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All “Best” Lists Are Now “Personal Inventories”

Yesterday Terry Teachout conducted a “purely personal inventory” of the ten American novels he “most wished” he had written, and this morning Patrick Kurp countered with his own list of ten. If you removed the alien and seditious titles from my own three-year-old list of the fifty best English-language novels published since the Victorians — a list originally compiled for students who kept pestering me for recommended readings — you’d be left with this roster of ten:

( 1) Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
( 2) Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
( 3) Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
( 4) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
( 5) Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
( 6) Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)
( 7) Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
( 8) Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)
( 9) William Faulkner, Light in August (1932)
(10) Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

As one of Kurp’s commentators said, this is a “nifty parlor game.” But it also, I think, points to something serious.

“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with,” Hugh Kenner wrote years ago. But no one believes that any more. It’s telling, don’t you think, that Teachout, Kurp, and I agree on just one writer — Cather — without even agreeing on which of her novels ought to be first read. I have tried to update Kenner’s apothegm (“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with, although no one will ever agree on what they are”), but even this innocuous paradox is enough, in today’s English departments, to get me housed with the reactionaries, the racists, or worse.

All that’s left are parlor games, offered (as Teachout says he offered his) “apropos of absolutely nothing.” If literature is no longer a part of every civilized American’s cultural inheritance, you can thank your English teachers, who gladly coughed up their authority over it.


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