Ode to Joyce

  • Share
  • Read Later
The American obsession with ranking cultural achievements continues apace. A month ago, "Citizen Kane" was crowned -- without much argument -- the king of American cinema. Now "Ulysses," James Joyce's famously dense chronicle of a single day, has been declared the best English-language novel published this century. Or so say the 10 editorial board members of the Modern Library, a division of Random House that has been publishing classic literature since 1917.

TIME literary critic Paul Gray has no problem with that. But the list contains 99 other titles -- and the disagreements start right with the top 10. According to Gray "The Great Gatsby" is "up a little too high." The same goes for Joyce's "Portrait" (No. 3), Huxley's "Brave New World" (No. 5) and Joseph Heller's "Catch 22" (No. 7). Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," Gray says, deserved the second slot. But "Lolita," (No. 4) "was a brilliant choice. I reread it every eight months, and it still amazes me."

Overall, Gray rates the list as about 70 percent agreeable to him: "Not disgraceful." His additions? More women, namely Doris Lessing, and more recent works, namely Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow." But Gray doesn't pooh-pooh the notion that this list -- just like the American Film Institute's -- has inherent cultural (and marketing) value. "Of course it's meant to provoke debate and dispute, and get people thinking about reading," he says. And of course, sell some books.