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The Best Books of Our Time* [with Links]


*According to The Best Books of Our Time: 1901 - 1925, A clue in the literary labyrinth for home library builders, booksellers and librarians, consisting of a list of 1,000 best books selected by the best authorities accompanies by critical descriptions written and compiled by Asa Don Dickinson, Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania, Author of 1,000 Best Books. 

There's always something enjoyable about the listicles of the previous century, especially when they're so shamelessly transparent. I think my favourite part of that description is the idea of 'home library builders' - the idea that if you don't have the Dickinson Certified Best Books™, well, your parlour simply isn't up to snuff. I stumbled on Dickinson's 1,000 Best when I was doing the research for Lost Souls, and was delighted to find that his penchant for creating league tables of literature had continued.

Dickinson had a strict process for inclusion. He surveyed his notable peers, and any book that received four or more nominations was included.

This book specifically covers 1901-1925, and Dickinson notes that many notable authors simply didn't make the cut because of this restriction. There's no restriction on language, but Dickinson notes that only 69 of the 378 authors in the volume produced books 'in foreign tongues', which he concludes is simply the result of preparing a guide for (stated) 'English-speaking readers'.

Dickinson's top ten authors:

Author Endorsements
John Galsworthy 197
H.G. Wells 172
Arnold Bennett 137
G. Bernard Shaw 123
Edith Wharton 118
Joseph Conrad 110
Booth Tarkington 103
Rudyard Kipling 79
W.H. Hudson 78
Joseph Hergesheimer 74
Eugene O'Neill 67

Hergesheimer is totally new to me the top Hergesheimer novel (Java Head, see below) has been downloaded 13 14 times. Booth Tarkington is one of three novelists to win the Pulitzer Prize more than once, but, seems to be largely forgotten. According to Gutenberg, his most downloaded book is Lords of the Housetops: 13 Tales of Cats. Which, I'm not ashamed to say, I already had.

We also have a league table for the top 25 titles:

Title Author Endorsements
 Old Wives' Tale  Arnold Bennett 25
 Forsyte Saga  John Galsworthy 23
 Kim  Rudyard Kipling 23
 Narrative Poems  John Masefield 23
 House of Mirth  Edith Wharton 23
 Jean-Christophe  Romain Rolland 21
 Java Head  Joseph Hergesheimer 20
 Penrod  Booth Tarkington 20
 Spoon River Anthology  Edgar Lee Masters 20
 Call of the Wild  Jack London 19
 Outline of History  H.G. Wells 19
 Ethan Frome  Edith Wharton 19
 The Virginian  Owen Wister 19
 Clayhanger  Arnold Bennett 18
 Joseph Vance  William De Morgan 18
 Selected Poems  Robert Frost 18 
 Son of the Middle Border  Hamlin Garland 18 
 Growth of the Soil  Knut Hamsun 18 
 Mr Britling Sees It Through  H.G. Wells 18 
 My Antonia  Willa Cather 17
 Justice  John Galsworthy 17
 The Dynasts  Thomas Hardy 17
 Four Million  O. Henry 17 
 Green Mansions  W.H. Hudson 17 
 Collected Poems  Edwin Arlington Robinson 17
 Riders to the Sea  John Millington Synge 17
 The Age of Innocence  Edith Wharton 17

Dickinson, like any good proto-blogger, has much more extensive lists, as well as lots of subcategories as well. If there were Amazon Affiliate links in 1925, he would've been a very happy man.

As this is nominally a genre blog, a few inclusions of interest. Dickinson includes various critical quotes in his descriptions, and they can be a joy to read:

Title Author   Notes 
Peter Pan  J.M. Barrie  7  'This child's play' is one of nine inclusions by Barrie
Zuleika Dobson Max Beerbohm   5  The 'comic fantasy' is one of five from Beerbohm
Episodes Before Thirty Algernon Blackwood   4  Blackwood's 'absorbing autobiography' is the only inclusion from this author of 'mystical fiction'
A History of the Great War John Buchan  8  Buchan's history is his only mention; notable, I suppose for the absence of Prester John (1910)
Messer Marco Polo Donn Byrne 10  I've never heard of this, but is described as 'the story of Marco Polo as it should have been' (emphasis Dickinson's), and sounds fairly alt-history/fantasy-y
The Cream of the Jest James Branch Cabell 11 Cabell has 54 endorsements across eight books, despite having his work described as 'slushy and disgusting'. This 'amazing fantasy' contains 'wistful beauty'
Jurgen James Branch Cabell 8 More mixed summary of this 'yarn', which one critic noted was written with "phallic candour"
Cardigan Robert W. Chambers 7 There's my boy. Alas, the 'Boudoir Balzac' is included only for this and The Fighting Chance (4)
The Valley of Silent Men James Oliver Curwood 4 A romance of the Canadian Northwest, and the sole inclusion from the 'second most popular author in American during the post-war period' (see Grey, below)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 6 Sir Arthur also makes the list with Sir Nigel (6)
Plays of Gods and Men Lord Dunsany 8 Dunsany fares well with the critics, despite being 'obsessed with themes uncanny'. Five Plays (4), A Dreamer's Tales (4) and The Book of Wonder (4) also make the cut.
Relativity Albert Einstein 6 Included as a point of reference. Tough crowd. Keynes, Freud, Helen Keller and Booker T Washington also appear, with a handful of votes each.
The Private Life of Helen of Troy John Erskine 5 Also tangentially fantasy, I suppose.
The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame 9 'One of the small but interesting class of books which seem written for children, for adults'. (In which Dickinson foreshadows the booming YA industry of the early 21st century.)
Riders of the Purple Sage Zane Grey 7 "In the years between 1914 and 1926 he has ranked as the most popular author of the American public"; if true, the (lacklustre) presence of just this one Grey demonstrates the discrepancy between commercial and critical opinion
The Mutineers Charles Hawes  7  One of three 'swashbuckling' tales from the author, with The Great Quest (5) and The Dark Frigate (4). nb. The Mutineers has more 1925 endorsements than Gutenberg downloads, help him out.
Puck of Pook's Hill  Rudyard Kipling  15 With 79 endorsements, Kipling does very well. The Jungle Books (1894, 1895) fall outside of the scope of this collection but The Just So Stories (1902) do not... but do not appear on the list.
Babbitt Sinclair Lewis  16 Dickinson notes that Lewis is the third best-selling author over this time period (behind Grey and James Curwood) but bends over backwards to note that Lewis writes 'a very different kind of book'. Lewis is having a bit of a resurgence with (the mediocre, but relevant) It Can't Happen Here (1935). Treat yourself; Babbitt is a far better book.
The Story of Doctor Doolittle Hugh Lofting  7  Also Voyages of the same (4)
Graustark    George Barr McCutcheon  4  The sole entry from 'the most popular American fictionist 1900-1914', but his 'light romances' and adventures are not 'not often discussed by critics nor included by list-makers'
Hill of Dreams Arthur Machen 5 'Machen belongs to the small company of genuine mystics'
A Maker of History E. Phillips Oppenheim 4 Sure
The Circular Staircase Mary Roberts Rinehart 4 One of two inclusions from the mystery novelist, who also created the first 'girl detective, Violet Strange
The Winning of Barbara Worth Harold Bell Wright 4 Another Western, and the only inclusion from the most popular American 'fictionist' 1909-1921

It is always fun to see how lists like these hold up over time, but it is hard to judge if this aggregation of critics did particularly well or badly. Certainly many of the top names have held up over time, whilst others (sorry, Tarkington) haven't. And there are some misfires as well: embarrassingly marginal inclusions (Proust and Beerbohm, for example). 

The bias against non-fiction - given Dickinson surveyed literary critics - makes for an amusingly skewed scale as well. E. Phillips Oppenheim is pretty snazzy, but if we're approaching significance quantitatively, it is a little silly to have one of his adventures on par with the Theory of Relativity.

Dickinson's book is a lot of fun, as it allows us to look (and laugh at) contemporary criticism. But it does also help further the discussion of critics as curators, and, more importantly, the 'causality' of great literature. How many of these books wound up as 'great books' because the critics said they were, with the impact of a few voices lingering for generations? Who speaks for the masses - are Harold Bell Wright and James Curwood - bestsellers of their decades - justifiably forgotten? And, if so, does that mean the power of a few critics outweighs the voices of millions of readers? Or simply that the critics had impressive predictive power? Or, conversely, does the disappearance of Booth Tarkington show that there's not correlation at all - and despite collective, critical praise, the tide of cultural history is inexorable? (Discuss. This will be 50% of your grade.)

In the meantime, my Kindle now overflows with Gutenberg downloads. Perhaps, with the copyright expired, we'll be seeing a resurgence of some of these names. Or maybe not.


Credits: Photo by Jan Mellström. All links to free, legal downloads on Project Gutenberg or