The New York Public Library's Books of the Century,edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf (Oxford University Press, 231 pp.; $14.95, hardcover). Reviewed by John Wilson.
At once irresistible and maddening, this beautifully designed little book is the companion volume to "Books of the Century," an exhibit that formed part of the centennial celebration of the New York Public Library in 1995. The exhibit was designed to showcase books "that helped shape and define the last hundred years." In response to public demand, a few additional titles (including a number of children's books) were added to the list for this volume, which presents more than 170 works altogether, divided into a dozen categories. (The ground rules specified that no writer could be represented more than once, so Stephen King fans had to be content with a single title, Carrie. ) Each title gets a page of its own.
A book such as this is splendid for reading in bed with your spouse—like all such compilations, it's a game of sorts—but it also has considerable documentary value as a cross section of Received Opinion. The hand of political correctness lies heavy on the entire enterprise. Thus we have such absurdities as the inclusion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (in the section titled "Utopias and Dystopias"), neither a good book nor an influential one, purely a quota-filler (of which there are many). Most interesting, perhaps, is the treatment of religion, and Christianity in particular.
Among the 12 categories—including "Colonialism and Its Aftermath" and "Women Rise"—there is none specifically devoted to God or religion. This seems odd, given the stated aim of the exhibit. After all, religious belief has certainly been enormously influential ...1