The New York Times Book Review is celebrating its 125 anniversary. As part of the celebration, they are asking everyone to nominate the best book of the last 125 years. There is no definition of what “best” means. A recent correspondent asked me what I would pick for the best book in the last 125 years. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question. I haven’t read nearly enough books to get a sense of the wide variety of what has been published in that time. Even on existing lists I am woefully under-read. Take Modern Library’s Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century. Of the 100 books on that list, I have only read 13.
I imagine that some people would pick their favorite book, other people what they think is the “best” book. It is likely that some people will pick books that they haven’t read simply because other people think it is good, or popular. The Bible will get picked a lot but since that book has been around far longer than the last 125 years, I don’t think it will count. There are no real guidelines. Fiction and nonfiction are equally acceptable. The only stipulation is that the book must have been published in the last 125 years–that is, after 1896.
After a fair amount of thought, here is how I replied to my correspondent:
I’d probably blend my definition to include favorite and important. I don’t know if I could settle on one. I’d like to pick Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, but that is 11 volumes and I’ve read the first six of them so far. Another might be The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, which just makes the cut, since it was published early in the 20th century. Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson tells the story of how we got to our modern digital age. Given where the future is headed, The Double Helix by James D. Watson could be the best—if the last 50 years have been about digitalization and the hackers that created our modern digital world, the next 100 or 150 years might be about genetic hackers, the coders of the future. Then again, for pure joy, maybe Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella is the best of the last 125 years. Thing is, for every book I’ve read there are tens of thousands that I haven’t and how many of those might qualify for “best”?
My correspondent suggested Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which has been on my list for a long time now, but which I haven’t read yet. My correspondent also suggested that maybe the best way to think about it is to play the desert island game–you are stranded and you can only pick one book: what would it be?
That makes things easier, as I have thought about that often. If I could count Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization as one book, then that would be my pick, hands down. With those 11 volumes, I’d never really feel alone. I’d have thousands of figures from across the entire span of human civilization. I could read about their art and science, their culture and religions, their work lives and leisures. It would all be there.
If I had to be one book, however, just one, that is much more difficult. Indeed, if I reimagined the New York Times question, and asked myself “What is the best book I’ve read in the last 25 years–regardless of when it was published?” I’m not sure I could answer it. I suppose I could go through the list of books I have read since 1996–1,110 of them as of this writing, and pick out the best book from each year to get a Top 25. Even from those 25, it would be difficult to whittle the list down to one “best” book. I could make the argument for The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling–a collection of essays on, of all things, boxing. But the writing! I could make the argument for The Library Book by Susan Orlean because libraries meant so much to me growing up, and this book is about the Los Angeles Public Library, one of which I made enormous use as a teenager. I could make the case for 11/22/63 by Stephen King, still my all-time favorite novel, even ten years after I first read it. Or The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Or The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Any of these and a dozen others could be my “best” with equally compelling reasons.
I’m probably overthinking all of this. But I take lists like these seriously since I use lists like these for recommendations, and I want to trust the judgments that they contain within their enumerated titles.
If you want to nominate your candidate for best book, head over to the New York Times Book Review and fill out their form. And if you can manage to whittle your list down to a single best book, and care to share, let me know what it is in the comments. I am always looking for the best books to read.
Did you enjoy this post?
If so, consider subscribing to the blog using the form below or clicking on the button below to follow the blog. And consider telling a friend about it. Already a reader or subscriber to the blog? Thanks for reading!