I've had this book for years, The Modern Library - The 200 best novels in English since 1950 compiled by Carmen Callil and Colm Toibin, and published by Picador in 1999, countless 1p copies available though I see there is a newer version published last year and now Kindle-ified.
There's nothing like a good reading list, and whilst of course we might all compile different ones, and lists like this can't help but be subjective, I love them and have always liked this book for the variety it offers. Carmen Callil, founding editor of Virago and Irish author Colm Toibin make some really interesting choices between them, some years eight books other years perhaps just four but in the days when the e reader was something more likely to be seen on Star Trek and they could therefore state with some confidence..
'For the novel survives and flourishes : there are more bookshops than ever before, and wider choice...merchants of cultural doom are hostile to change. We are not: we embrace it, were brought up with it, wallow in it rather, fighting political correctness with one paw and gloomy ideologies with the other...'
Compare this boldly optimistic fin de siecle brashness with Robert McCrum's rather pessimistic take in the Observer last weekend where he seems to see the novel as a victim of its own success...
'The fiction boom popularised an aesthetic experience as never before. Everyone seemed to be writing novels: politicians, pop stars, journalists and even celebrities (hiring ghostwriters). By 2000, the novel was like a monastery invaded by a travelling circus....
Once upon a time, when the novel was young and self-confident, inventiveness was its raison d'etre. Telling a story was all it had to do and it celebrated being made up or, as Daniel Defoe put it, "lying like truth".'
Not any more. Not only has it lost its mojo, it often seems to want to be something else – a travelogue, perhaps, or a psycho-history or (ghastly term) a "meditation" on who knows what. The "baggy monster" of its 20th-century prime has become a neurasthenic wreck, prey to fears and self-loathing. Publishers, too, have become much less gung ho about launching new novels.'
He does pull himself round a little by the end, you can read the whole piece here.
So a book like this serves as a gentle reminder that there are plenty of good books out there that have passed me by, all of which fits with my pledge to find some of them this year and not keep my focus entirely on the bright sparkly new things. Authors I may only have heard of very vaguely right out on the edge of my radar, or authors I have forgotten about completely, or perhaps I have heard of them, but not the books that Carmen Callil and Colm Toibin have chosen. And a book like this always holds the promise of a reading project or two, perhaps in 2013 (big birthday) I'll go back to 1953 and read the suggestions for that year
Private Life of an Indian Prince ~ Mulk Raj Anand
Go Tell it on the Mountain ~ James Baldwin
The Adventures of Augie March ~ Saul Bellow
The Long Goodbye ~ Raymond Chandler
The Go-Between ~ L.P.Hartley
The Echoing Grove ~ Rosamond Lehmann
The Palm-Wine Drunkard ~ Amos Tutuola
...or perhaps I'll lay down in a darkened room and hope the date passes and no one notices.
*pulling myself together*
I'm going to make a start some time soon with The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann, I'll let her into my Cabinet of Women Writers for this year because I had pulled the book off the shelf again when I was pondering the writers I would be reading, and the books I may choose. I was faced with all manner of bewildering and ancient ticks, crosses and titles scored through with highlighter pen ...books I own...books I've read... books I think I own... books I think I've read. And it is the 'books I think I've read' that all seems a bit blurred, so I revisited and did a Very Honest count up. No good if I read half and gave up, that doesn't count, so my current tally is about a quarter read and about half owned.
But every year springs some surprises...like 1979 for example, know of some of the writers but barely know some of the books..
The Year of the French ~ Thomas Flanagan
From the Fifteenth District ~ Mavis Gallant
Burger's Daughter ~ Nadine Gordimer
Sleepless Nights ~ Elizabeth Hardwick
The Executioner's Song ~ Norman Mailer
A Bend in the River ~ V.S.Naipaul
Let me know if there is a year you'd like a suggestion for and I'll choose one for you.