The epic fantasy novel by J. R. R. Tolkien, 'The Lord of the Rings', has been voted the Book of the Century by the buying public. Many critically acclaimed names such as T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann and Samuel Beckett failed to make it into the top 100 selected by the 25,000 voters.
George Orwell's dystopian 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' and his political satire 'Animal Farm' reached second and third places respectively, followed by James Joyce's Ulysses, though many of those who voted for this dense novel may not have read it.
More than 5,000 titles were nominated in a national survey conducted in the autumn by Waterstone's, the booksellers, and Channel 4's Book Choice programme. The public was invited to suggest up to five books.
Auberon Waugh, Editor of The Literary Review, expressed disbelief at Tolkien's win. "It's a little bit suspicious. It's like Mr Major coming out as the most popular man," he said. He suggested that the author's fans might have orchestrated a campaign, a charge rejected by Martin Grossel, a university lecturer in chemistry and leading light of Oxford's Tolkien Society. Tolkien fans "are not that sort of people", he said.
Mr Waugh felt that although Orwell's support was genuine, votes for Ulysses, whatever its merits, were "totally bogus". He suggested that the votes either came from English literature students or from people who were showing off.
Germaine Greer noted: "As a 57-year-old lifelong teacher of English, I might be expected to regard this particular list of books of the century with dismay. I do." Good writers such as Somerset Maugham and J.B. Priestley were among many who had been overlooked, she added.
While Kingsley Amis made the list with Lucky Jim, his son Martin was omitted. Some bestselling authors such as Jeffrey Archer did not make it.
Ross Shimmon, chief executive of the Library Association, said: "It seems to me a very sound selection. It's quite interesting that it's very different from the public lending rights figures."
Jung Chang's Wild Swans, an account of three generations of Chinese women surviving the nationalist and communist regimes, was the highest non-fiction entry at No 11. It was one of only 13 books on the list by women.
Alan Giles, managing director of Waterstone's, said: "Memories fade and therefore there's an over-representation of more recent writing. If we were to conduct the survey again in ten years, I wonder how many of those would still be on the list."
The Lord of the Rings is a tale of good and evil, the story of Frodo the Hobbit's search to return the Ring of Power to its source. First published in 1954, it achieved cult status in the Sixties and has remained in print ever since. On Booktrack's list of the top 5,000 bestsellers in Britain, The Lord of the Rings currently stands at No 537, selling 155 copies a week. Its author, born in 1892, was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, and an authority on Anglo-Saxon literature. It is perhaps the escapism which its mythology offers that has provided its enduring appeal, the same escapism that has kept Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek going for decades.
Malcolm Bradbury, Professor Emeritus of American Literature at the University of East Anglia, said that, while he would not consider it a great work of literature, he was not surprised at its triumph. "It has a very special cultural value," he said. "It's a book that crosses the magic line between childhood and adulthood."
Note: Orwell's 'Down and out in Paris and London' also placed in the top 100.
‘Times of London’ as on January 20th, 1997.
by Dalya Alberge, arts correspondent and Erica Wagner, literary editor
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‘The Modern Library's list of the top 100 English novels’
Courtesy of Charles — ‘Charles' George Orwell Links’ [www.netcharles.com/orwell/]
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Best 20th-Century Novels and George Orwell: [Index page]