Read It and Weep

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Stop reading! Oh, all right, you can keep reading that book — whatever it is (Jonathan Safran who?) — but you might as well know it's the wrong one. Maybe you didn't hear, but this week the New York Times announced the name of the greatest American novel published in the past 25 years, and unless you're reading Toni Morrison's Beloved, that ain't it. The Times contacted an eclectic list of "a couple of hundred" critics and authors, among them Harold Bloom, Michael Chabon and Henry Louis Gates Jr., and asked each of them to choose a single book, then tallied the votes and posted the winner here. (At least one judge declined to respond.)

Beloved won with 15 votes; DeLillo's Underworld got the silver medal with 11. Also among the top vote-getters was Philip Roth's American Pastoral (7 votes), Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (8 votes) and John Updike's Rabbit quadrilogy (also 8 votes, from judges using the term "novel" with gymnastic flexibility.) You are hereby saved the trouble of reading all those other, lesser works from the past 25 years — that's service journalism! I just wish they'd done it American Idol style, with Morrison et al. reading a chapter a week on live television and Michiko Kakutani doling out on-the-spot critiques a la Simon Cowell. (Kakutani: "Roth, that was self-indulgent, semi-literate trash! No wonder you never got that trip to Sweden." Roth: [tries to look brave, then sobs uncontrollably onto David Foster Wallace's shoulder])

I'm being a little harsh, of course. The Times' survey comes with a lengthy, elegant essay couching the whole project in a comfy coccoon of critical nuance, pre-emptively name-checking "the deplorable modern mania for ranking, list-making and fabricated competition" before vigorously succumbing to it. (It also includes the regrettable phrase "in the age of James Frey." Moratorium? Who's with me?) It's not the least of its sins, but it has to be said that the Times list is aggressively boring. I was surprised and pleased — like running into a dear friend at a deadly dull cocktail party — to see Edward P. Jones's The Known World, which won the Pulitzer in 2004, make an appearance, but otherwise it's a very staid, predictable, old, white (except for Morrison and Jones), and male (except for Morrison and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping) bunch. No surprise extra-canonical incursions. (No William Gibson? No Watchmen?)

The statistical methodology here is primitive at best — where's that Freakonomics guy when you need him? — but there are more serious, fundamental problems with the Times' project. Probably no one at the Times would seriously claim that this survey determines some kind of mysterious "objective" literary value; it's a way (I imagine this hypothetical person saying) to start conversations (mission accomplished) and introduce people to books they might not have heard of (mission not-so-much accomplished).

But the fact remains that the greatness of literature lies in its diversity, not in its unanimity; herein also lies the greatness of people who read it. And Lists have a way of strengthening the hegemony of big, syllabus-ready tomes and making it harder for readers to find their way to minor, more idiosyncratic, less well-connected but maybe more lovable books. And the Times project, having only one book on it, isn't even a list — it's not even a pantheon, it's a monotheisum. A library shouldn't be a temple, with one altar to one book. It's a mysterious, winding bazaar, wherein you should be able to wander until you stumble over some dusty, long-neglected wonder that nobody else would have spotted, and take it home with you.

And anyway, TIME already picked the 100 Greatest Novels since 1923. What more do you want?