The Books of Our Time

By Sean Carroll | June 24, 2008 11:16 am

Entertainment Weekly, clearly nostalgic for the orgy of millenarian list-making, has come up with a list of the 100 Greatest Books of the Last 25 Years. (They have the 100 Greatest Movies, too.) Here are the top 20:

1. The Road , Cormac McCarthy (2006)
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000)
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
4. The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr (1995)
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)
6. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)
11. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)
12. Blindness, José Saramago (1998)
13. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)
14. Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates (1992)
15. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000)
16. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)
17. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez (1988)
18. Rabbit at Rest, John Updike (1990)
19. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005)
20. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding (1998)

Of these 20, I have read precisely half. And my favorite among those 10 would be Bridget Jones. Draw whatever conclusions you will.

It’s a provocative list, as such lists are intended to be, as the point is more to begin discussion than to conclude it. There are a few non-fiction works that somehow poked their way in there (Stephen King, Barbara Ehrenreich, Malcolm Gladwell) — they would have been better off leaving those out entirely, as there is a lot more worthy non-fiction that could easily have made the final cut, and the apples/oranges comparisons aren’t very illuminating.

Perhaps any such list that ignores Mason & Dixon but somehow finds room for The Da Vinci Code should just be dismissed out of hand. But looking over the list, or for that matter just thinking about a lot of contemporary literature, I can’t help but succumbing to the bloggy temptation to pronounce a grand theory on the basis of two minutes of thought and a teaspoonful of anecdotal evidence. To wit: if the literary spirit of our age would be summed up by a single word, it would be “passivity.”

Not all of the 100 books fit my theory, of course, not by a long shot. But when I think about today’s serious fiction and compare it to yesterday’s, there seem to be a lot more books featuring relatively helpless protagonists, swept along by the currents of fate/society/circumstance rather than heroically altering them. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the novels are more inward-focused, concentrating on the personal struggle of the protagonist with their own attitudes more than on their attempts to change the external situation.

Either way, I get the feeling that the Zeitgeist views individual people as very small and the world as very big. It doesn’t seem to be much of a time for heroes, Harry Potter notwithstanding. (Or maybe I’m just reading the wrong books.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Words
ADVERTISEMENT
  • http://blog.chungyc.org/ Yoo

    I must have a really narrow reading field, since despite being a relatively voracious reader of books, I have read exactly one book in the entire list. It probably says something sad about me …

  • http://togroklife.com greg

    Of those 20, I’ve only read 3, and two of them were the two graphic novels (Maus and Watchmen).

    Of the rest of the list I’ve only read another 4, though I haven’t read the whole Sandman series. I’ve been more focused on reading the great classics of the past than of the present, though, so I’m not really surprised.

    The list is also a bit of a misnomer, as none of the books are non-fiction. Books like Guns, Germs & Steel or The Rise of American Democracy would easily rank in the top half of that list.

  • http://togroklife.com greg

    I just re-read the list and your post and realized that there are some non-fiction books on there. How America made it and the 2 I mentioned already didn’t is completely beyond me.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Not a contest to compare how many books we’ve read on the list!

    I hate those contests.

  • http://togroklife.com greg

    Quite true. You’re welcome to excise that part of my first comment.

  • Jason Dick

    I’ve read precisely one. Probably because most of the time I stick to fantasy/sci-fi in my reading, and usually end up sticking to series that I find I enjoy until I’m done.

  • w.wolfs

    I, too, tend to stick to sci-fi/fantasy, because I’ve had precisely the same impression of our literary zeitgeist. Ever since “Underworld”, I’ve had a sense that great American novels are stories about things that happen to people, but great sci-fi and fantasy has been, and still is, comprised of stories of heroism and social revolution.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    I’m not sure that most fiction can’t be wedged into the “relatively helpless protagonists, swept along by the currents of fate/society/circumstance rather than heroically altering them” category, more so if you relax the criteria of “relatively helpless”. Romeo & Juliet: teens discover lust and bad stuff procedes to happen. L’etranger: man doesn’t cry at mom’s funeral, kills a guy, all else follows. In other words, in a large fraction of stories, when done well, a critical moment leads to a subsequent series of inevitable events, leaving the feeling of people being “swept along by currents”.

    With regard to the list, I was thrilled to see Maus on it, and somewhat surprised that Guns, Germs, and Steel didn’t make it.

  • Moshe

    So, over 80% of the best books were written in English, interesting…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Julianne, you may be right, as my impressions are far from scientific. But Shakespeare is the last example I would pick to disprove my point; his characters were always undertaking elaborate plans, from Macbeth and Richard III to Prospero and Iago down to the scheming cross-dressers in the comedies. It’s exactly that kind of frantic agency that I don’t expect to find in Don Delillo, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Jose Saramago.

    Camus, of course, is an excellent example, much as I love L’etranger. If my impressions have any basis in reality, we can probably trace the origins of contemporary literary listlessness back through the existentialists to some dour set of Russians.

  • http://girldetective.wordpress.com The Girl Detective

    After my own two minutes of thought and anecdotal evidence, what you’re saying seems to make sense – the modern hero’s quest seems to be for a return to homeostasis, rather than large-scale change.

    Then again, that’s what Odysseus was after.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    Mystic River???! Are they kidding? At least Alice Munro and GG Marquez are in there.

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    “I’m not sure that most fiction can’t be wedged into the “relatively helpless protagonists, swept along by the currents of fate/society/circumstance rather than heroically altering them” category, more so if you relax the criteria of “relatively helpless”. Romeo & Juliet: teens discover lust and bad stuff procedes to happen. L’etranger: man doesn’t cry at mom’s funeral, kills a guy, all else follows. In other words, in a large fraction of stories, when done well, a critical moment leads to a subsequent series of inevitable events, leaving the feeling of people being “swept along by currents”.

    ——————————–

    Not completely relevant, but I’d see a more interesting dichotomy as ontological vs psychological tragedy. Psychological tragedy is about things going wrong because of the flaws within a single human being; ontological tragedy is about things going wrong because of the entire structure of society.
    We’ve had 500 years or so dominated by psychological tragedy; I would submit that it’s time for fiction to get over this onanism and write some deep ontological tragedy. (I could add some blather here about 9/11 and Iraq but give me a freaking break — if WW1 and WW2 didn’t kickstart such a movement, to assume that 9/11 is going to invert the artistic world is more than a little pathetic.)

    If any readers are interested in this dichotomy, I cannot recommend enough this podcast of a course given by Hubert Dreyfus entitled “From Gods to God and Back” at Berkeley:
    http://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details.php?seriesid=1906978407
    The subject matter (literature through history, interpreted as theology, by a philosopher) sounds like a recipe for boredom beyond belief, but is actually stunningly interesting (except the last few lectures on Moby Dick which drag on about twice as long as they need to).

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    3 for me. And from those I also liked Bridget Jones best.

  • Tom Renbarger

    I would have liked seeing Einstein’s Dreams somewhere on the big list.

  • Joshua

    I only read physics books.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    Sean — But to return to the idea of agency, characters can demonstrate agency in the face of one of those sweeping currents. The final outcome is a foregone conclusion (Maynard’s “ontological” tradgedy), but there is agency within it. Hamlet was pretty much a goner from the moment his uncle offed his dad and married his mom, no matter how much “agency” he demonstrated in between. Maus is similar, in that the Holocaust guarantees lasting scars in Spiegelman’s family, but his father demonstrated tremendous agency is his struggles to survive (though as non-fiction, this doesn’t necessarily count). So, the current guarantees you’re going downstream, but you can choose to paddle or not. Or, in the cases of Delillo, blather precociously while you circle around an eddy.

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    Random reactions:

    LIke Sean, I think nonfiction should have its own separate category. And I note that poetry is sadly absent. Then again, it is sadly absent from most literary circles.

    Updike’s Rabbit books annoyed the hell out of me; I vastly preferred THE CENTAUR. Thank god they saw fit to shut out Philip Roth from the top 20.

    I cannot believe I am married to someone who enjoyed BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, nor can I believe it is on the list. It made me cringe. :)

    If we’re talking graphic novels, Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN series most certainly belongs on the list. As does PERSEPOLIS. Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS is a sprawling, multi-faceted, occasionally flawed work that certainly ranks up there with Eggers.

    MYSTIC RIVER is a much more powerfully nuanced novel that most people like to acknowledge. That said, I’m not sure it would my make my top 20 list.

    Cormac McCarthy? Okay, but for BLOOD MERIDIAN or ALL THE PRETTY HORSES.

    I’d add Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and a host of others too numerous to name. Reading is such a subjective thing.

    Finally, I second Moshe’s lament that 80% of the list is books written in English — and mostly by American authors, no less. It ignores some truly magnificent output from all over the world, down through the centuries.

  • Pingback: Another book list « Transient Reporter()

  • King Cynic

    There may be some sense in separating fiction from non-fiction, but if the title of the list is going to be “100 greatest books of the last 25 years” (with no qualifier) then the list ought to be at least 90% non-fiction. Think about how much more we know about the world now than we did a generation ago. In terms of intellectual ferment and truly important discoveries there has never been as felicitous of a period in human history.

    Fiction, on the other hand, has hardly advanced for a thousand years. Hell, there’s little worth having in fiction that you can’t get from Homer and the Greek playwrights.

  • macho

    I wish I had logged on before Sean’s comment #4. I love those contests.

    Strangely, Bridget Jones is one I haven’t read, although with a teenage daughter who devours that genre I suspect it’s in the house somewhere.
    But since I agree completely with Jennifer re Updike, McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (although also thought the Road was excellent) and Harper Lee, I’m going to go with her review instead of Sean’s.

  • Ben

    we can probably trace the origins of contemporary literary listlessness back through the existentialists to some dour set of Russians.

    Goncharov’s Oblomov. On the other hand, there is also a strand of Russian novel where the protagonists attempt to exert agency but are swept up in historical forces that are beyond their control, like Tolstoy. And sad young literary men who will make less difference in the long run than they expected have been around for a long time: I read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (highly recommended) as a senior in college and was immediately and permanently disillusioned.

    Philip Roth is on the list, he’s right there at number 5. However, Philip Roth’s had something of a renaissance with novels that are about more than just old goats who worry about whether they can’t get it up any more.

    What I think is notable is that the list contains many more large ambitious books than it would have a decade or two ago, even if their protagonists are specks in a larger world. Ten or fifteen years ago, minimalism was still in favor and the time period would have included more of Raymond Carver’s books. One of them would have been higher than 75th.

  • http://blog.chungyc.org/ Yoo

    I kind of agree with King Cynic. I have the feeling that more of the books I’ve read should have qualified as one of the greatest books this past quarter century. On the other hand, I also get the feeling that I have a myopic view of what a great book should be …

  • Joel

    Re: comments #18 and #21 – To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and so doesn’t meet the “in the last 25 years” criterion.

  • Dana

    Sean, your ideas intrigue me, especially your thought on passivity vs. external heroism. (Who cares if it’s an on-the-spot, bloggish conclusion? I’m quite guilty of those myself!)

    I stumbled upon your blog, and I enjoy it. Keep writing!

    Dana

  • spyder

    As King Cynic’s nom de plume indicates, the concept alone is worthy of deep cynicism. While Bennett and Bloom have fomented about their treasured Greatest Books canon of dead white guys (books, nearly all of which are long past their copyright protections outside of the Great Books series), this list serves solely to promote the royalties and profits of publishers and artists in the US. Is this the 100 Greatest Books of the last 25 years as published in the English language for mostly American audiences??? Is this a newly promoted canon for k-12 reading education, thus insuring (long into the future) further profits and royalites???? Is this too cynical???

    I don’t think so. We can easily surmise what this list is not: comprehensive, inclusive, diverse, engaging, debated in academe, etc.; and we can easily surmise what this list represents: profits, high volume sales, bestseller lists (not critical reviewed materials), and the like. Therefore the “New Classics” are just more promotional babble by publicists to advertise their desperate need for income. We should boycott these books until the authors’ agree that all of these books are alone their own top 100 (that will only happen when there is life found on Mars–oh wait, that is going to happen relatively soon i suspect, damn).

  • http://soulphysics.blogspot.com Bryan

    Where’s Wald (1984)!

    I propose a Call for the Best Physics Books of the Last 25 Years. Any suggestions?

  • Haelfix

    Some of those books on the list are truly terrible. Others should be way higher (Love in the time of Cholera and the Wind up Bird chronicles).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Bryan, Wald is good, but I bet if you try really hard you can come up with even better GR textbooks.

    Dana, thanks. Not our usual fare, but we have our fun.

    Spyder, you are far too cynical. Or, if you think the list above is reflective of anyone’s best-seller lists, you should spend more time in airport bookstores.

    macho, don’t listen to Jennifer, she’s crazy.

    Julianne, we (or the characters) are always paddling against the stream, but the question is whether or not we can paddle as fast as the water is flowing. (Or, in terms appropriate for the audience, whether we are still outside the event horizon or we are doomed to hit the singularity.) At some point the scales tipped, and the favored literary stance seemed to become that the world around us is just too big for us to affect in a meaningful way.

    Note that this diagnosis is not in any way meant to be judgmental; Pynchon certainly epitomizes the genre of ineffectuality, but I love his stuff. Too much of this kind of thing does become a downer, though.

    New hypothesis: the imaginative space that was formerly occupied by novels and plays of heroic action has now been largely taken over by movies and TV, leaving literature to deal with tales of passive angst-ridden milquetoasts.

  • onymous

    Bryan, it’s cheating a bit, since a lot of the content is reprinted from papers more than 25 years old, but ‘t Hooft’s Under the Spell of the Gauge Principle ranks high on my list of favorite physics books released in the last 25 years.

    As for the fiction books on the list: Remains of the Day should be much higher, I think. And if you’re going to pick a DeLillo book, and you have any taste, you don’t pick Underworld, unless you just want to impress people with the fact that you plowed through all N-hundred pages. (Interestingly, they didn’t go that route with David Foster Wallace, picking a nonfiction book again instead of the look-how-thick-a-book-I-can-read Infinite Jest.) There also seems to be a significant bias toward the more recent end of the 25 years. There’s also an implicit “no two books by the same author” rule, which is a little odd. And look at what’s missing: nothing by Salman Rushdie deserves as much credit as The Da Vinci Code or Jon Stewart’s America or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? Really? We get Jane Smiley, but no David Lodge? Haruki Murakami, beloved of American hipsters, is the only writer from East Asia who makes the cut? Funny, that. Of course, that’s just one aspect of Moshe’s complaint…. And the whole ‘look at us, we’re hip, we read graphic novels’ thing is taken a bit far.

    OK, enough carping.

  • Ijon Tichy

    My 5 greatest novels of the last 25 years:

    1. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988).
    2. Fiasco, Stanis?aw Lem (1987).
    3. Perfume, Patrick Süskind (1985).
    4. House Of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski (2000).
    5. Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon (1997).

    If anyone can recommend an author at the level, in the style and with the interests of Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges, I would be much obliged. Otherwise, I’ll continue my enforced furlough from the world of fiction.

  • nota bene

    Here’s a vote for both Inifnite Jest and House of Leaves. I have read several other DFW books and liked most of them, but I haven’t been able to make much headway with Only Revolutions yet.

    Also Chuck Palahniuk deserves a mention….

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/ Ben

    At some point the scales tipped, and the favored literary stance seemed to become that the world around us is just too big for us to affect in a meaningful way.

    Note that this diagnosis is not in any way meant to be judgmental; Pynchon certainly epitomizes the genre of ineffectuality, but I love his stuff. Too much of this kind of thing does become a downer, though.

    New hypothesis: the imaginative space that was formerly occupied by novels and plays of heroic action has now been largely taken over by movies and TV, leaving literature to deal with tales of passive angst-ridden milquetoasts.

    Sean, what you’re describing is in large part the transition from the Romantic period to modernism and the rise of subjectivity as the prime territory of the novel. Compare Dickens and Tolstoy to Flaubert, Henry James, Kafka, Proust, Virginia Woolf. Or Kipling to “Catch-22.” This is a turn of the century development, but it was the turn of the previous century.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Any list which chooses Goblet as the best Harry Potter novel is really straining too hard. The 3rd and 5th books are both superior to Goblet.

  • shampoomohawk

    I am not the most avid fiction reader in the world. I am a non-fiction sort of person (Guns, Germs, and Steel gets my vote).

    I do have a couple of problems with it, though. First, this list is compiled by EW… not known to be arbiters of literary taste. Second, based on their 100 best albums from 1983 to 2008 list, I think we can pretty much disregard their opinions on music, too. Seriously, “In Rainbows” is at 10, but “OK Computer” shows up at 62 (below Coldplay??)???

    That is all.

    -e

  • Sili

    I’ve only read Bridget Jones out of the whole list. Didn’t count, but think I ‘ve *heard* of some 30-40 of them …

    Of course, I’ve not been reading much the last coupla years, but still. Perhaps it has to do with my only buying used books these days.

  • http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/ Larry Moran

    I think the “Two Cultures” are alive and well.

  • cynic

    For what it’s worth (FWIW?) the Sunday Times (UK) featured an article – sub-titled the bonfire of the inanities – that listed books that, though lauded by the good and great, turn out to be really rather crap on closer inspection – burning being too good for them apparently. This exercise ranged over rather more than the last 25 years and included all manner of things I’m now glad I never got round to reading. So – given that we all love lists – why don’t the readers of CV put up their contenders. Science books too, folks – I’ll consign the Feynman Lectures to the flames (absolutely no use at all, unless you have a reasonable grasp of the subject already) just to fire you all up. Harry Potter (tawdry derivative pot-boiling) and Weinberg’s QFT (who would use that metric, or that alarming font, and still claim to be a genius?) as well. Go for it!!

  • Jim Lund

    To put together a list like this I would gather a group of readers, and I can’t imagine people who have each read 2/3 of these books and think *these* are the top 100.

    Perhaps the EW method was to assign a staffer/intern pair to do this, and after they add the 20-30 books they’ve read and like, they go around the office asking for ‘good book’ suggestions, but, you know, none of that really old stuff or school books. To order them, they ask questions, “Was it better than Bridget Jones’s Diary?”!!!

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    I like 16 of their top 20 list, but am offended from the viewpoint each of 3 of my major professions. As a scientist and engineer, I agree with Sean Carroll: where’s Feynman? Where’s Isaac Asimov and Sir Arthur C. Clarke (as scientists and engineers who wrote so brilliantly)? And given those latter two names, and as I am a science fiction professional (co-authored, co-edited, or co-broadcast with Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Feynman) where is real Science Fiction (I don’t count the reinvented wheel of dystopia by Cormac McCarthy, much as I like his other novels, nor quite the Moore and Atwood, much as I like them)?

    As a professional poet (keep your day job!) with over 220 published, I’ve got to ask — where’s the poetry? Is nothing by, say, Allen Ginsberg or Bob Dylan or Philip Larkin or Wislawa Symborska or Czeslaw Milosz or Yehuda Amichai good enough?

    The list is stupid and insulting and pretentious and forgetful in so many ways.

    I’ve listed over 20,000 authors in my web site, many in science, more in genres such as Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, Mystery/Detective, Westerns, Romance. If one does list Cormac McCarthy, his Westerns are much better than The Road. I don’t mind the Harry Potter books (Stephen King loves them for reasons skin to me). But this list shows why Art should not be done by committee.

  • Ginger Yellow

    “If anyone can recommend an author at the level, in the style and with the interests of Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges, I would be much obliged.”

    Italo Calvino. For Borges-style, read Cosmicomics or Time and the Hunter. For Eco-style, read If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Invisible Cities, or Six Memos For The Next Millennium. Regardless, read Marcovaldo.

    If they’re going to include non-fiction at all, it’s absurd there aren’t more of them in the list, and obscene that there are so few in the top 20. As far as I can tell there’s only Maus, and that’s narrative (it does, of course, deserve its place).

  • onymous

    Jonathan Vos Post, maybe one of your illustrious coauthors and acquaintances, of whom there are so many, and whom you will never let anyone forget for even a minute, could explain the meaning of “last 25 years” to you.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Re: 42 — and which were not in the past 25 years?

    * The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman, edited by Jeffrey Robbins, Perseus Books, 1999
    * Isaac Asimov, Forward the Foundation (1993)
    * Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997)
    * Collected Poems 1947-1997: Allen Ginsberg

    or what? And don’t get me or Sean Carroll started on The Arrow of Time, or Time Travel…

  • onymous

    3001 or Forward the Foundation among the top 100 books of the last 25 years? Few would agree with that, even if they were science fiction devotees. Seems like a way to sneak in a sort of “lifetime achievement” award to someone whose best works are long behind them…. Similarly with Feynman and Ginsberg, it’s cheating to use these “collected works” when the highlights in them are much older. Might as well open up any book that was reprinted in the last 25 years, even if it’s centuries old.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Re #44:

    Okay, on or after 1983 and not mere collection of earlier publications.

    You don’t think any of these are top 100?

    * Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (contributor), Edward Hutchings (editor), W W Norton, 1984, ISBN 0-393-01921-7
    * QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Richard Feynman, Princeton University Press, 1985, ISBN 0-691-08388-6
    * What Do You Care What Other People Think?, Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (contributor), W W Norton, 1988, ISBN 0-553-17334-0
    * The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, Richard Feynman, Perseus Publishing, 1999, ISBN 0738201669.
    [eliminated: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman, edited by Jeffrey Robbins, Perseus Books, 1999, ISBN 0738201081]
    * “The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics.” (1942) PRINCETON UNIVERSITY. Publication: Dissertation. Published by World Scientific, 2005, under the title Feynman’s Thesis: a New Approach to Quantum Theory, edited by Laurie M. Brown. ISBN 978-9812563804 [previously unpublished]
    [* Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character, edited by Ralph Leighton, W. W. Norton, 2005, ISBN 0-393-06132-9. Chronologically reordered omnibus volume of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?, with a bundled CD containing one of Feynman’s signature lectures, eliminated]
    * Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, edited by Michelle Feynman, foreword by Timothy Ferris, Basic Books, 2005, ISBN 0-7382-0636-9 (Published in the UK under the title: Don’t You Have Time to Think?, edited and with additional commentary by Michelle Feynman, Allen Lane, 2005, ISBN 0-7139-9847-4) [previously unpublished]
    * Feynman Lectures on Computation, edited by Tony Hey and Robin W. Allen, Perseus Books Group, 2000, ISBN 0738202967, fairly important, as Feynman was the grandfather of the quantum computer, as well as of nanotechnology

    Or you reject all of Asimov’s:
    * Foundation and Earth (1986), ISBN 0-553-58757-9
    * Prelude to Foundation (1988), ISBN 0-553-27839-8
    * Forward the Foundation (1993), ISBN 0-553-40488-1
    as, along with the authorized sequelae by Bear, Benford, and Brin, complete a set of 10 or more collected novels?

    Or you reject all of Clarke’s:

    * The Songs of Distant Earth (1986)
    * 2061: Odyssey Three (1988)
    * Cradle (1988) (with Gentry Lee)
    * Rama II (1989) (with Gentry Lee)
    * Beyond the Fall of Night (1990) (with Gregory Benford)
    * The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990)
    * The Garden of Rama (1991) (with Gentry Lee)
    * Rama Revealed (1993) (with Gentry Lee)
    * The Hammer of God (1993)
    * Richter 10 (1996) (with Mike McQuay)
    [* 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997), eliminated]
    * The Trigger (1999) (with Michael P. Kube-McDowell)
    * The Light of Other Days (2000) (with Stephen Baxter)
    * Time’s Eye (2003) (with Stephen Baxter)
    * Sunstorm (2005) (with Stephen Baxter)
    * Firstborn (2007) (with Stephen Baxter)
    * The Last Theorem (to be published August 5 in 2008) (with Frederik Pohl)

    Or Allan Ginsberg’s:
    * White Shroud Poems: 1980 – 1985 (1986)
    * Cosmopolitan Greetings Poems: 1986 – 1993 (1994)
    * Howl Annotated (1995)
    * Illuminated Poems (1996)
    * Selected Poems: 1947 – 1995 (1996)
    * Death and Fame: Poems 1993 – 1997 (1999)
    * Deliberate Prose 1952 – 1995 (2000)

    and I mention Bob Dylan as the poet Ginsberg considered #1 in America, and who has been proposed for Nobel prize in Literature…

    Do reject the premise that ANY science fiction, or poetry, or science book has been overlooked for the top 20, or top 100?

    Or it just sour grapes that I’ve been apprentice to extraordinary people, and you have not?

    A great book is a great book, even if ignored in its day, especially if it changes the flow of society, or politics, or many individual human lives.

    Nabokov had a sly mention in his fiction that, late in the 21st century, everyone acknowledges that the great author of the 20th century was someone ignored in his day, named Sinatra, not to be forgotten with a now-forgotten pop singer.

  • w.wolfs

    Other arguments aside, it is true that the list completely forgot science books, science fiction books and poetry, though there have been some huge publications in those fields.

    I propose any of the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, written 1989 and onward, though my favorite is Endymion. I would also submit In Conquest Born by C.S. Friedman and The Paladin by C.J. Cherryh. Both timely, tightly written, and profound.

  • JCF

    Come on, Sean, how can anyone lend credence to a list of top books that does not include the Oprah Winfrey Cookbook?

  • davem

    If there is a God, can he possibly worship anyone greater than himself? No, so that would make him an atheist, wouldn’t it? And he can’t worship himself either, since that would be committing one of the seven deadly sins (pride and vanity). So… if Catholics are badmouthin’ atheists, they’re badmouthin’ God!

  • anon-humus

    A list -yet another list- driven by bestsellers and movie-made american -I mean, US- works of fiction, which unapologetically stands as “the greatest books of our time”. Is the industry so much lacking in translation?

  • http://astrodyke.blogspot.com The AstroDyke

    The Entertainment Weekly issue containing the booklist has a great comic story by Alison Bechdel titled “Compulsory Reading”, about (self-referentially) canons and “greatest books” lists. It’s reprinted here:

    <a href=”http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/compulsory-reading#more-598″Compulsory Reading

    And if you liked that, check out the graphic memoir “Fun Home”, #68 on the list.

  • http://astrodyke.blogspot.com The AstroDyke
  • http://swimmingthechannel.blogspot.com Clara

    If there is a God, can he possibly worship anyone greater than himself? No, so that would make him an atheist, wouldn’t it? And he can’t worship himself either, since that would be committing one of the seven deadly sins (pride and vanity). So… if Catholics are badmouthin’ atheists, they’re badmouthin’ God!

    This makes me think of the barber paradox: There is a barber in town who shaves all those men and only those men who do not shave themselves. So who shaves the barber?

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Jeremy Colton emailed me a clever comment on the stupid list:

    “Blindness, and Watchman, but not Blind Watchmaker. Phooey.”

  • Kevin Schnitzius

    Entertainment Weekly? EW is to art as Discovery Institute is to science.

  • Pingback: The Thousand Best Popular-Science Books | Cosmic Variance()

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+