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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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.
On Wednesday, December 9th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Charles McGrath to discuss BOOKS OF THE CENTURY.
Moderator: Welcome, Charles McGrath. Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening to discuss BOOKS OF THE CENTURY. How are you doing tonight?
Charles McGrath: Thanks for having me. I am happy to be here.
Rob from New York City: Are there any reviews in this book that you think the author regretted writing many years later?
Charles McGrath: I don't know for sure. Some of the reviews that we have included in our "Oops" section. But then again, maybe not.
Burg from New York City: How separate are the decisions to review books in the Times daily versus the Book Review? Also, do you mind when someone writes a scathing review in the Sunday Review yet another reviewer writes a glowing review, like what happened with Ethan Canin's new one --
Charles McGrath: The decisions are completely separate. And often we at the Book Review don't know what they are doing and vice versa. As for when the reviews are opposed I sort of like it. It gives a book a second chance and reminds you that reviews are opinions not verdicts.
Andrew from Andrew22@yahoo.com: I find it very interesting that movie critics can give the worst reviews for a movie and it still makes millions of dollars -- i.e., "The Waterboy." But it is far less common to find book reviewers tear a book apart and see it topping the bestseller lists. Do you agree with that? And why do you think that is so?
Charles McGrath: I am not sure I completely agree. In part because the book equivalent of "The Waterboy" may not get reviewed in the first place -- i.e., mass-market titles are not reviewed here or in many other publications. There have been cases when books have been slammed and they nonetheless go on to do pretty well. It has gotten to the point now where bad reviews of Clancy or Grisham don't seem to hurt the sales at all.
Megan from New York: Two questions: Why does the Times Book Review feature more nonfiction than fiction? And why does the paper repetitively review books with obscure topics that are more likely than not going to be out of print within the next five years? What is your argument against reviewing more popular fiction, for example the books that Oprah chooses?
Charles McGrath: Complicated question. 1) For the simple reason that more nonfiction is published, and if we went straight by the ratio we would review less fiction. 2) Most books go out of print within the next five years, and we try to choose books that appeal to a wide range of interests shared by our readers, and it is part of our mission to call attention to non-mass market books. We aim at a literate committed audience. 3) And as for the Oprah part, I think many of her choices have in fact been reviewed here.
Ethan from Vermont: This is a bit of a tough question that is probably a bit general as well, but I will ask it anyway. Looking back, what decade of the 20th century do you think produced the best literature?
Charles McGrath: I don't know that I can single out any one. There were various peaks like after World War I with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. There was a later flourish in the late '40s and '50s, and who is to say that we aren't living in a great moment right now? Who is to say they only become clear in retrospect?
Jayne from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania: Were there any books in the past couple of years that you loved and that you didn't think would be properly recognized on a mass level but were?
Charles McGrath: Yeah, there were, but I guess in my present position I am not comfortable about going public with my personal favorites.
Hugh from St. Paul: I find it very interesting to see how the editor's recommended section has evolved over the years. How much of an influence do you think social climate plays in the selection of these book?
Charles McGrath: Do you mean the "Bear in Mind" section, which appears every week, or the notable and best books that appear once or twice a year?
Karin from Chattanooga, Tennessee: It is interesting to look back at the books of a century. I am really enjoying this book as an avid reader. I remember reading many of these reviews as they came out on Sundays. My question to you is: Are you content, worried, or happy with the direction that book publishing is heading these days? Are publishing houses still publishing quality amidst the thousands of crappy books that are lining the shelves of Wal-Mart?
Charles McGrath: Like a lot of people involved in the book business I am concerned about some changes taking place. I worry above all that the financial pressure of publishing will become such that publishers will find it harder to publish new and untried authors.
Greg from Rochester, New York: I find it very interesting to see how the National Book Awards angers so many people. What are your thoughts on them? Do you think their selections in recent years have been just?
Charles McGrath: Like everybody I have agreed with some and been baffled by others. The real point is that the problem with prizes is that there are many more losers than winners, and it is in the cards that nobody who wins there will be second-guessing and [having] sour grapes.
Vin from Dade County, Florida: What was the last book that Charles McGrath read and loved?
Charles McGrath: Again, I don't want to talk about my personal tastes. It is just like giving prizes -- no matter what I say, people will get cross.
Elise from Brooklyn, New York: What is up with Michiko Kakutani? Could you tell us a bit about her tastes and personality? What makes her such a harsh reviewer?
Charles McGrath: Michiko doesn't work for me, and so I can't comment. She works for the daily.
Vanessa from Newark, Delaware: How does integrity play into the life of Charles McGrath as the editor of the most powerful book reviewer in the world?
Charles McGrath: First of all I work for a newspaper that has a well-deserved reputation for integrity and I feel that it is a part of my job to uphold that. I am also very aware of the power and influence we have and I try to behave accordingly, which is to say fairly and honorably.
JOhn from JWC901@aol.com: How does The New York Times Book Review decide which books they review? Can you tell me a little bit about that process?
Charles McGrath: We are blessed here with a large staff. There are eight editors whose job it is to essentially read books. Some are specialists and some generalists and once a week we get together at an editorial meeting and try to come to some decisions.
Berry from Baltimore: When the Times slips and a book falls off their radar screen, how often do they decide to review it a few months later (perhaps it has reached the bestseller list)?
Charles McGrath: It depends. If we have missed something and it slipped and it seems that the moment has passed we wont review it, and sometimes the decision has to do with how many new books are pressing. Sometimes we will go back and revisit something. I would like think that we don't find ourselves in this jam too often.
Jason from St. Paul: After going through the books of the last century, do you think that the quality of literature is on the rise?
Charles McGrath: I already answered this question, but I might add that the quality of book reviewing is on the rise.
Marshall from Richmond, Virginia: What to you is the most difficult part about being the editor of the Times Book Review?
Charles McGrath: The most difficult professionally is being aware of how much power we have and of the fact that I am aware that no matter what I do or don't do, I must infuriate thousands of people every Sunday morning. I can only imagine the sound of book reviews hitting the country. Personally? When I wind up publishing a bad review of a book by someone who is a friend of mine, this happens all the time and sometimes the friend understands and sometimes they don't.
Jon Miller from Chatham, New Jersey: How did you select the reviews to include in this book? Are there any that you regret not including?
Charles McGrath: There were lots that I regretted not including in the magazine length version of this that we published a while back. I hope in this expanded version we have all that we left out. The principals that guided our decisions: 1) First, books had to be memorable or significant; 2) The reviews have to stand up to the light of day, and sadly not all of them do. So there are some books that probably in an ideal situation should be included but aren't because the original review is too dreary or dumb to reprint.
firstname.lastname@example.org from New Jersey: Do you think getting the cover of The New York Times Book Review has lost some of the power that it used to have with regards to book sales?
Charles McGrath: Probably it has. Yes. For two reasons: 1) To a certain extent book reviews have lost the power they once had; 2) I also think that our decision to not actually start the text of a review on the front page might have something to do with it. But that was a calculated decision on our part. I want to think that there are half a dozen books that are worthy of a serious contention but to single out one book as if it were the Academy Award for the week is simply unfair.
Mike from Ashton, Massachusetts: How does one join the staff of The New York Times Book Review? Do you ever use freelance reviews?
Charles McGrath: Almost all our reviews are freelance. That is one of the differences between us and the daily. And how I choose reviewers is in part by scouting other publications and seeing who writes well enough. As for the staff itself? There is no formula. I just look for the best people available.
Chris from Hoboken, New Jersey: In looking back at the reviews in this book, what was the most surprising one for you to read? Like you said, a book's significance only becomes clear over time, so which book had the most surprising review for you when it was published, given the way it is viewed today?
Charles McGrath: I think the single most surprising review is the review of ULYSSES, which considering when it published it seems astonishingly pressured. The reviewer must have smuggled a copy in from Paris, and what he has to say seems as true now as it did then. He said this was a work that was formatively difficult yet destined to be a classic, and his praises are the ones that they are still debating when it was ranked number one by the Modern Library. The debate started again, and this debate mirrored what this amazing review said 75 years ago.
Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Charles McGrath, to chat about the books that have shaped our century. We're thrilled you could join us. Before you go, do you have any closing comments for the online audience?
Charles McGrath: No, just thanks for your insightful questions. It is amazing that at 7:30 on a Wednesday that there are this many people who want to talk to me. One other thing, I hope that the aim of the book is not to celebrate these reviews as the "bell all" but it sends people back to the books themselves.