Barbarians Inside the Gates

'Essential' literature goes nobrow


What does a list of the "100 greatest novels of all time" look like in the post-middlebrow age? Britain's Observer assembled such a list in October, mixing exemplars of the traditional great-lit canon (Cervantes, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc.) with works by such "popular" authors as John Buchan, John le Carré, Raymond Chandler, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Alexander Dumas. Even James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential made the list. The paper called its choices "a catalogue of just a hundred 'essential' titles."

Lists of the greatest-ever books have a long pedigree. Under the middlebrow reign of the 20th century, cultural consumers yielded power to elite gatekeepers in exchange for the status to be gained by becoming "well rounded." That deal, however, is over: Cultural choices are increasingly personal, not social. It shouldn't be surprising that the Observer's list is about pleasure, not status. Under their choices, the editors asked readers, "Who did we miss?" Not exactly the voice of Matthew Arnold.