I’m ready to throw down on several of these books with you, particularly “The Wings of the Dove.” I’ve started it several times and have never gotten past the preface.

  23. [...] is the second entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The [...]

  24. If you need moral support along the way, there’s a small but diligent set of bloggers on the interwebs who are crawling through The List as well. I admire your 1,000-word posting policy for each work, and I’ll be checking back with you as you continue posting!

  25. [...] list of Top 100 Novels, and when I picked up the book, after jumping into Ed Champion’s recent MLA Challenge, I was unfamiliar with the writer and his [...]

  26. As one who always tends to arrive late at parties–especially ones to which I have not been invited–I stand at your door and make an announcement: I have finally arrived!

    Enough of the flippant introduction. Now on to the heart of the matter: Although book reading challenges often strike me as being artificial and overwhelming, I am provoked to join you (albeit belatedly) in reading and discussion the ML100.

    I will never catch up to where you are now in the challenge, but I will drop by now and then to comment upon your comments. Perhaps I will also revive my own blog (Novels, Stories, and More), which has been hibernating for six months, so that I can “publish” my own comments and include links to yours.

    The bottom line is this: thanks for the provocation!

    Feel free to respond at rdavis1@uwf.edu

  27. Good on you and I’ll check in from time to time at your progress, but I have to say that is a pretty dire list. Not only is it all white men, but they all speak English! I mean, come on, am I missing something? How can you not have Kafka on that list, just to name one extremely famous example?

  28. Hey, this is my first time reading your blog. I stumbled upon it while looking at the Modern Library list… I have decided to read all 121 books, plus the non-overlapping books in the Radcliffe Rival list which adds up to 179 books by my count. I am a teenager, and so I feel like I will have a different take on the books, and therefore I decided to create a blog about my experience through it. I haven’t started yet due to midterms, but next week I will be off. I’d appreciate any tips you have for what I can do differently once I get going!

    Thanks

  29. I started this list a while back with some coworkers, but I dropped out for a while, and I don’t think they’re reading them anymore (I stopped working a few years ago…more time to read!). I just started back on it, and have bookmarked this to come back to.

    I restarted with Finnegans Wake and could only manage about one page before I had a WTF moment. After some discussion with reader friends, I decided to skip FW and move on to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Now I’ll be starting Scoop.

    I’ll come back and read your assessments of the ones you’ve read so far. I can tell you that my favorites on the list so far have been The Sheltering Sky, The Magus, and Angle of Repose. There were several others that I liked very much. Oh, and I skipped Midnight’s Children because we were reading that one during the 2008 election, and I was all caught up in that. But I have a copy, and I’ll go back and read it.

    Feel free to email me to discuss any of these books. I am enjoyed these, but miss having someone to discuss them with!

    Beth

  30. I stumbled on your blog because I started this challenge myself! I haven’t read – and will refrain from – reading your blog because I don’t want to be tainted with your thoughts. Mine is http://mostnovel.wordpress.com if anyone wants to follow or enjoy some friendly comparison

  31. I stumbled on your blog because I started this challenge myself! I haven’t read – and will refrain from – reading your blog because I don’t want to be tainted with your thoughts. Mine is mostnovel.wordpress.com if anyone wants to follow or enjoy some friendly comparison

  32. Gordon Spender March 10, 2012 at 7:51 am

    “Ulysses”??! That’s like a cyanide pill isn’t it? – you take that in your final moments when you are captured by the enemy.
    It’s terrifying.
    I guess that’s why it’s last.
    –>
    God doesn’t exist so you don’t need to read ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey.’
    grrrr
    —>
    “You can’t load up your list with lots of books by the same authors; you have to pick ONE.”
    I agree with this.

    –>
    Vonnegut’s some kind of PTSD Idiot-Fool(Ref: ‘A Man Without a Country’) but as I think about it perhaps that’s why his books were so great – they are transformations of his idiocy.
    ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ deserves to be there!
    –>
    Many exiting titles on this list that I need to read and are overdue to be read – time I started – I will follow you with the ones I like and I’ll read all your reviews
    Great find this site!!!.

  33. Gordon, is Ulysses last on the list? It’s at number one! I’m not sure if they are rating them according to greatest within the list, though that would be the logical way. Yeah, I’m thinking they are naming Ulysses the greatest book on the list. It may be. I never finished it. As a fiction writer I am quite ashamed at how many of these titles I have never read. Some I read decades ago as a teenager. No War and Peace? I finally finished that one last year. Currently reading Olive Kitteridge. (Five Stars!) Well, you have inspired me, Mr. Champion. I’m copying this list and pinning it to my wall.

  34. [...] Edward Champion of Reluctant Habits decides to read all 100 “best books of the 20th century” (according to The Modern Library), and write about each one. [...]

  35. [...] Trying to set a good example, I’m attempting to read more myself. One of the 101 in 1001 Goals is to read the “Modern Library Top 100”. [...]

  36. Did you notice what’s down at the bottom at #1. Are you seriously going to read that? Or are you just going to do the Readers Digest version?

  37. Your type is too dark. I can almost read it. Please lighten it up a bit.
    *rolls eyes*
    Seriously Light Grey Type on White Pages is seriously annoying and oh, so 2013. Please change it!

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