The 50 Best Books of the 20th Century

From The Intercollegiate Studies Institute:

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 Aleksandr 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, A Study of History (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.

Link to the rest at The Intercollegiate Studies Institute

4 thoughts on “The 50 Best Books of the 20th Century”

  1. I am unfamiliar with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, but I give them credit for being completely up front about their biases.

  2. I find a certain irony in a list of best and worst books assembled largely to refute “liberalism,” compiled by an organization devoted to embracing “American liberty.”

    American liberty *is* liberalism. Of course, “liberalism” is not what’s practiced today by anyone on the political left; that bunch has become increasingly illiberal. To find true liberalism (and, consequently, the ideals of American liberty), one must look now outside the left-right political spectrum.

    • Remember, “left” and “right” refer to the location of the doors through which members processed in the House of Commons for vote-counting, even before the tradition was slightly modified for Oxford Debating Union practices. So it’s not surprising that “left” and “right” have, umm, little application to the politics of the colonies that rejected the House of Commons a quarter of a millennium ago…

      …which leads to some very interesting ruminations indeed on the most-theocratic-and-oligarchical elements of the American polity’s repainting of “liberal” — which refers primarily to governmental form and reach, rather than any policy orientation — as a synonym for “evil” and “unAmerican” while simultaneously forgetting the legacy of the House Unamerican Activities Committee not that long before. But then, I have a very sick sense of humor and it’s Monday.

  3. Those who have donned the skins of “liberals” – are largely not.

    I do not oppose anyone who is actually liberal – i.e., those who believe in limiting the power of the collective over the individual to its appropriate sphere. Nor do I oppose those who are actually progressives – i.e., those who believe in change that will increase the appropriate freedoms of the individual.

    Unfortunately, actual specimens of the above, that identify as such, are rare to the point of extinction. “Liberals” are, for the most part, advocates of State reach into every corner of the individual’s life. “Progressives”… well, most of them seem to want to “progress” to the state of affairs in the tenth century (with themselves as one of the “Men In the High Castle.”

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