If we lament our book-swamped age, it may be out of an awareness that it is not by reading more books but by deepening our understanding of a few well-chosen ones that we develop our intelligence and our sensitivity. How clever we would be if we only knew three or four books well, Flaubert once wrote to Louise Colet (who was reading too much). And yet this patient focus on a few titles is made ever harder by the abundance of new books, and by the deliberate attempts of publishers to make us feel badly read, to frustrate our wish to deepen our loyalties to a few works. The modern book lover is condemned to a nauseous feeling of under-read-ness; a visit to a library or large bookstore may provoke as much despair as exhilaration.
So it may be the desire to cut a path through this dense literary foliage that explains why there have been so many recent lists of great books, choices that indicate not just what we must read, but - more importantly and therapeutically - what we don't have to bother with. Given that there have been more than 500,000 novels published in English since 1950, we should feel very grateful to Carmen Callil and Colm Tibn for whittling the mountain down to 200 of the greatest. (Actually as one discovers, it's only 194: the missing six will be added to the paperback edition, after being chosen by readers of the hardback, who are invited to send their entries on a form to Picador's offices. The idea of a "people's six" may seem voguishly democratic or absurd, depending on temperament.) After a brief introduction ("the books we chose are here because we loved them ..."), The Modern Library is made up of alphabetically arranged entries on the top books, all about 200 words long, which tell us when the author was born, what year his or her great work was written in, and roughly what the plot is. Then there are lists of Booker and Whitbread Prize winners, and finally, the form ("Your chance to see your favourite book in The Modern Library ...").
The most obvious, and absurd charge that one might make against this book is that the editors have chosen the wrong 194. Where is X, where is Y, why has Z been included? Surely they can't think that Q is worth the time of day? It seems a totally fruitless approach. It is in the nature of these lists to be incomplete, and to attract disagreement within every reader who will notice some favourites missing and some horrors included. Of course the list is wrong. How could it ever be right? The purpose of an authoritarian list of great books is simply to remind us of what works we genuinely like. In disagreeing with the editors' choices, we define our own identities as readers.
So Tibn and Callil can simply be praised for their excellent job in drawing up one of many possible lists of good-to-great novels, a list which will come in very handy for people who don't know much about what's been published in the last half-century and are looking for leads. Having never read any B S Johnson or V S Pritchett, I much appreciated being told that The Unfortunates and The Lady from Guatemala were the places to start. This is the kind of book one should flick through in the bath for inspiration on what to read next. Every library should have one, and bookshops would increase their back-list sales by positioning the title prominently.
However, it's only fair to point out to potential readers that the brief entries on each book are not very well written; they're an almost comic compendium of every back-jacket cliche. We're told that Salman Rushdie "is a born storyteller", Trainspotting is "explosive and hilarious", T C Boyle is "one of the funniest, sharpest and most original novelists in the United States now" and Beckett's Molloy Trilogy is a "monumental achievement". Given that Tibn is a great writer and Callil a great editor, this quality of prose is surprising. One only hopes that they undertook the book for the noblest of reasons, an enormous advance, and then got fed up with the admittedly mind-numbing task of writing all the entries.
Finally, one of the assumptions of the book is that it might be quite normal for someone really to love 194 novels published in English since 1950. Because I only deeply love about five (and have read less than 50 per cent of the list), I admit to an investment in thinking otherwise. But perhaps it is impossible for most people to feel as strongly as Callil and Tibn seem to about so many books written in such a short period, or indeed in any period. Having 194 favourite books is as surprising as having 194 best friends. One wonders how it's possible to sustain so many relationships. Then again, The Modern Library is a great tool for those who want to discover new friends and ditch old ones.