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
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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 .

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