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The Literary 100, Revised Edition

xec8's picture Posted by xec8

The Literary 100, Revised Edition

"The Literary 100" by Daniel S. Burt
Phil Jourdan
A better-than-average list of the world's greatest authors.

"If my choices invite criticism and different conclusions, so much the better," Daniel S. Burt writes in his introduction to The Literary 100. In fact, the first hundred or so pages of this ranking are quite uncontroversial and even predictable: Shakespeare, Ovid, Goethe, Keats, Milton, all the Big Names in Literature are there, just as one would expect them to be. Some may argue that one author should be ranked higher than another, but overall, there is nothing particularly unexpected about this selection.

Burt's goal is to compile "a ranking of the most influential literary artists of all time," and he spends almost 500 pages attempting to do it. To this expanded edition, he has added another 25 people; there is also an Honorable Mentions section tacked on at the end. The entries for each candidate are well-written and do not condescend to the reader; they serve as readable introductions to authors most of us already know about anyway, but they're fun. Such list-books often have a tendency to superficiality, but The Literary 100 avoids being glib. Most entries span at least two or three pages. Burt knows how to make even the more obscure authors on his list interesting, so there is no doubt that readers will be tempted to look up at least one or two of them for further study.

The perplexing thing about making such lists is that it opens one up to criticisms from all sides: women writers are usually underrepresented, as are black writers, gay writers, and so on. But there is another problem. Of course Shakespeare is ranked first among all writers! Of course Dante comes second and Homer third! They are, after all, the Authors we are expected to have read at some point in our lives, if we want to be part of Western society. And that is just it: It's Western society that is most thoroughly represented in The Literary 100. There is absolutely nothing surprising about the book. No matter how well-written it is, or how meticulously researched, it simply tells us nothing new, gives us very few names we haven't already heard a dozen times in the last month. Hawthorne, Racine, Twain, Faulkner, Shaw and Aristophanes fill the pages of The Literary 100. This is the same list one can find by searching online for "famous authors".

The Honorable Mentions section is arguably more interesting. It shows the big names that Burt doesn't consider important enough to have placed in his top 125. These include Pound, Maupassant, Valéry, Rousseau, Rimbaud, Gide, Manley Hopkins, Mallarmé, Césaire, Diderot, and Dylan Thomas. Quite a few of these could be said to have had more of an influence than, say, Doris Lessing, who appears in the top 125. But this is a pedantic exercise. It would be far more interesting to create a list of indisputably neglected authors, instead of arguing for or against the inclusion of authors who regularly make it into these sorts of lists anyway. James Hanley, Sadeq Hedayat, Imre Kertesz, and Lichtenberg come to mind.

Nevertheless, for what it is, The Literary 100 is one of the best books of its kind that I have read. For reading recommendations, it is certainly worth turning to.