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the list is hype

8.8.98

"The 100 Best Novels of the Century -- Also known as the 100 Least-Read Books of the Century."
- Jim Mullen, Entertainment Weekly "Hot Sheet"

You know it's getting near the end of the century when you start seeing Top 100 lists. First came the AFI 100 -- the supposedly best 100 American movies of the century. Yeah, like that influenced the curators of the Joel Schumacher Fan Page to go out and rent Citizen Kane. Then, a couple weeks back, came the Modern Library's list of the 100 greatest fiction books published in English since 1900. You're a Chinese novelist who wrote a classic in Cantonese in 1899? Fuck you, pal, you didn't make the cut. Sorry. When we make our Top 100 list of foreign language books of the 19th century, we'll call you, but until then, your shit can collect dust alongside the complete works of Robert James Waller, okay?

And you know you're going to see Rolling Stone's Top 100 albums of the century, Top 100 singles of the century, Top 100 most influential heroin addicts -- ahem, musicians of the century. Hell, they've been doing that for years whenever one of their anniversaries rolls around. "We're 25 years old! This year we've decided that the greatest single of the last 25 years is 'Funky Cold Medina.'" Or whatever happens to be in the CD player when they're passing the bong around.

So the best American movie is Citizen Kane and the best novel in English (though some would debate the English part) of this century is Ulysses. These two works have one thing in common: Only film nerds or literature nerds have ever seen/read them. When the AFI list came out, I was surprised at the number of people I knew who'd never seen Kane. You get mixed up with these movie fanatics -- a bad element if ever there was one -- and you start assuming everyone is familiar with Eisenstein's revolutionary use of montage and Godard's influential use of the jump-cut. Turns out most people just want a video to unwind in front of after a hard day. They couldn't care less about some weird black-and-white movie about some rich guy jonesing for a fuckin' sled.

And Ulysses? Maybe two, two and a half of you have even held James Joyce's masterwork in your hands, and that was to whack a spider that was about to crawl onto your PlayStation. I'll fess up. I own this book, and it may be rich with meaning and metaphor, but it could be printed upside down in Serbo-Croatian and I wouldn't know it. In fact, if it were, it might be easier to read.

At the library where I work we passed the list around. The staff is almost all female but there was still that macho competitive thing going on, I noticed: Quien es mas literate? Sure, you're curious how many books you've read -- just like you were curious how many movies on the AFI list you'd seen -- but some ugly, shallow little part of you really wants to see if you did better than your friends. Anyway, the winner scored twenty. That's 20 books out of a hundred. Now, if a group of librarians get an F on the Modern Library pop quiz (figuring that if you've read 60 percent of the books or above, you pass), how many civilians are likely to have checked off all the books on the list? I speak not only of established summer-reading classics like Catcher in the Rye (#64) but of well-loved, famous, overexposed bestsellers like Zuleika Dobson (#59).

Now, I run with a pretty hip posse, and believe me when I say that whenever I drop a Zuleika Dobson reference, everyone picks up on it.

I mean, come on. Zuleika Dobson? That's gotta be the what-the-fuck selection on the list. Christopher Cerf and Gore Vidal were sitting around getting stoned:

"Dude, we gotta put a goof in here."
"How about Zuleika Dobson?"
"Mmmph. Shit, that'd be great, though, wouldn't it?"
"You think we'd actually get away with that?"
"Dunno. Let's try it."

The list comes out -- there it is at #59. And all these poor bastards go around trying to find a copy: "What the fuck is Zuleika Dobson? Have you heard of this?" And of course I'm so in on it -- I'm tight with Chris and Gore -- so I'm like "Yeah, I read that back in the day. Kicks ass. In fact, I'm surprised it's not higher on the list."

Somewhere in that morass of irony I see I forgot to mention how I scored on the Modern Library test. Let's just say I had to bring it home for my mom to sign and there'll be no Atari for a month, okay?

Still, I have to say I got gung-ho about the Modern Library list, because what it meant to me was an excuse for a cool display. Let's drag the old two-sided wooden display table upstairs! Let's pull all the books we have that are on the list! Let's make cute little stickers for each book identifying its rank on the list! Let's make copies of the list so patrons can take them and use them as checklists! Let's come up with a snazzy slogan: "The 100 great books of the century -- You have two and a half years to read 'em." (Because remember, dear reader, the 21st century doesn't technically begin until 12:00:01 am on January 1, 2001 -- not 2000. Just thought I'd remind you. Don't go to any ignorant-ass millennium parties on December 31, 1999! I know you're smarter than that.)

Of course all this will amount to is nifty shit for me to do so I can take my mind off how hot it is. Nobody's actually gonna read these books. People see the books and they think Summer Reading List, they think Book Reports, they think Fuck That, they think Where's the Danielle Steel Books? Because most people read (if they read at all) for the same reason most people watch movies: to unwind.

Me too. I love the idea of the Great Books, but I can't remember the last time I actually sat down with one. Usually it's stupid shit I've read 107 times before, like Milton Berle's autobiography. Light bathroom reading. Charmin in one hand and the Raiders of the Lost Ark novelization in the other -- a little corner of heaven, say I. Why can't there be a Top 100 list of great bathroom books? #1: The Bare Facts Guide. #2: The Making of Starship Troopers. And so on.

And lists like this are bad because list-following anal-retentives like me will want to start at the top, with Ulysses, and we'll get about three pages into it and retreat, bloody and bruised, to a stack of Betty and Veronica comics and forget all about the other 99 books. Or we could start at the bottom with #100, The Magnificent Ambersons -- which was made into a movie by Orson Welles, the same guy who made the greatest movie nobody's seen. I refer, of course, to the trailblazing RKO masterpiece Zuleika Dobson.


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