20th Century Books – one for each year from 1900 to 1999 – which would you choose? How many have you read? And do you agree with the ratings?
My book addict friend Fionnuala O’Conor has embarked on a fantastic literary project for 2023. It’s so cool I invited her to write a blog about it. The result is below. Do follow her on Twitter: @FionnualaOConor, #20thCenturyBooks – to join in a great reading adventure for the year ahead from The Wizard of Oz via Jaws and Tropic of Cancer to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Take it away, Fionnuala!
20th century books for 2023: Guest Blog by Fionnuala
On the first of January this year, I began reading the last century – a book for each year from 1900 to 1999, fiction written in English only, in order of publication, one book per author, all to be read and Tweet-reviewed before the dawn of 2024.
Yes, I do actually have a day job. And a social life. And two children. Plus, a simply marvellous dog.
And, okay, an addiction.
The perfect addiction
Luckily for me and mine, my addiction is not to gambling or crystal meth or drowning kittens, just reading. By reading I mean Proper Books: paperback, hardback, even those weird hybrid monsters found beside the inflatable neck pillows in airport kiosks. I’m fine with audiobooks while driving, but now I live in London Zone Knife-Crime that no longer applies. E-readers are the bibliophile’s cheap champagne – a false, fleeting economy that leaves behind nasty chemical residue and memory blackouts. No, it has to be real books. Knowing that I have a hundred waiting for me in 2023 makes me want to jump yippily for joy like Pup of Pups does whenever we walk past a kebab shop. Living my Best Life, yeah…
20th Century Books: why these 100?
But not everybody gets why. Why turn a pleasure into a performance target? Why a crazy stretch target of a book every 3.65 days? And why those particular hundred? How on earth will you find the time/energy/motivation?
I suspect the answer to all these questions (and to the blank incomprehension that characterises most people’s reactions) is Life, or maybe Death. If I believe the actuaries, I’m a decade past the midpoint of my earthly span. Having frittered and wittered the first half pretty unreflectively, this feels like a good point to take stock, to consciously couple with what I love most.
The love of my life will always be books
And the love of my life has, is, and always will be books. Opening Peter Rabbit (book #3), I felt like Dorothy unlatching the door and stepping into Technicolor Oz (#1) – oh brave new world, that has such people (and rabbits) in it! I grew up in an undemonstrative, non-literary household, feeling lonely and bored and irrevocably out of place, but in books I found a homeland where I learned the language of wonder, of reasoning, of experience, of understanding, of thrills, of love and companionship, of the two fundamental truths about life: that each of us sees the world differently, and that we all inhabit the same complicated world together.
Reading about fascinating people in their wonderful worlds having undreamed-of experiences was not just fun, it catapulted me – via fast-talking, faster-writing and good exam results – into places of education and employment and community where I found those people for real: the words quite literally made flesh. It’s a world I adore being part of, and I’m so thankful to books for getting and keeping me there.
20th Century Books: my century
So, it feels sort of obvious to take a year to revisit books from the century in which I entered the world, in the language of my homeland, via the pages of imagination. My century of books is personal, not prescriptive or representative: I’ve chosen old favourites that changed my life (Peter Rabbit, The Sun Also Rises, Decline and Fall, The Owl Service, The Tombs of Atuan, Dogsbody, The Bloody Chamber, Liar’s Poker…).
I’ve also included books I disliked or did not quite get at first reading, in case the problem was not the sacred text but profane me (Hotel du Lac, A Room with a View, Claudius the God, The Millstone, Martha Quest, Herzog…). About half are stories I’ve been meaning to read for years (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, An Artist of the Floating World, At Swim Two Birds, Main Street, White Fang, Native Son…) and a handful were urged on me by friends (A Lost Lady, The House in Paris, I, Robot, A Canticle for Leibowitz…). I’ve mixed genres, nationalities, styles and subjects. There are rather a lot of children’s books and spy stories, a smattering of sports and sci-fi. Quite by chance, I begin and end with wizards: Oz and Harry Potter. Between them lies a century of magic.
If my project intrigues or – even better – if you want to discover some fascinating new old books, please follow and comment on my progress on Twitter: @FionnualaOConor, #20thCenturyBooks. I’m aiming not just to review all hundred books, but to reflect at the end of every decade of books on what I’ve learned, what I’ve most enjoyed, what has surprised or disappointed or upset me. On or about New Year’s Eve I’ll try to make sense of what the last century’s Anglophone imagination has felt like to relive, how (if?) all that reading has changed me, and what I’m planning to read next.
Perhaps in 2024 I’ll go all modern and read the 21st Century so far, including of course Leigh’s playful and thought-provoking novels and stories! Or maybe I’ll go further back in time to the 19th Century, or cross the channel and read Le Vingtième Siecle en français. Or maybe I’ll chuck in the reading and watch a century of films, or take up needlepoint or Total Quality Management.
A sparkling ocean of words
But right now, I have the wind in my sails and a sparkling ocean of words stretching out in front of me. Already, through the first few books of my personal choice of 20th century books, I have had my prejudices challenged, my memories corrected, my eyes opened, my fancy charmed and my heart broken. That’s not a bad start to January. Please join me for the rest of the year’s adventure. The books are here:
1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Frank L Baum
1901 Kim Rudyard Kipling
1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit Beatrix Potter
1903 The Riddle of the Sands Erskine Childers
1904 The Golden Bowl Henry James
1905 The Scarlet Pimpernel Baroness Orczy
1906 White Fang Jack London
1907 The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad
1908 A Room With A View EM Forster
1909 Three Lives Gertrude Stein
1910 Clayhanger Arnold Bennett
1911 The Devil’s Dictionary Ambrose Bierce
1912 Daddy Longlegs Jean Webster
1913 The Custom of the Country Edith Wharton
1914 Dubliners James Joyce
1915 The Rainbow DH Lawrence
1916 You Know Me, Al Ring Lardner
1917 South Wind Norman Douglas
1918 The Return of the Soldier Rebecca West
1919 The Young Visiters Daisy Ashford
1920 Main Street Sinclair Lewis
1921 Scaramouche Rafael Sabatini
1922 Jacob’s Room Virginia Woolf
1923 A Lost Lady Willa Cather
1924 Precious Bane Mary Webb
1925 Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald
1926 The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
1927 Dusty Answer Rosamond Lehmann
1928 Decline and Fall Evelyn Waugh
1929 Summer Lightning PG Wodehouse
1930 The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hamnett
1931 The Good Earth Pearl S Buck
1932 Save Me The Waltz Zelda Fitzegerald
1933 Banana Bottom Claude McKay
1934 Tropic of Cancer Henry Miller
1935 The House in Paris Elizabeth Bowen
1936 Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
1937 Their Eyes were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston
1938 Rebecca Daphne Du Maurier
1939 At Swim Two Birds Flann O’Brien
1940 Native Son Richard Wright
1941 Casino Royale Ian Fleming
1942 The Screwtape Letters CS Lewis
1943 Claudius the God Robert Graves
1944 The Razor’s Edge Somerset Maugham
1945 By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept Elizabeth Smart
1946 The Snake Pit Mary Ann Ward
1947 The Pearl John Steinbeck
1948 I capture the castle Dodie Smith
1949 Man with the Golden Arm Nelson Algren
1950 I, Robot Isaac Asimov
1951 The End of the Affair Graham Greene
1952 Martha Quest Doris Lessing
1953 The Go Between LP Hartley
1954 Beyond the Glass Antonia White
1955 Island in the Sun Alec Waugh
1956 Giovanni’s Room James Baldwin
1957 On the Beach Neville Shute
1958 Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
1959 A Canticle for Leibowitz Walter M Miller
1960 Rabbit, Run John Updike
1961 Catch 22 Joseph Heller
1962 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey
1963 The Spy Who Came in From The Cold John Le Carré
1964 Herzog Saul Bellow
1965 The Millstone Margaret Drabble
1966 Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys
1967 The Owl Service Alan Garner
1968 A Kestrel for a Knave Barry Hines
1969 Slaughter House Five Kurt Vonnegurt
1970 The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison
1971 Tombs of Atuan Ursula Le Guin
1972 The Sword of the Spirits Christopher Hope
1973 Fear of Flying Erica Jong
1974 Jaws Peter Benchley
1975 Dogsbody Diana Wynne Jones
1976 Roots Alex Hailey
1977 Women’s Room Marilyn French
1978 World According to Garp John Irving
1979 Bloody Chamber Angela Carter
1980 Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie
1981 Other People Martin Amis
1982 The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Sue Townsend
1983 Heartburn Nora Ephron
1984 Hotel du Lac Anita Brookner
1985 Oranges not Only Fruit Jeanette Winterston
1986 Artist of Floating World Kazuo Ishiguru
1987 The Child in Time Ian McEwan
1988 Swimming Pool Library Alan Hollinghurst
1989 Liars Poker Michael Lewis
1990 Shadows in Bronze Lindsey Davies
1991 American Psycho Brett Easton Ellis
1992 A Place of Greater Safety Hillary Mantel
1993 The Robber Bride Margaret Atwood
1994 Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil John Berendt
1995 Microserfs Douglas Coupland
1996 Bridget Jones’ Diary Helen Fielding
1997 Mason & Dixon Thomas Pynchon
1998 The Hours Michael Cunningham
1999 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban JK Rowling
20th Century Books: what to do next
Do follow me on Twitter: @FionnualaOConor, #20thCenturyBooks. And let me know what you think I’ve got right – or wrong. You can comment on (or share) this blog. You can comment on my Twitter feed. Or anything else you like – including, above all, reading the books themselves! It’s going to be a fun 2023.