In 1998 The Modern Library notoriously ranked the top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century, immediately earning critical scorn yet forever influencing book-buying patterns (ex. “Customers who purchased Zuleika Dobson also purchased A High Wind in Jamaica).
At that time this amateur reader was dismayed to find he’d read only a quarter of these books. Moreover, he’d never heard of a substantial number of the titles or authors. Consequently, he accepted this list as a challenge, a mental marathon—perhaps best titled a “centathlon.”
The centathlete has been stumbling over the years, stopping often to massage cramps, gulp from sloshing plastic cups of water, and sip from brimming cocktail glasses of manhattans with a twist (he doesn’t like cherries). This is exuberant, sweaty, grimy dilettantism—you wanna make sumthin of it? Let’s hope so!
With many books read and many unread, the centathlete is finding the course to be, ahem, “life-affirming,” presenting exemplars in perspective and experience—and, inevitably, esoteric tidbits for conversation. Admit it, you would feel kewl "enlightening" your friends that Under the Volcano (#11) represents for you a chronological and stylistic segue from the transcultural consciousness-streaming in Ulysses (#1) to the itinerant booze-chugging in On the Road (#55). Its author, Malcolm Lowry (you know him, right?—he did pen #11), sailed and drank around the world, living in, among other places, New York, London, Mexico (until he was deported) and British Columbia, where he and his second wife occupied a beach shanty. He died of alcohol-related illness at age 47, as did Jack Kerouac.
Were you and your high school and college classmates destined to be great writers? The centathlon tells us that four contemporary Oxonians (students at England’s Oxford University, an institution so ancient its New College, alma mater to Virginia Woolf and John Fowles, was founded in 1379) would achieve such acclaim.
During the early 1920’s, Evelyn Waugh (#34, #75 and #80), Graham Greene (#40), Anthony Powell (#43) and Henry Green (#89) all traipsed through those hallowed quadrangles while their tales-to-be-told presumably germinated. The latter two, friends of the same age, previously attended Eton College, the renowned public school (in Britain, our equivalent of a privately funded prep school), along with another future list-dweller, George Orwell (#13, #31).
Two other Top 100 authors were also friends at Oxford: Robert Graves (#14) and Richard Hughes (#71). Before, they both went to Charterhouse School (its alumni, called Old Carthusians, include Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks of Genesis) although not concurrently, as Graves fought in World War I before entering the university.
Decades before all of them, Max Beerbohm (#59) read and dreamed and spent time with Oscar Wilde at Oxford, which he famously sent up in Zuleika Dobson.
Ah yes, you may look back on formative years with your homeys: cruising the mall, playing Donkey Kong, funneling Old Milwaukee’s Best… Makes you think, don’t it?
Enough trivia! No more wistful meandering! Gimme dynamism! Optimism! Individualism! Why am I shouting?! Because the centathlon is open to all—no restrictions, no requirements, no rules. You can enter and exit, stop and restart, at any stage. Here we go!
# 52 Portnoy’s Complaint
Centathlon vs. Centathlon
# 64 The Catcher in the Rye