Summary of comments by Katha Pollitt in The Nation of August 24-31, 1998

Pollitt, writing in The Nation, like most commentators, damns the list, rightly complaining that the average age of the board is 68.7, there is only one woman and that all are white. She points out that the selection is”an arbitrary selection of classics from the earlier part of the century; middlebrow novels that seemed profound in high school; dusty blockbusters. Add a few oddities just to see if anyone’s still paying attention and don’t forget lots of books about men: at war, at stud, on the road. These are the books you’d find in a bed and breakfast run by a retired books editor of Smithsonian or Time.” (Incidentally, the only oddity she cites is Zuleika Dobson; Richard Cohen of the Washington Post admitted that this was the only book on the list he had not heard of. It is, of course, British and betrays the Americocentricity of Pollitt and Cohen that they do not recognise its qualities or even its existence, a fault of many of the American commentators.) She rightly condemns the choice of books that have already been rejected, like the dreadful Appointment to Samarra.

Pollitt’s main complaint is, rightly, the lack of books by women and she imagines a committee of women (Susan Sontag, Mary Gordon, Margaret Drabble, Elizabeth Hardwick, Pauline Maier, Toni Morrison, Nadime Gordimer, Nell Irvin Painter, Barbara Tuchman with Richard Howard as the token man) and has them choosing works like The Man Who Loved Children, The Making of Americans and Song of Solomon.

She tracks down a copy of The Magnificent Ambersons (an interesting film but a boring book) at her local library and she finds it like an endless after-dinner toast and wonders why it was chosen over Mrs. Dalloway, Beloved, Tono-Bungay, Cry, the Beloved Country, Malone Dies, Memento Mori, The Waterfall or The Towers of Trebizond. Sadly, some of her choices are not much better than The Magnificent Ambersons.