Friday, April 30, 1999

'Henry Adams' tops list of century's best nonfiction


Broader panel makes more diverse choices

The Associated Press

        LOS ANGELES — Choosing one of the most idiosyncratic of literary memoirs, the Modern Library pronounced The Education of Henry Adams this century's best English-language work of nonfiction.

        William James' landmark study The Varieties of Religious Experience came in second on the publishing house's list. It was followed by Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, a founding docu ment for the philosophy of black self-help.

        The Modern Library released its top 100 on Thursday, the eve of BookExpo America, the industry's annual national convention.

        After the Modern Library's top-100 fiction list was criticized for being overwhelmingly aging, white and male, the publisher expanded what had been an overwhelmingly aging, white and male selection committee. Two women, Elaine Pagels and Carolyn See, were added, as was a black author, Charles Johnson, and such younger writers as Jon Krakauer and Caleb Carr.

        “We were certainly attempting to bring a more diverse set of titles,” said David Ebershoff, publishing di rector for the Modern Library, a division of Random House.

        In other efforts at more variety, no writer was permitted more than one title on the list, and each of the 13 committee members was allowed to add one book of his or her choice. As with fiction, selections were made regardless of publisher.

        The nonfiction top 10 included one black, Washington, and two women: Virginia Woolf was ranked fourth for her feminist classic A Room of One's Own, and Rachel Carson was No. 5 for Silent Spring, which helped inspire the environmental movement.

        “It sounds like they sort of learned their lesson from the fiction list,” said novelist and essayist Mary Gordon. “It sounds like a pretty good list.”

        Mr. Adams' book, published privately in 1907, became as talked about for what it omitted as for what it contained. Missing was any reference to his wife's suicide, his political novel Democracy and his histories of the Jefferson and Madison administrations.

        Instead, referring to himself in the third person, this descendant of two American presidents told a melancholy, fascinating story of his intellectual and spiritual life. The dominant themes were his quest for a unified theory of history and his alienation from the mechanized society that emerged after the Civil War.

List of 100 best works of 20th century nonfiction



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