A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell (1955, fiction). OK, I'm cheating. This is really 12 novels that intertwine and make up a complex, elegant and very moving work, a portrait of England's gradually fading grandeur over the course of the century.
A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf (1929, fiction). Virginia Woolf's book is still an inspiring read. It makes me angry and it makes me so glad of how much the world of letters has changed for women. But how long it took! The language, too, as in all her books, is magnificent.
The Hobbit (1956, fiction) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (comprising The Two Towers, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King), by J.R.R. Tolkien (fiction). I confess that Tolkien colored my view of the medieval world for many years, and his linguistic borrowings and uses of myth found their way into a great many papers in college, particularly for my Anglo-Saxon lit courses. I taught an extremely popular one-quarter class on Tolkien when I was a graduate teaching assistant, which brought out a creative side to many students who had seemed immune to literature in other classes. If we were all hobbits, we'd have a peaceful world.
The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles (1969, fiction). Fowles is a great favorite with me, partly because none of his books ever strike me the same way from reading to reading, yet they always get under my skin. But The French Lieutenant's Woman excited me the most. He worked in a great deal of complex Victorian issues while keeping the novel intriguing, the passions simmering. I still remember the first time I reached the first ending. I couldn't believe he'd done that to me. But in the end (or ends) I enjoyed it as much as Dickens' two endings to Great Expectations. It was a brilliant way in which to show the two choices she had. The image of the woman standing at the end of the breakwater -- that will always be so clear and haunting to me. (And she isn't Meryl Streep.) Fowles' Daniel Martin was a close second.
My favorite books of the 20th century are: Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust (1934, fiction); The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford (1915, fiction); Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry (1947, fiction); The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera (1984, fiction); and Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov (1962, fiction).
J. KINGSTON PIERCE
Lincoln, by Gore Vidal (1984, fiction). This most moving of Vidal's historical novels offers an outstanding combination of scholarship and skillful literary techniques. Here, the 16th President of the United States is shown as much more than the beleaguered commander-in-chief of history books, who strove to save his nation from splitting asunder beneath the weight of regrettable traditions. In Vidal's portrayal, Lincoln is a kind man in the most unkind of circumstances, a generally unpopular politician who must defend himself against scheming cabinet officials, while protecting his increasingly demented wife from embarrassing them both. The anticipated tragedy at Ford's Theater only makes this tale all the more poignant.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry (1985, fiction), and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen (1983, fiction). McMurtry reinvented the western novel for a modern audience, filling Dove (and its sequel and prequels) with spectacularly quirky characters, oddball episodes that would never have made it into the works of either Louis L'Amour or Zane Grey, and heartwarming scenes that will stick with you forever. Less humorous, but equally riveting, is Hansen's detail-rich yarn about the rise and bizarre demise of America's most legendary outlaw. Nobody who is interested in the Old West should fail to savor these two works.
The Underground Man, by Ross Macdonald (1971, fiction). The author's interests in detective fiction and environmental protection converge in this suspenseful and poignant adventure. The story finds private eye Lew Archer seeking to restore peace to an intensely dysfunctional Southern California family, while wildfires rage all around. As is common of Archer novels, this one is full of devastating secrets and damaged young people. But the balance that Macdonald strikes between natural and psychological destruction, with his sleuth observing both, is a wonderful literary device that reminds us of why Macdonald has been so honored over the years.
Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke (1953, fiction). The sudden appearance of mammoth starships over every major Earth city threatens disaster. Instead, the space-faring Overlords, a race in every way superior to our own, bring about a golden age for humankind, one in which poverty, war and avariciousness are made extinct. At what cost, though? Clarke has written often of alien influences on our planet, but never in so spellbinding a fashion as he did in this early novel.
Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor (1988, fiction). Both this story's plot and its affect on readers is magical. Ophelia ("Cocoa") Day has long made an annual pilgrimage from New York City to her ancestral home on the fictional island of Willow Springs, located between Georgia and South Carolina. But this year, she brings with her a new, Northeastern-born husband, who will watch with skepticism as Cocoa is threatened by the island's dark forces and comes to depend on the healing powers of her great-aunt Mama Day. This is a terrific tale of tenderness and sacrifice, served up amidst prose that veers across the border with poetry.
The Barbary Coast, by Herbert Asbury (1933, non-fiction). This recounting of San Francisco's underworld heritage demonstrates how history should be written -- with vivaciousness and depravity, with murder and public malfeasance, with the darkest of souls and the lightest of moments all on prominent display. If you think San Francisco is colorful and eccentric today, you should read what it used to be like.
Mornings on Horseback (1981, non-fiction) and Truman (1992, non-fiction), by David McCullough. McCullough manages to write very readable histories that are still admired by footnote-loving academics. He shows extraordinary skill at capturing the triumphs and foibles and heartaches of his subjects, be they world-beaters or bridge builders. Mornings finds him re-creating the boyhood of Theodore Roosevelt, as the future U.S. president overcomes his nearly fatal asthma attacks to "make a man of himself" in the world. Truman is a more thorough and appreciative dive into the life of a very different Oval Office-holder, one who -- unlike TR -- came to power more by chance than calculation.
All the President's Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1974, non-fiction), and Dispatches, by Michael Herr (1977, non-fiction). With their probing of crimes committed or condoned by Republican President Richard Nixon, Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein convinced me, as they did so many others, that journalism was an honorable profession. Sadly, investigative reporting has since become a sleazier and more overrated business, but All the President's Men remains a classic and an unexpected page-turner. Dispatches covers different ground -- the Vietnam War, as seen from the dirt-caked eyes of "grunt" soldiers -- but it is an equally fine example of journalism, filled with humor, insight and memorable imagery.
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand (1957, fiction), for dealing with subjects that shaped and defined our century.
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1930, fiction). Hammett invented and perfected the private eye genre in this rare example of a perfect novel.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain (1934, fiction). Cain's use of criminal protagonists, frank sexuality and crackling dialogue all make this one of the least credited and most influential 20th-century novels.
The Southpaw, by Mark Harris (1953, fiction). Harris' brilliant baseball novel makes use of the most vital, humorous first-person narration since Huck Finn.
The Bad Seed, by William March (1954, fiction). The great-unknown stylist, March -- who is sort of a coherent Faulkner -- created the most sinister and yet understated novel of horror of the century.
One Lonely Night, by Mickey Spillane (1951, fiction). Spillane, the century's great primitive poet of violence, responded to his critics by announcing his detective Mike Hammer as God's chosen messenger of vengeance in this startling fever dream.
My runners-up would be Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940, fiction), Horace McCoy's Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948, fiction) and Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280 (1964, fiction).
A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh (1934, fiction); Life Studies, by Robert Lowell (1959, non-fiction); and Philip Larkin's Collected Poems (1989).
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (1983, fiction). This trilogy in four parts is one of the only series of books I have read again and again and again. The observations of human (and alien) strengths, foibles and psychoses is hilariously funny, even when planet Earth is being destroyed by Vogons.
The Civil War: A Narrative (comprising Fort Sumter to Perryville, Fredericksburg to Meridian and Red River to Appomattox), by Shelby Foote (1974, non-fiction). The most imaginative and compassionate use of historical research to define a period.
To choose favorite books of the century, I would need to ransack the cubbyholes of my memory. I've read so many wonderful books! Also, I've noticed that as my life changes, my taste in books changes.
When I was 13, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha (1951, fiction) seemed profound. Now, in that mode, I prefer Eugen Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery (1953, fiction). On the other hand, there are some books I read when I was too young to fathom them. Only re-reading them now do I appreciate their gifts. Example: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851, fiction). So, should I include the books that were my favorites at each age, or the ones I remember fondly? Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey (1957, non-fiction) belongs on the list. And 100 Love Sonnets, by Pablo Neruda (1986, fiction); Wallace Stevens' Collected Poems (1954); Marcel Proust's A Remembrance of Things Past (1934, fiction); Karl A. Menninger's Man Against Himself (1938, non-fiction); Albert Camus' Lyrical and Critical Essays (1968, non-fiction); Benjamin Lee Whorf's Language, Thought, and Reality (1956, non-fiction); C.G. Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963, non-fiction); Sigmund Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1914, non-fiction); Lewis Thomas' The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, non-fiction); Dylan Thomas' Collected Poems (1971); and Colette's Earthly Paradise: An Autobiography (1966, non-fiction). For fun, or if I can't sleep? Then I read any of P.G. Wodehouse's books about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves...
I could go on and on. I read a lot, because books allow me to visit with a friendly mind, as well as learn about the world, and I find that combination irresistible. So I'm afraid my list of favorite books would be long, and of course, it's still forming!
KEVIN BURTON SMITH
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (1952, fiction) and Early Autumn, by Robert B. Parker (1981, fiction). Two books about growing up in a world that doesn't have many expectations, great or otherwise, or even much use for you. But it's a free world, baby.
Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs (1962, fiction); Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser (1927, fiction); Ubik, by Phillip K. Dick (1969, fiction); Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn (1989, fiction); White Noise, by Don DeLillo (1985, fiction); Simulations, by Jean Baudrillaud (1983, fiction); Crash, by J.G. Ballard (1973, fiction); The Outsider and Others, by H.P. Lovecraft (1939, fiction); Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore (1994, non-fiction); and Shella, by Andrew Vachss (1993, fiction).
The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford (1915, fiction) is one of those novels that stays with you long after you've read it a second or a third time. In fact, I'm probably due for a fourth before long. The narrator, a decent, solid sort of fellow, slowly comes to realize that he's wrong about just about everything and everybody. A wonderful peeling away of the masks and facades of the English gentry, where words and gestures mean something innocent one moment and pages later are revealed to be ominous, ironic and cruel. (Ford's Parade's End quartet is also as good a First World War sequence as you'll get).
The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler (1949, fiction), is probably not this author's best novel (that distinction should probably go to The Long Goodbye), but it is the first one I read, and it opened the doors to a whole world of crime fiction. From the opening paragraph, you know you're in the hands of a master and in the company of a character, Philip Marlowe, who will intrigue and entertain you over the long haul.
Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene (1938, fiction), gripped me from the opening sentence and never let go. It's a failed detective novel and a failed literary novel, but a bloody superb read nonetheless.
Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922, fiction). I've read Ulysses twice: once as a precocious undergraduate idling away a summer, and again as a serious Ph.D. student. The first reading wins hands down, because Joyce is above all a consummate entertainer. He might show off his learning a little too much (and I confess on that first reading -- heresy -- that I might even have skipped a page or two!), and Stephen Dedalus can be a bit of a bore, but Bloom and Molly never let you down, and Molly's final soliloquy is one of the best 30 pages or so of writing. Anywhere. Ever.
Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White (1952, fiction). This is the first book that made me cry. OK, there was Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka, but Charlotte's Web made me bawl.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1902, fiction). Even though Sherlock Holmes is off-stage much of the time, this is perhaps the quintessential Holmes tale. "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" But I also love The Valley of Fear (1915, fiction). "Yes, Birdy Edwards is here. I am Birdy Edwards!"
Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965, fiction). One of the books I re-read periodically. Like God, Herbert created a universe.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson (1971, non-fiction). Uproarious and irresponsible and laugh-out-loud funny.
Valis, by Philip K. Dick (1981, fiction). Towards the end of his life, Dick's life was stranger than his science fiction. This book puts the two together.
Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser (1969, fiction). The first volume in a well-researched, well-written and very amusing series. Read them all, but start with this one.
The Great Bridge, by David McCullough (1972, non-fiction). As the editor of a history magazine, I thought it would be only fitting to include at least one historical work. This is fascinating history by a great storyteller, full of many interesting diversions.
My Life and Hard Times, by James Thurber (1933, non-fiction). The New Yorker contributor's often hysterical account of his Midwestern youth.
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov (1962, fiction). A sly satire of academia, and quite funny, too.
I've been thinking about this, and the question's too big if I look at it globally. So I'm going to stick to crime, and the answer there is: Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953, fiction) and John Gregory Dunne's True Confessions (1977, fiction). Life-changers, both of them, because they were so much about motive, and about who you are and what you've done coming back to you.
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (1937, fiction). Why? Because it's the greatest love story ever told.
Below are two books that I loved and that greatly influenced me. Whether or not they were the most important works of this century... I am not sure I am up for that kind of measurement. I am also quite sure that the busyness of my life has prevented me from reading as many great works as I one day hope to read, so the list I would choose from would inevitably be too narrow to rate. Having hedged considerably:
ROGER L. SIMON
Here are my choices. I'll try to make them a little eccentric:
BETH DORA REISBERG
The Last Coyote, by Michael Connelly (1995, fiction); The MacGregor Brides (1997, fiction) and the other nine titles in Nora Roberts' MacGregor series; and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach (1970, fiction).
I'll mention a few books I'm enduringly fond of, though I won't attempt to explain why: Ten North Frederick, by John O'Hara (1955, fiction); The Queen's Gambit, by Walter Tevis (1983, fiction); and the Parker novels by Richard Stark.
Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1933, fiction). This partly autobiographical and tragic story, about the end of a marriage due to alcoholism and child abuse, is beautifully written and heart rending. It also evokes the atmosphere of 1920s Europe and the kind of life Americans lived there. Like most of Fitzgerald's novels, it portrays the "emptiness of the soul," depression, hopelessness and the betrayal felt by the men who served their country faithfully in the First World War, and who felt unrewarded.
American Musicians II, by Whitney Balliett (1996, non-fiction). A lifetime's compendium of profiles by the greatest chronicler of jazz musicians.