The Modern Library Reading Challenge

Posted by in Modern Library

[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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