Best Books 20th century
On the eve of the new millennium, the Intercollegiate Review
The turn of the century is a time to take stock of the path we have followed, the better to discern where we ought to be going. Historical discernment requires coming to judgment about what has been noble, good, and beneficial in our time, but also about what has been base, bad, and harmful. In the life of the mind, what has our century produced that deserves admiration? What has it produced that deserves only contempt?
Earlier this year, the Modern Library published a list styled The Hundred Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century. A list of significant books can make a compelling statement about how we are to understand an age. In judging the quality of a book, one necessarily judges the perception and the profundity which the book displays, as well as the character of the book’s influence.
Yet many were dissatisfied with the several “Best” lists published in the past year, finding them biased, too contemporary, or simply careless. So the Intercollegiate Review (IR) set out to assemble its own critically serious roster of the Best—and the Worst—Books of the Century. To assist us in this task, we relied on the advice of a group of exceptional academics from a variety of disciplines.
To make the task more manageable, our lists include only nonfiction books originally published in English, and so certain giants of the century such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn will not be found here, on two counts. We left the definition of “Best” up to our consultants, but we defined “Worst” for them as books which were widely celebrated in their day but which upon reflection can be seen as foolish, wrong-headed, or even pernicious.
There was broad agreement about a majority of titles, but there were also fierce disagreements. Several titles appeared on both “Best” and “Worst” lists. We have tried to be faithful to the contributions of our consultants, but the responsibility for final composition of the list lay with the editors of the IR.
What, then, do these lists reveal about the character of the Twentieth Century?
Our “Worst” list reveals a remarkable number of volumes of sham social science of every kind. The attempt to understand human action as an epiphenomenon of “hidden” and purportedly “deeper” motives such as sex, economics, or the Laws of History is a powerful yet hardly salutary trend in our century. The presumed “breakthrough” insight that professes to reveal the shape of some inevitable future has time and again proven to be profoundly misguided. And with human life reduced in these theories to a matter for technological manipulation, our century also reveals a persistent attraction to a dehumanizing statist administration of society.
Prominent on the “Best” list, on the other hand, are many volumes of extraordinary reflection and creativity in a traditional form, which heartens us with the knowledge that fine writing and clear-mindedness are perennially possible.
1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
Pessimism and nostalgia at the bright dawn of the twentieth century must have seemed bizarre to contemporaries. After a century of war, mass murder, and fanaticism, we know that Adams’s insight was keen indeed.
2. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1947)
Preferable to Lewis’s other remarkable books simply because of the title, which reveals the true intent of liberalism.
3. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952)
The haunting, lyrical testament to truth and humanity in a century of lies (and worse). Chambers achieves immortality recounting his spiritual journey from the dark side (Soviet Communism) to the—in his eyes—doomed West. One of the great autobiographies of the millennium.
4. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (1932, 1950)
Here, one of the century’s foremost literary innovators insists that innovation is only possible through an intense engagement of tradition. Every line of Eliot’s prose bristles with intelligence and extreme deliberation.
5. Arnold Toynbee, (1934–61)
Made the possibility of a divine role in history respectable among serious historians. Though ignored by academic careerists, Toynbee is still read by those whose intellectual horizons extend beyond present fashions.