Now that the twentieth century is more than two decades behind us, more and more lists pop up on the internet with the alluring title "Top Ten Greatest ______s of the Twentieth Century." You can fill in that blank with everything from "recipes" to "rock tunes" to "Rorschach tests" (ok, I made that last one up just for the alliterative thrill). We Americans are suckers for always trying to discover "who's number one?".
Since books have been both my lifetime occupation and preoccupation, let me remind you of a controversial ranking published by the Modern Library which listed its top hundred books (in English) of the twentieth century. The Modern Library declared that James Joyce’s Ulysses was the century’s greatest novel. Excuse me???
It was later revealed that the ten-member editorial board which created the list never met to discuss their choices nor did they even vote on their rankings; they merely submitted names of their favorite books independently. Now there's a committee that lives up to my favorite definition of that word: "an organism with six or more legs but no brain."
Immediately after publication, the list was excoriated by journalists, librarians, English teachers, and students. How could a novel like Ulysses — not only unread by the public but so dense and difficult that it is virtually unreadable — be considered the number one choice? More recently, librarians have created their own top ten list of great novels. Needless to say, Ulysses has been sent on a journey to oblivion, while more accessible and satisfying books have dethroned it: To Kill A Mockingbird at #1, The Catcher In The Rye at #2, The Great Gatsby at #3, and Gone With The Wind at #4. That's one reason I chose #2 Catcher for our second book club selection. Please don't think this is a subtle plug for you to sign up today. There's nothing subtle about it.
The problem, of course, is with the designation of “GREATEST novels of the twentieth century.” What in the world do they mean by greatest? Intellectually, Ulysses is an utter triumph, but as a professor once pointed out to me when I was an undergraduate, it has so many obscure allusions per line that it is more crossword puzzle than prose fiction.
Thus, I believe the Modern Library did a disservice in naming such a difficult work as the greatest novel. Obviously, that board believes — as many elitist professors do — that great literature is written in code and that only trained "cryptologists" are bright enough to decipher the author’s meaning. The general public is viewed as far too ignorant to appreciate the writing.
Who of us has not suffered through a semester or even just a lecture with some pompous creature who considers himself so intellectually superior that his vocabulary consists of $500 words chasing 50¢ thoughts? I have heard these professors questioned as to why they spoke at such an abstract, difficult level. They usually answer: “I didn’t want to insult the audience’s intelligence.” Granted, these speakers do not insult their listeners' intelligence; in fact, they never make contact with it at all.
This whole controversy with the Modern Library puts me in mind of one of Charles Dickens’ most insightful scenes. Both professors and the public have singled out Great Expectations as perhaps Dickens’ most artistically satisfying novel. I believe Chapter 39 is as brilliantly conceived as any chapter in his works. It concerns the return of Magwitch — the animal-like criminal little Pip is accosted by in chapter one — to the adult Pip’s life. When Pip was mysteriously given a large bequest as a child, he assumed the money came from wealthy, jilted Miss Havisham. But in Chapter 39, to his horror and disgust, Pip learns that Magwitch, the convict, is Pip’s actual benefactor.
As Magwitch reveals his identity when he visits Pip at home, he is delighted to see how affluent and cultured Pip has become, thanks to Magwitch’s money. Gazing around at Pip’s living quarters, the ex-convict exclaims “Look at your books … mounting up on their shelves by the hundreds! And you read ’em, don’t you Pip? You shall read ’em to me, dear boy! And if they are in foreign languages wot I don’t understand I shall be just as proud as if I did.” At the end of the chapter Magwitch forces Pip to read aloud to him from a book in a foreign tongue. Dickens makes the point that the fact that he couldn’t understand one word made Magwitch all the prouder of Pip’s accomplished reading.
This telling insight by Dickens can also function as a sad commentary on some of modern fiction and poetry. It seems to be written only for those few scholars and intellectuals who feel confident of its meaning and who enjoy it all the more because they assume the general reader — like Magwitch — feels too ignorant to comprehend it and therefore believes it must be deep and brilliant. This sad state of literary affairs should make us long for a return to the Victorian Era when a Dickens could write a novel like Great Expectations which is every bit as complex and deep as Joyce’s Ulysses and yet is as delightful and gripping to read as To Kill a Mockingbird. Dickens wrote for the low-brows, the high-brows, and every forehead in between.
It is this joy in reading a broadly popular literary masterpiece that seems almost lost to us today. If only we could say about modern authors what Eudora Welty said about her mother’s favorite author (guess who): “My mother read Charles Dickens in the same spirit with which she would have eloped with him!” Alas, many modern novelists leave us — like poor Miss Havisham — alone at the altar, depressed, angry, and dumbfounded.