The Modern Library chooses the century's top 100 nonfiction books

The Modern Library chooses the century's top 100 nonfiction books.


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Craig Offman
April 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Thursday night at the Book Expo America convention
in Los Angeles, the Modern Library unveiled its list of the 100 best
nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Last August the Random House imprint suffered acute embarrassment after announcing its list of the 100 best fiction books: David Streitfeld of the Washington Post discovered that many members of the board that had done the choosing had no idea how the Modern Library had ranked the novels they had chosen. To spare itself and its board members any such humiliation this time around, the Modern Library took a tack that would make Descartes proud: It hired University of Chicago statistics professor Albert Madansky to do the rankings. "We knew we had to improve the process," Random House publisher Ann Godoff conceded at the ceremony last night. In addition to hiring Madansky, the Modern Library further livened up the existing board with two younger authors (Caleb Carr and Jon Krakauer), two additional women (Carolyn See and Elaine Pagels) and a black author (Charles Johnson).

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The board met on two occasions to do the work of thinning the pool from 900 titles to 100. After board members ranked the books on a scale of zero to 10, Madansky ran the numbers through a computer program to come up with the ranking. Caleb Carr seemed pleased with the results: "I was shocked, especially in the top 20, at how balanced and how accurate the list was." According to Modern Library publisher David Ebershoff, there were no ties -- decimal points in Madansky's algorithms prevented them from happening. The list was restricted to books written in English. A rule that no author could have more than one book on the list eliminated Edmund Wilson's "To the Finland Station" and William James' "Pragmatism." Another rule stipulated that board members could not vote for their own books, but five members wound up being represented nonetheless: Shelby Foote, Stephen Jay Gould, Edmund Morris, Pagels and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Carolyn See felt it was high time for a West Coast woman like herself to sit on the board, which consisted mostly of East Coast scholars and historians. "On the one hand, I felt great; on the other hand, I felt like it was the 5 o'clock news and I was Sandra Hernandez Wong," See told Salon Books. "There were a lot of sports jackets in the room -- a lot of power and a lot of learnedness. I was unnerved. I hoped that I wouldn't spill my iced tea on Arthur Schlesinger."

In a hall full of literati and book vendors, the first choice, "The Education of Henry Adams," drew muted applause. Conversely, the fifth choice, "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson, received hoots and whistles. Despite the promises of a perfect science, problems persist; some critics will certainly pick holes in the computations, others in the board members' choices. "One guy on the board whose name I won't mention started playing with his dentures," See reported. Now it's up to history to determine whether the list has any teeth.

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The Modern Library's list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century:

1. "THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS," Henry Adams

2. "THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE," William James

3. "UP FROM SLAVERY," Booker T. Washington

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4. "A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN," Virginia Woolf

5. "SILENT SPRING," Rachel Carson

6. "SELECTED ESSAYS, 1917-1932," T.S. Eliot

7. "THE DOUBLE HELIX," James D. Watson

8. "SPEAK, MEMORY," Vladimir Nabokov

9. "THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE," H.L. Mencken

10. "THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST, AND MONEY," John Maynard Keynes

11. "THE LIVES OF A CELL," Lewis Thomas

12. "THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY," Frederick Jackson Turner

13. "BLACK BOY," Richard Wright

14. "ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL," E.M. Forster

15. "THE CIVIL WAR," Shelby Foote

16. "THE GUNS OF AUGUST," Barbara W. Tuchman

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17. "THE PROPER STUDY OF MANKIND," Isaiah Berlin

18. "THE NATURE AND DESTINY OF MAN," Reinhold Niebuhr

19. "NOTES OF A NATIVE SON," James Baldwin

20. "THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS," Gertrude Stein

21. "THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE," William Strunk and E.B. White

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22. "AN AMERICAN DILEMMA," Gunnar Myrdal

23. "PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA," Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell

24. "THE MISMEASURE OF MAN," Stephen Jay Gould

25. "THE MIRROR AND THE LAMP," Meyer Howard Abrams

26. "THE ART OF THE SOLUBLE," Peter B. Medawar

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27. "THE ANTS," Bert Hoelldobler and Edward O. Wilson

28. "A THEORY OF JUSTICE," John Rawls

29. "ART AND ILLUSION," Ernest H. Gombrich

30. "THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS," E.P. Thompson

31. "THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK," W.E.B. Du Bois

32. "PRINCIPIA ETHICA," G.E. Moore

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33. "PHILOSOPHY AND CIVILIZATION," John Dewey

34. "ON GROWTH AND FORM," D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson

35. "IDEAS AND OPINIONS," Albert Einstein

36. "THE AGE OF JACKSON," Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

37. "THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB," Richard Rhodes

38. "BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON," Rebecca West

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39. "AUTOBIOGRAPHIES," W.B. Yeats

40. "SCIENCE AND CIVILIZATION IN CHINA," Joseph Needham

41. "GOODBYE TO ALL THAT," Robert Graves

42. "HOMAGE TO CATALONIA," George Orwell

43. "THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN," Mark Twain

44. "CHILDREN OF CRISIS," Robert Coles

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45. "A STUDY OF HISTORY," Arnold J. Toynbee

46. "THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY," John Kenneth Galbraith

47. "PRESENT AT THE CREATION," Dean Acheson

48. "THE GREAT BRIDGE," David McCullough

49. "PATRIOTIC GORE," Edmund Wilson

50. "SAMUEL JOHNSON," Walter Jackson Bate

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51. "THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X," Alex Haley and Malcolm X

52. "THE RIGHT STUFF," Tom Wolfe

53. "EMINENT VICTORIANS," Lytton Strachey

54. "WORKING," Studs Terkel

55. "DARKNESS VISIBLE," William Styron

56. "THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION," Lionel Trilling

57. "THE SECOND WORLD WAR," Winston Churchill

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58. "OUT OF AFRICA," Isak Dinesen

59. "JEFFERSON AND HIS TIMES," Dumas Malone

60. "IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN," William Carlos Williams

61. "CADILLAC DESERT," Marc Reisner

62. "THE HOUSE OF MORGAN," Ron Chernow

63. "THE SWEET SCIENCE," A. J. Liebling

64. "THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES," Karl Popper

65. "THE ART OF MEMORY," Frances A. Yates

66. "RELIGION AND THE RISE OF CAPITALISM," R. H. Tawney

67. "A PREFACE TO MORALS," Walter Lippmann

68. "THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE," Jonathan D. Spence

69. "THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS," Thomas S. Kuhn

70. "THE STRANGE CAREER OF JIM CROW," C. Vann Woodward

71. "THE RISE OF THE WEST," William H. McNeill

72. "THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS," Elaine Pagels

73. "JAMES JOYCE," Richard Ellmann

74. "FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE," Cecil Woodham-Smith

75. "THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY," Paul Fussell

76. "THE CITY IN HISTORY," Lewis Mumford

77. "BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM," James M. McPherson

78. "WHY WE CAN'T WAIT," Martin Luther King Jr.

79. "THE RISE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT," Edmund Morris

80. "STUDIES IN ICONOLOGY," Erwin Panofsky

81. "THE FACE OF BATTLE," John Keegan

82. "THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND," George Dangerfield

83. "VERMEER," Lawrence Gowing

84. "A BRIGHT SHINING LIE," Neil Sheehan

85. "WEST WITH THE NIGHT," Beryl Markham

86. "THIS BOY'S LIFE," Tobias Wolff

87. "A MATHEMATICIAN'S APOLOGY," G.H. Hardy

88. "SIX EASY PIECES," Richard P. Feynman

89. "PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK," Annie Dillard

90. "THE GOLDEN BOUGH," James George Frazer

91. "SHADOW AND ACT," Ralph Ellison

92. "THE POWER BROKER," Robert A. Caro

93. "THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION," Richard Hofstadter

94. "THE CONTOURS OF AMERICAN HISTORY," William Appleman Williams

95. "THE PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE," Herbert Croly

96. "IN COLD BLOOD," Truman Capote

97. "THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER," Janet Malcolm

98. "THE TAMING OF CHANCE," Ian Hacking

99. "OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS," Anne Lamott

100. "MELBOURNE," Lord David Cecil


Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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