Thank god that century is over (plus riddle)

In early 2012 I decided to join Simon at Stuck In A Book in his quest to read one book from each year of the 20th century. Unlike Simon, I did not finish in 2012. I just finished today. I am pretty quick to walk away from reading challenges, but there was something about this one that I could let go of.

How the list became the list (folly)
Many of you have watched me enjoy and struggle with my A Century of Books List over the past 20 months. Some of you wondered why I actually made a list. Why not just fill it in as you go? If I had done that I never would have finished the century. I think my reading would have naturally clumped up during some period (maybe in the 1940s?) and other decades would have been untouched. Plus, finding books for each year of the 20th century was not exactly easy. Wikipedia, Goodreads, and that 1001 Novels to Read Before You Die book helped, but since I was trying to focus on books I already owned, those resources were only so useful. Not to mention that those resources don’t necessarily catch anything fun to read–lots of serious reading, and, in the case of Wikipedia lots of fantasy and sci fi.

So I combed through my library and in the end read 72 books from my TBR pile. I looked in each unread Virago, my shelf of unread NYRB Classics, and of course, my Persephone pile. And so, the list was born. It has changed many times since I first made it. As some of the books weighed me down I decided the list needed to be lightened up even further. I did also make some purchases since there were several years that were completely unrepresented in my library.

How I finished it (desperation)
I didn’t cheat. The rule was to read a book from each year. I did that. But, I sure did get creative with my list, especially as I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. By the time I got to the final three books I was really desperate to be finished. It became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to read anything over 200 pages. And even then those 200 pages had to promise quick reading. I became so goal oriented that I found it incapable of enjoying books I know I would enjoy if not for my desire to finish the challenge.

What I learned (enlightenment)

  • It was kind of fascinating to see how this challenge educated me about trends in writing styles and content. This especially became noticeable when I began to read in chronological order.
  • Most of my favorite reads were on the lighter side. Kind of hard to lump them with better or weightier tomes, but I guess that says a lot about my reading tastes.
  • Surprisingly the 1970s seems to be my favorite decade. With all but one title ending up in the top three rating categories. The 1940s and 1950s tied for second place with eight titles in those top three tiers.
  • My favorite books were pretty spread out through the decades. Three each in the 1940s and 1970s, Two each in the 1900s, 1930s and 1980s, and then one each in all the other decades.
  • Despite that two of my favorites were from the 1900s, a whopping six titles from that decade bored me to tears.
  • I was most ambivalent about the 1980s.
  • Modernism, I don’t like you.
  • Kids books bore me, no matter how good.
  • I only have the dregs (the most painful) of the Modern Library’s Top 100 List (ML100) left yet to read. Based on this experience, I think I may forget about the rest of them. 
  • I am never doing this again.

The most enjoyable books of the century (joy)
1904 – Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse
1909 – Martin Eden by Jack London
1918 – Patricia Brent-Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins
1921 – Dangerous Ages by Rose Macauley
1930 – Angel Pavement by J.B. Priestly
1937 – Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson
1944 – Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
1945 – The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
1946 – Every Good Deed by Dorothy Whipple
1958 – A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym
1966 – The House on the Cliff by D.E. Stevenson
1970 – 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
1973 – After Claude by Iris Owens
1978 – The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
1983 – Look at Me by Anita Brookner
1984 – Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
1999 – Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Books that I really liked (happy)
1913 – T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1919 – Consequences by E.M. Delafield
1920 – Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
1923 – The Ladies of Lyndon by Margaret Kennedy
1929 – Passing by Nella Larsen
1927 – Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards
1934 – Burmese Days by George Orwell
1938 – Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan
1940 – Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather
1947 – Not Now, but Now by M.F.K. Fisher
1950 – Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
1951 – A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
1952 – The Far Country by Nevil Shute
1954 – Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins
1956 – The Flight from the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch
1957 – Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
1964 – The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble
1968 – Sarah’s Cottage by D.E. Stevenson
1971 – Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller
1977 – The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald
1979 – The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
1981 – Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (ML100)
1989 – Summer People by Marge Piercy
1989 – Passing On by Penelope Lively
1991 – The Translator by Ward Just
1993 – While England Sleeps by David Leavitt
1994 – The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy
1997 – Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty

Books that I merely liked (content)
1902 – The Immoralist by Andre Gide
1908 – Love’s Shadow by Ada Leverson
1912 – The Charwoman’s Daughter by James Stephens
1917 – Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
1928 – Quartet by Jean Rhys
1931 – The Square Circle by Denis Mackail
1935 – A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett
1939 – And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
1943 – Gideon Planish by Sinclair Lewis
1948 – The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
1949 – Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
1959 – The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley
1960 – The Bachelors by Muriel Spark
1965 – Of the Farm by John Updike
1967 – My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof by Penelope Mortimer
1969 – The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble
1974 – House of Stairs by William Sleator
1975 – Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
1976 – The Takeover by Muriel Spark

Books about which I am ambivalent (ennui)
1925 – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (ML 100)
1932 – Year Before Last by Kay Boyle
1933 – Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson
1941 – The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge
1953 – Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
1980 – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
1982 – Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
1985 – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
1986 – Anagrams by Lorrie Moore
1987 – Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher
1988 – The Temple by Stephen Spender
1990 – Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman
1995 – Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
1996 – Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Books I might have liked if I had been in a different mood (bored)
1900 – Claudine at School by Collette
1901 – Claudine in Paris by Collette
1903 – The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
1905 – The Duel by Aleksandr Kuprin
1906 – Young Torless by Robert Musil
1910 – Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett
1936 – The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West
1942 – Clark Clifford’s Body by Kenneth Fearing
1955 – The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
1963 – The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy

Books I almost didn’t hate (surprised)
1907 – The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (ML100)
1914 – Penrod by Booth Tarkington
1915 – The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
1916 – Under Fire by Henri Barbusse
1926 – Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
1972 – Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl
1992 – Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells
1998 – The Book of Lies by Felice Picano

Painful, just painful (resentful)
1911 – Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (ML100)
1922 – The Judge by Rebecca West
1961 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (ML100)
1962 – A Clockwork Orange by A. Burgess (ML100)

My most hated book of the century (tortured)
1924 – Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford (ML100)

What one word do each of these images represent?

22 thoughts on “Thank god that century is over (plus riddle)

  1. StuckInABook September 2, 2013 / 6:04 pm

    A very hearty congratulations! I'm sad that you don't adore Winnie the Pooh, but very pleased to see some successes that I also love. And mostly well DONE for finishing! I suspect you won't be joining Claire and me for ACOB 2014…


  2. Teresa September 2, 2013 / 6:12 pm

    Ooh, I know the riddle! But, rather than spoiling it for others, I'll just say that it's what you feel now that you're done.


  3. Claire (The Captive Reader) September 2, 2013 / 6:33 pm

    Congratulations, Thomas! I love hearing about people's experiences with ACOB. I remember well that single-minded focus towards the end, when it becomes just about reading the book rather than enjoying it. Not fun and something I'm hoping to avoid next time.


  4. Frances September 2, 2013 / 7:26 pm

    Well, I don't want to spoil the fun either but I think it begins with an “R.” Congratulations on completing your self-imposed torture! The funny thing reading the list is that more and more of my favorites showed up the farther I got down. We appreciate many of the same things. But clearly not all. :)


  5. travellinpenguin September 2, 2013 / 8:13 pm

    Well done Thomas. Glad to see there is a Jack London in the top list of enjoyment. I love Jack London. Not liking Winnie the Pooh. I'm with Simon on that one. I'm still making my way through the challenge. It is one I am enjoying but of course I am not fast on challenges so it will probably go a few years. Look forward to seeing what you get up to next. As for riddle? I'm with Frances in my guess. Pam
    p.s. Laughing at Zuleika being at the bottom. I obviously liked it more than you did. haha


  6. September 2, 2013 / 9:47 pm

    Glad you feel a sense of relief. I, too, am so bad at challenges. I box myself in by making lists beforehand (because I love making lists) and then I feel “boxed in” and give everything up.


  7. Karen K. September 2, 2013 / 10:40 pm

    I'm really impressed that 72 were on your TBR pile!! This year I'm trying to read 50% from my own shelves and I'm keeping up, but I've barely made a dent in it.

    I know there are some from the ML Top 100 that I will NEVER complete. A Clockwork Orange is one of them. I saw the movie years ago and it's one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen, there are some scenes that still make me shudder.

    I still have Parade's End on the DVR queue and I think it is only Benedict Cumberbatch that is keeping me from erasing it.

    (P.S. No idea about the riddle, I'm terrible at such things).


  8. Bettina Grissen September 3, 2013 / 12:23 am

    I am so very impressed by the fact that you made it and actually finished it! Well done. And now you can just read what ever you want, what a sense of freedom that must give! :-)

    (I don't know the riddle, but I am usually not very good at those things)

    Kind regards,


  9. vicki (skiourophile) September 3, 2013 / 2:20 am

    Well done – a victory for persistence. ;-) There's a lot of things I want to read in there – mostly up towards the top half, thank goodness. Think of yourself as a pioneer…!


  10. harriet September 3, 2013 / 2:33 am

    Brilliant — well done. I started along with Simon but couldn't stick it out, I'm afraid. Now I wish I had. Your lists are fascinating and I was happy to see some favourites there, though of course we are never going to agree entirely with someone else's tastes.


  11. Susan in TX September 3, 2013 / 8:37 am

    I love the headings, esp. “almost didn't hate” and “painful, just painful (resentful).” I think my one experience with Ford M. Ford would classify somewhere between the painful and tortured categories, so I was really empathetic with that one.
    I myself have made it to 64/100. I gave myself two years at the outset to get it done, but I'm already willing to let it go another year. I really seem to be having trouble finding titles from the first two decades. I'll be coming back to see what you've read that might help me fill in some dates. Still pondering the riddle…


  12. Angeliki September 4, 2013 / 3:12 am

    Wow! Well-done! This is such an impressive achievement!


  13. maryslibrary September 4, 2013 / 1:59 pm

    Good for you, Thomas. Are you sure you won't be doing this again in 2014? Simon seems eager to repeat the experience. I might join you next time…


  14. Christine Harding September 4, 2013 / 5:26 pm

    Well done for sticking it out! There is no way I could have done this – I am not disciplined enough to follow simple challenges through to the end, and this was so daunting, and I would hate to be reading books because I have to, rather than because I want to.


  15. Thomas at My Porch September 5, 2013 / 10:45 am

    Simon: You are correct, I won't be joining in for 2014. I am just glad I finished before you started again. I probably would have liked Winnie if I had read it 35 years ago.

    Teresa: Did you have to think about the riddle or was it apparent right off the bat?

    Claire: I am glad to know you had similar issues. How do plan to avoid it next time round?

    Frances: It would be interesting to know how far down my list your favorites go.

    Pam: I think Zuleika was just too whimsical for me. I wanted it to be a different kind of book.

    Amanda: I think this may be the last challenge I ever finish. I think my rule going forward with other challenges is to sign up with no intention of finishing. That makes it a win/win.

    Karen: With only about 30 or so left on the ML100, I think I am probably just plain done with that list. Even though I did discover gold there once or twice.

    Bettina: I am almost where I can read whatever I want. At page 928 of A Suitable Boy, I still have about 600 to go. Then it will be smooth sailing.

    Vicki: In the final days it less like persistence and more like mania.

    Harriet: Don't feel bad about not finishing. Consider yourself free of mental illness.

    Susan: If you gave yourself to the end of 2014, then you wouldn't run into the “must finish” attitude that overcame me.

    Angeliki: Thanks. Welcome to My Porch.

    Mary: Oh no. No. Did I say no? Well, no.

    Christine: Oddly it is the simpler challenges that I don't mind walking away from. Something about the linearity of this one wouldn't allow the list freak in me to let it go.


  16. JoAnn September 6, 2013 / 7:32 am

    Congratulations, Thomas! This is quite an accomplishment. I'd be especially interested in experiencing the change in writing styles, etc. for myself, but would be more likely to do it reading just a few books from each decade… perhaps a Century of Books lite? ;-)


  17. Alex in Leeds September 6, 2013 / 10:29 am

    Belated congratulations Thomas, I'm still working on my century's worth of reading and have a way to go until I finish it so it's inspiring to see you finish and enjoy so many of your choices. :)


  18. winstonsdad September 6, 2013 / 1:54 pm

    well done ,I love books from 1930's best I feel well from english cannon ,I may try to do a translated version of this at some point ,all the best stu


  19. Teresa September 7, 2013 / 12:19 pm

    @Thomas: I didn't have to puzzle over it too much. I suspected what it was from the helicopter picture. The other two just confirmed my suspicion.


  20. Thomas at My Porch September 10, 2013 / 6:04 pm

    JoAnn: When Simon first came up with this one, I thought it was one book from each decade. Twelve books. A cinch.

    Alex: Keep it up. It sure feels good to finish.

    Stu: I thought I would like the 1930s more than I did.

    Teresa: I am glad it took you until the last photo. But I guess the riddle was posed at the end so it really was the fist photo. I wonder if I would have gotten it?


  21. Richard October 14, 2013 / 7:33 pm

    Belated thanks for sharing this, Thomas. Even though my favorite bullet point of yours from the post might be the terse “I am never doing this again,” it was fascinating to read about your experiences undertaking such a massive endeavor and the pluses and the minuses that came out of it for you. I'm intrigued with the Century of Books concept, but the thought of spending time writing so many posts about the challenge books is almost more intimidating than the thought of finding the time to read all the books in a fairly limited amount of time in the first place. Anyway, props to you for enduring on all the way through on to the end!


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