Books of the Century: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas, and Literature

Books of the Century: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas, and Literature

by Charles McGrath

Books of the Century is an extraordinary collection of the best writing about books and authors published in The New York Times Book Review, America's most widely read journal of the literary arts. Arranged chronologically from 1896 through 1997, this rich chronicle leads the reader through a century of historic literary achievements, while also…  See more details below


Books of the Century is an extraordinary collection of the best writing about books and authors published in The New York Times Book Review, America's most widely read journal of the literary arts. Arranged chronologically from 1896 through 1997, this rich chronicle leads the reader through a century of historic literary achievements, while also providing memorable portraits of the most significant writers and thinkers of the era.

Often the critics are as distinguished as the authors and books they reivew: Eudora Welty's sparkling discussion of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, John Updike's perceptive review of J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, and W.H. Auden's appreciation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring are a few of the memorable critiques contained within these pages. In addition to dozens of influential reviews of seminal books, Books of the Century includes several special features that will delight all booklovers.

  • Essays includes such highlights as Alice B. Toklas evoking Jazz Age Paris and Dr. Seuss chuckling over children's sense of humor.
  • First Impressions features the initial reviews of such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Dashiell Hammett, Saul Bellow, Flannery O'Connor, and Derek Walcott.
  • Interviews offers such unique voices as Willa Cather, Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Norman Mailer, heard with force and clarity.
  • Letters revives some remarkably keen and unexpected insights, like Alan Greenspan's passionate defense of Ayn Rand's legacy and William Manchester's recollection of H.L. Mencken's contribution to the American Language.
  • Oops! recalls reviews that panned soon-to-be classics such as Catch-22 and Catcher in the Rye on their first appearance, showing that even The New York Times Book Review errs on occasion.
  • Editors' Choice, an annual feature chartered in 1972, and running here through 1997, reflects our changing literary tastes.

Current New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath has written an introductory essay that sets the table for this literary feast. With over 250 selections, Books of the Century will fascinate, enlighten, and entertain anyone who carries on a love affair with the written word.

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Editorial Reviews

James Wood
Books of the Century, a compilation of a hundred years of book reviews from The New York Times, is mournfully instructive. It reveals the ultimate nullity of the book review as a form, but also reveals that the book review is in better shape now than it was 100 years ago.
-- New York Observer
School Library Journal
YA-To celebrate the publication's 100th anniversary, the editors of the New York Times Book Review selected offerings dating back to 1896 that reflect the trends, styles, interests, and level of writing of each of the 10 decades. As readers browse through the pages and begin to digest the plethora of literary criticism that they contain, it soon becomes apparent that-despite the transitory nature of most of the literary entries-they still provide ample entertainment and education. During the early 1950s, Eudora Welty wrote a short, lyrical, and poignant appraisal of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web that ended with the sentence, "`At-at-at, at risk of repeating myself' as the goose says, Charlotte's Web is an adorable book." In referring to Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List, the editor sums up this unforgettable tale of an imperfect, but noble, human being's successful effort to thwart the Nazi Holocaust. Keneally "tells the true story of a man who saved lives that the sinews of civilization were bent on destroying." Letters, essays, and interviews from the archives add greatly to the value of this anthology. Since students often have to obtain book reviews from an earlier era, this excellent literary compilation can provide them with a potpourri of choices.-Peggy Mooney, Pohick Public Library, Burke, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
The New York Times Book Review
Books of the Century is the first full-length collection of essays, interviews, and reviews from The New York Times Book Review ever to be published. Nearly 250 original reviews -- taken from the publication that recently celebrated its 100th anniversary and arranged chronologically -- make up this magnificent collection. With reviews of many of the most important books of the century, this book also includes some of the most engaging interviews, essays, and letters ever to be published by The New York Times Book Review.

Kirkus Reviews
This enhanced version of the centennial issue of the New York Times Book Review offers, in a more permanent form, the pleasures of that retrospective: a broad sampling of pieces drawn from the pages of the section launched in 1897 and thus, given the considerable influence and scope of the weekly journal, a record in microcosm of the evolution of the genre of the book review. The 250 selections include excerpts from essays by influential writers, interviews, and reviews. Some of the reviews seem, inevitably, rather dated. others (such as a review of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain in 1927) seem to possess an undimmed freshness and accuracy. As McGrath, the current editor of the Review, points out in his succinct Introduction, reviews remain an ephemeral but necessary form, the first and (sometimes) the best response to new work. Gathering so many of them together offers the browser a rare sense of, in McGrath's words, "literary immediacy—of what it was like, of initial and immediate reaction, when some of the most important or influential books of the century first came into view." A lively, often surprising, and entertaining companion for serious readers.

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Product Details

Random House, Incorporated
Publication date:
Edition description:
Updated Edition
Product dimensions:
7.37(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.79(d)

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An Excerpt from Books of the Century

"The Admirable Glasses"
Fanny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
September 17, 1961

by John Updike

Quite suddenly, as things go in the middle period of J. D. Salinger, his latest, longer stories are descending from the clouds of old New Yorkers and assuming incarnations between hard covers. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, became available last year in Stories from The New Yorker 1950-1960, and now "Franny" and "Zooey" have a book to themselves. These two stories -- the first medium-short, the second novella-length -- are contiguous in time, and have as their common subject Franny's spiritual crisis.

In the first story, she arrives by train from a Smith-like college to spend the weekend of the Yale game at what must be Princeton. She and her date, Lane Coutell, go to a restaurant where it develops that she is not only unenthusiastic but downright ill. She attempts to explain herself while her friend brags about a superbly obnoxious term paper and eats frogs' legs. Finally, she faints, and is last seen lying in the manager's office silently praying at the ceiling.

In the second story, Franny has returned to her home, a large apartment in the East Seventies. It is the Monday following her unhappy Saturday. Only Franny's mother, Bessie, and her youngest brother, Zooey, are home. While Franny lies sleeplessly on the living-room sofa, her mother communicates, in an interminable rendered conversation, her concern and affection to Zooey, who then, after an even longer conversation with Franny, manages to gather from the haunted atmosphere of the apartment the crucial word of consolation. Franny, "as if all of what little or much wisdom there is in the world were suddenly hers," smiles at the ceiling and falls asleep.

Few writers since Joyce would risk such wealth of words upon events that are purely internal and deeds that are purely talk. We live in a world, however, where the decisive deed may invite the holocaust and Salinger's conviction that our inner lives greatly matter peculiarly qualifies him to sing of an America where, for most of us, there seems little to do but to feel. Introversion, perhaps, has been forced upon history; an age of nuance, of ambiguous gestures and psychological jockeying on a national and private scale, is upon us, and Salinger's intense attention to gesture and intonation help make him, among his contemporaries, a uniquely relevant literary artist. His fiction, in its rather grim bravado, its humor, its morbidity, its wry but persistent hopefulness, matches the shape and tint of present American life. It pays the price, however, of becoming dangerously convoluted and static. A sense of composition is not among Salinger's strengths, and even these two stories, so apparently complementary, distinctly jangle as components of one book.

The Franny of "Franny" and the Franny of "Zooey" are not the same person. The heroine of "Franny" is a pretty college girl passing through a plausible moment of disgust. She has discovered -- one feels rather recently -- a certain ugliness in the hungry human ego and a certain fatuity in her college environment. She is attempting to find her way out with the help of a religious book, The Way of a Pilgrim, which was mentioned by a professor. She got the book out of the college library. Her family, glimpsed briefly in the P.S. of a letter she has written, appear to be standard upper-middle gentry. Their name is nowhere given as Glass, Franny never mentions any brothers.

The Franny of "Zooey," on the other hand, is Franny Glass, the youngest of the seven famous Glass children, all of whom have been in turn wondrously brilliant performers on a radio quiz program, "It's a Wise Child." Their parents, a distinctly unstandard combination of Jewish and Irish, are an old vaudeville team. From infancy on, Franny has been saturated by her two oldest brothers, Seymour and Buddy, in the religious wisdom of the East. The Way of a Pilgrim, far from being newly encountered at college, comes from Seymour's desk, where it has been for years.

One wonders how a girl raised in a home where Buddhism and crisis theology were table talk could have postponed her own crisis so long and, when it came, be so disarmed by it. At any rate, there is no question of her being pregnant; the very idea seems a violation of the awesome Glass ethereality.

The more Salinger writes about them, the more the seven Glass children melt indistinguishably together in an impossible radiance of personal beauty and intelligence. Franny is described thus: "Her skin was lovely, and her features were delicate and most distinctive. Her eyes were very nearly the same quite astonishing shade of blue as Zooey's but were set farther apart, as a sister's eyes no doubt should be." Of Zooey, we are assured he has a "somewhat preposterous ability to quote, instantaneously and, usually, verbatim, almost anything he had ever read, or even listened to, with genuine interest." The purpose of such sentences is surely not to particularize imaginary people but to instill in the reader a mood of blind worship, tinged with envy.

"Fanny" takes place in what is recognizably our world; in "Zooey" we move into a dream world whose zealously animated details only emphasize an essential unreality. When Zooey says to Franny, "Yes, I have an ulcer, for Chrissake. This is Kaliyuga, buddy, the Iron Age," disbelief falls on the "buddy," as much as on "Kaliyuga," and the explanatory "the Iron Age" clinches our suspicion that a lecturer has usurped the writing stand. Not the least dismaying development of the Glass stories is the vehement editorializing on the obvious -- television scripts are not generally good, not all section men are geniuses. Of course, the Glasses condemn the world only to condescend to it, to forgive it, in the end. Yet the pettishness of the condemnation diminishes the gallantry of the condescension.

Perhaps these are hard words; they are made hard to write by the extravagant self-consciousness of Salinger's later prose, wherein most of the objections one might raise are already raised. On the flap of the book jacket, he confesses, "There is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I'll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I'm very hopeful." Let me say, I am glad he is hopeful. I am one of those -- to do some confessing of my own -- for whom Salinger's work dawned as something of a revelation. I expect that further revelations are to come.

The Glass saga, as he sketched it out, potentially contains great fiction. When all reservations have been entered, in the correctly unctuous and apprehensive tone, about the direction he has taken, it remains to acknowledge that it is a direction, and the refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.

This review originally ran in The New York Times Book Review on September 17, 1961, and is copyright by John Updike. It may not reprinted in any form without permission of the author. Books of the Century is copyright of The New York Times.

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