On the Making of Many Lists
A.S. Byatt/The New York Times, May 15, 1999
If the last millennium was a time of plagues and portents, this one is the time of lists. Fortunately, I enjoy lists. They are a part of the way the human brain works, like floor-plans, and route-maps, like perhaps Euclidean figures. With lists we arrange both the past and the future in our minds. This is what I have read and remembered, these are the events in the mind which made me what I am. Also, this is what I need to know, and don't know. This is what I intend to read, for pleasure or instruction. This is the order of importance of my intentions.
Lists needn't be of books, they can be of cities, or foods, or languages or like Borges's strange lists of unrelated objects and concepts. But my own lists are mostly lists of books, and so, with pleasure and exasperation mixed, I have enjoyed the process of making the Modern Library lists.
Lists can be canons -- the agreed list of essential books in a culture, which at best are those books that its writers would not willingly let die. Or personal canons -- books that have changed you or me, as individuals. Or they can be syllabuses, which are academic and political instruments ordering what those in charge believe should be studied and valued. The Modern Library's lists are part of the arguing process that constantly readjusts canons, and leads to impassioned conversation. Why X and not Y? Z will not last, whilst surely Q is guaranteed immortality? Lists are provisional and incomplete, fleeting and frivolous, useful and enticing.
Lists of great books are more an American thing than a European one. American culture has been forged by discussing its heritage from all cultures, and American literature is more about what it means to be American than British (or other European) cultures are about self-definition. I worried with last year's Modern Library list of novels about the absence of Canadians, Australians, Indians, Africans and other English-writing cultures. Many of the splendid books I voted for which are on the nonfiction list were precisely American acts of self-definition, from William Carlos Williams to Edmund Wilson. But I miss Jane Jacobs, Robert Hughes, Northrop Frye and many others. Women have done much better in the non-fiction voting than they did in the fiction, with two completely different ones in the top five, and the delightfully idiosyncratic Europeans Rebecca West and Isak Dinesen finding places. And my intellectual heroine, the erudite and profound Frances Yates (represented by The Art of Memory).What I tried to vote for was first, those books that had made a significant
shift in my mental landscape, had changed the way I saw the world, and second,
books whose writing was an aesthetic delight. Three of the top five -- Woolf, Carson, and William James had changed my world, and Nabokov and Gertrude Stein (8 and 20) had enlarged my sense of what language could do. T. S. Eliot and Gombrich formed my ideas of art, and D'Arcy Thompson was a revelation about the nature of both art and science and their interconnections. When I thought about all the writing about women that has taken place, it seemed to me that the essential text was still "A Room of One's Own," partly because so many of us remember most of it almost by heart. I was glad that "The Golden Bough" made it, and think it would have been "higher" on the list if it hadn't suffered the centennial list disadvantage of being published over the turn of the century, with one foot each side. Its huge influence is all this side of 1900 and its incantatory prose is a revelation.
What is missing? All listmakers enjoy the misery of indignation about the omitted essentials. My own include several masterpieces which were felled by the rule that no author could have two books. The one I mind most about is Popper's "The Logic of Scientific Discovery" which is a quite different intellectual landmark from his political work on the "Open Society and its Enemies" (for which I also voted). There are other works I'd have liked to see by Lionel Trilling (I love "Beyond Culture") and Edmund Wilson, and Lawrence Gowing's "Matisse" matters to me as much as his Vermeer. The same goes for Walter Jackson Bates's "Keats" though I would not displace his "Samuel Johnson." Other biographies I regret are Ray Monk's "Wittgenstein," and that odd small masterpiece, for which I'd willingly relinquish Lytton Strachey's sneers at the Victorians, A. J. A. Symons's "The Quest for Corvo."
Personal landmark books I miss are Chomsky's "Language and Mind," Erving Goffman's "Asylums" and Mary Douglas's brilliant anthropological works, such as "Purity and Danger." I miss also Norman Cohn's "The Pursuit of the Millennium," European, compulsively readable, illuminating a dark part of history. And the wisdom of Michael Oakeshott's political thought -- "Rationalism in Politics," or "On Human Conduct." And what happened to Quine. . .?
Most of my fellow Board members are not literary critics, and I am alternately surprised and pleased and faintly baffled by the final inclusions and exclusions of the only field which is really within my professional competence. I was pleased to see Richard Ellmann, and delighted to find M. H. Abrams's brilliant "The Mirror and the Lamp" as high as 25. But to be truthful I have never found Forster's "Aspects of the Novel" very interesting or very useful. I don't grieve for F. R. Leavis, but do feel strongly about I. A. Richards, whose "Practical Criticism" changed the techniques of reading, Northrop Frye, whose "Anatomy of Criticism" changed the categories of our thought, William Empson and his "Seven Types of Ambiguity" and all the brilliant insight of Hugh Kenner -- perhaps best exemplified in "The Pound Era." Where is Pound, where is Wallace Stevens's prose masterpiece, "The Necessary Angel?" Where is the book that gave me the single most unexpected understanding of a whole literature and a whole culture, Leslie Fiedler's "Love and Death in the American Novel?" I still invoke him every time I see a routine Hollywood cop film. He explained, credibly, why the novel is so difficult for American women.(This is not what he was setting out to explain. It is an incidental benefit.)
At the end of the voting we were each allowed one personal book that was essential to us, to fill out the number. I thought of all the ones I've mentioned and finally decided on the book that has most recently caused one of those welcome seismic shocks in my intellectual landscape. But -- I'm not permitted to say which it is.