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The 50 Best Books of the 20th Century
On the eve of the new millennium, the Intercollegiate Review published a list of the 50 worst and 50 best books of the 20th century. Although now approaching fifteen years since publication, this list tells us much about our recent historical inheritance and provides a valuable reminder of the vitality of conservatism and the errors of liberalism.
This list was edited by Mark C. Henrie, Winfield J. C. Myers, and Jeffrey O. Nelson.
The turn of the century is a time to take stock of the path we have followed, the better to discern where we ought to be going. Historical discernment requires coming to judgment about what has been noble, good, and beneficial in our time, but also about what has been base, bad, and harmful. In the life of the mind, what has our century produced that deserves admiration? What has it produced that deserves only contempt?
Earlier this year, the Modern Library published a list styled The Hundred Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century. A list of significant books can make a compelling statement about how we are to understand an age. In judging the quality of a book, one necessarily judges the perception and the profundity which the book displays, as well as the character of the book’s influence.
Yet many were dissatisfied with the several “Best” lists published in the past year, finding them biased, too contemporary, or simply careless. So the Intercollegiate Review (IR) set out to assemble its own critically serious roster of the Best—and the Worst—Books of the Century. To assist us in this task, we relied on the advice of a group of exceptional academics from a variety of disciplines.
To make the task more manageable, our lists include only nonfiction books originally published in English, and so certain giants of the century such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn will not be found here, on two counts. We left the definition of “Best” up to our consultants, but we defined “Worst” for them as books which were widely celebrated in their day but which upon reflection can be seen as foolish, wrong-headed, or even pernicious.
There was broad agreement about a majority of titles, but there were also fierce disagreements. Several titles appeared on both “Best” and “Worst” lists. We have tried to be faithful to the contributions of our consultants, but the responsibility for final composition of the list lay with the editors of the IR.
What, then, do these lists reveal about the character of the Twentieth Century?
Our “Worst” list reveals a remarkable number of volumes of sham social science of every kind. The attempt to understand human action as an epiphenomenon of “hidden” and purportedly “deeper” motives such as sex, economics, or the Laws of History is a powerful yet hardly salutary trend in our century. The presumed “breakthrough” insight that professes to reveal the shape of some inevitable future has time and again proven to be profoundly misguided. And with human life reduced in these theories to a matter for technological manipulation, our century also reveals a persistent attraction to a dehumanizing statist administration of society.
Prominent on the “Best” list, on the other hand, are many volumes of extraordinary reflection and creativity in a traditional form, which heartens us with the knowledge that fine writing and clear-mindedness are perennially possible.
1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
Pessimism and nostalgia at the bright dawn of the twentieth century must have seemed bizarre to contemporaries. After a century of war, mass murder, and fanaticism, we know that Adams’s insight was keen indeed.
2. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1947)
Preferable to Lewis’s other remarkable books simply because of the title, which reveals the true intent of liberalism.
3. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952)
The haunting, lyrical testament to truth and humanity in a century of lies (and worse). Chambers achieves immortality recounting his spiritual journey from the dark side (Soviet Communism) to the—in his eyes—doomed West. One of the great autobiographies of the millennium.
4. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (1932, 1950)
Here, one of the century’s foremost literary innovators insists that innovation is only possible through an intense engagement of tradition. Every line of Eliot’s prose bristles with intelligence and extreme deliberation.
5. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History (1934–61)
Made the possibility of a divine role in history respectable among serious historians. Though ignored by academic careerists, Toynbee is still read by those whose intellectual horizons extend beyond present fashions.
. . . and the rest of the best
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
A very big brain and not without flaws. Still, her account of the peculiarly modern phenomenon of “totalitarianism” forced many liberals to consider the sins of communism in the same category as those of fascism, and that is no small achievement.
Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America (1945)
Barzun fought a heroic struggle against the Germanization of the American university.
Walter Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (1975)
The most psychologically astute biography of one of the most psychologically astute writers who ever lived. In an age of debunking and trivializing biographies, Bate’s beautifully written book stands out as a happy exception.
Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry (1938)
Interpreting literature in the style of the New Criticism was the vehicle by which a half century of Americans gained access to the intellectual life. This textbook by two of the brightest lights of the most important literary group in America this century—the Vanderbilt agrarians—has never been out of print.
Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better? No, and Butterfield provides the intellectually mature antidote to that premise of liberal historiography.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)
The master of paradox demonstrates that nothing is more “original” and “new” than Christian tradition.
Winston Churchill, The Second World War (1948–53)
A work comprehensive in scope and intimate in detail by a master of English prose whose talents as an historian have been vastly underrated. Indispensable for understanding the twentieth century.
Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy (1946–53)
The most comprehensive, accurate, and readable history of philosophy, written by a philosopher who believed that the purpose of philosophy is the search for Truth.
Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950)
An essential work of European history that shows how the rise of Christianity altered civilization in the West. Credits the Roman Catholic Church with keeping civilization alive after the fall of Rome and during the barbarian invasions.
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (1992)
Revisionist history as it was meant to be written: as a correction to centuries of Whig historiography. Demonstrates that the brute force of the state can destroy even the most beloved institutions. What do you know . . . Belloc was right.
Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (1958–74)
The American Iliad.
Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee (1934–35)
The tragic life of a great Southern traditionalist beautifully chronicled by a great Southern traditionalist.
Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962)
They are connected, after all—a great anti-communist book.
Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1972)
The finest analysis of slave life and culture, the complexities of the master-slave relation, and the impact of slavery on American history that we are likely ever to have.
Frederick von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (1960)
Thoughtful reflections on the conditions and limitations of liberty in the modern world, written by a deeply cultured Austrian who found his home in the Anglo-Saxon world. The Summa of classical political economy in our century.
Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955)
The first sociologist to take religion in America seriously.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
Jacobs was the first to see that modernist architects and urban planners were creating not simply ugly buildings but entire urban environments unsuited to human communities.
Paul Johnson, Modern Times (1983)
Somehow the most personal, yet the most objective, history of our time.
John Keegan, The Face of Battle (1976)
A tour de force of military history that often explains strategy and tactics in terms of culture.
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953)
Did the impossible: showed a self-satisfied liberalism that conservatism in America could be intellectually respectable. A book that named a major political movement.
Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (1936)
The classic historical narrative of the coherent and complex worldview that lies at the foundation of the West.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981)
Won a new hearing for virtue ethics after nearly two centuries of intellectual domination by Kantian morals. We live today in the time “After MacIntyre.”
Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time (1948–81)
A masterpiece of monumental historical biography. Malone’s prose, narrative, and analysis are wonderfully eighteenth-century in their balance and restraint.
H. L. Mencken, Prejudices (1919–27)
This century’s greatest exhibition of satire in nonfiction, demonstrating extraordinary aesthetic and literary taste. The author had street smarts too. Ah, the glory that was Mencken.
Thomas Merton, The Seven-Storey Mountain (1948)
A Catholic convert and Trappist monk, Merton’s natural gifts as a writer enabled him to introduce tens of thousands of readers to the spiritual fulfillment of contemplative life—a stunning achievement for an American.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941)
A biting critique of secular thought and a persuasive and inspiring exposition of man’s Christian destiny.
Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (1953)
Anticipated all the concerns of contemporary communitarians and did so with the sophistication of the century’s premier sociological imagination.
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (1978)
The beautiful letters of America’s most profound writer this century. The best imaginable bedtime reading.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1952)
The savagely incisive song of a great writer’s disillusionment with the bloody inhumanity of the Left.
Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos (1983)
True therapy for the therapeutic age. Percy shows that the best human life is being at home with our homelessness, not to mention that modern science, properly understood, need not have atheistic and materialist implications.
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)
This magisterial, balanced account of the world’s most ambitious scientific project serves as a vigorous retort to those who make much of American naiveté—or who would deny the American century.
Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966)
A neglected classic. Rieff shows that the real danger to humanity in our time is not socialism but therapy.
George Santayana, Persons and Places: Fragments of Autobiography (1944)
Like everything else from the pen of George Santayana, Persons and Places is elegant, witty, perspicacious, and profound—a distinguished autobiography relating the tangled transatlantic life of one of the century’s most original minds.
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942)
A great economist presents a dark vision of politics in a book which is accurately reasoned and brilliantly written.
Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (1953)
Strauss revealed the philosophical nerve of the Modern Project and retrieved the political dimension of classical philosophy.
William Strunk & E. B. White, The Elements of Style (1959)
An extraordinary little book that explains with clarity the use and misuse of the written word. In it the reader will not only learn the difference between such words as “while” and “although,” and “which” and “that,” but also find demonstrated beyond a doubt that language and civilization are inextricably intertwined.
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (1950)
Trilling shows that literature is relevant to politics not because it affirms any political doctrine but because it provides a corrective to any political ideology whatsoever.
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (1920)
Using as his primary sources beliefs that earlier had been felt rather than thought, Turner made those most American characteristics—optimism, grit, unflinching determination—central to the study of American history. One of the few truly original works of history this century.
Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (1952)
Here, one of this century’s most learned political philosophers powerfully critiques the modern quest for secular salvation.
Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)
A classic of Southern autobiography describing one man’s heroic and successful efforts to overcome the legacy of slavery.
James D. Watson, The Double Helix (1968)
An eminently readable book about the unraveling of DNA, one of the most important scientific discoveries of the century. The book also offers an interesting look at English society after the Second World War.
Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore (1962)
A careful reader of American literature works to restore our past.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953)
In a century littered with ill-considered arguments about the linguistic “construction of reality,” this landmark of the later Wittgenstein stands in a wholly different category. At once ingenious, humane, and humble, it puts philosophy on the right track after the sins of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others.
Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (1979)
The dazzling story of the test pilots and Mercury astronauts is narrated by Wolfe as a compelling affirmation of the American spirit and traditional values.
Malcolm X (with the assistance of Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
The spiritual journey of a sensitive and intelligent man who had to wrestle with his own demons and contradictions while battling the condescension of paternalist liberals and the enervating effects of the welfare state on his people.
Click here to see the 50 worst books of the twentieth century.
Editors: Mark C. Henrie, Winfield J.C. Myers, Jeffrey O. Nelson. Consultants: Brian Domitrovic, Harvard University; Victor Davis Hanson, California State University, Fresno; E. Christian Kopff, University of Colorado; Peter Augustine Lawler, Berry College; Leonard Liggio, Atlas Educational Foundation; Mark M. Malvasi, Randolph-Macon College; Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Harvard University; Wilfred McClay, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga; Mark Molesky, Harvard University; George H. Nash, author; George Panichas, Modern Age; John Willson, Hillsdale College.
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