On Monday, the New York Times posted on its Web site an essay by novelist A.S. Byatt on the making of the Modern Library's list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the century. "With pleasure and exasperation mixed," Byatt writes, "I have enjoyed the process of making the Modern Library lists."
The exasperation is understandable: The Booker-winning author of "Possession " and the new "Elementals" makes an erudite case in the piece for several books she considers egregious omissions. They might have stood a better chance, though, if she had made her case for them at the judges' meetings. She never showed up.
But then Byatt lives in Britain, and the meetings took place in New York. "We kept Byatt up to date through calls and through the minutes," David Ebershoff, the Modern Library's publisher, told Salon Books. All in all, it was a fairly grueling process. On their first pass, the judges had to trim a list of 900 books, supplied by Random House, down to 300; on their second, they had to cut the 300 to 100. According to several judges, the discussions were heated. "It was a funny thing to see civilized people expound passionately about what they believe," says Caleb Carr, author of "The Alienist" and editor of a forthcoming Modern Library series on military history. "When my assistant used to copy-edit the minutes," Ebershoff recalls, "he would roll his eyes. They should be shredded, frankly."
"At the end of the voting we were each allowed one personal book that was essential to us, to fill out the number," Byatt reports in her Times piece. Obviously a little distance would help any judge faced with such a difficult choice. But in Byatt's case, one could argue, the distance was excessive.