Shelf lives;Book of the week;Books

30th April 1999 at 01:00
THE MODERN LIBRARY: the 200 best novels in English since 1950. Edited by Carmen Callil and Colm Toibin. Picador pound;12.99.

Long live the novel, says Adele Geras, as she browses through a celebration of the past half-century's top fiction

Carmen Callil is speaking to Jeremy Paxman on Radio 4's Start the Week. She argues that this book is a celebration - proof that fiction should be enjoyed and savoured rather than studied and criticised. She defends her choice of African and Indian writers, and shows how modernism has been absorbed into an older storytelling tradition.

She also answers the one question every reader would like to put to her: why did you leave out our favourites? Where are Carol Shields, Penelope Lively, Susan Hill, Margaret Forster, Vikram Seth, Alison Lurie and Robert McLiam Wilson?

Some of these writers, she says, she doesn't particularly like. That's fair enough, and readers are invited to send in their own vote for the last six books of the 200 on a form printed at the back. This is a wonderfully democratic idea, and means that we, the readers, can feel part of a great debate.

I'm going to have trouble narrowing my own choices down to six. Should I go for the old favourites, such as Lurie's The War Between The Tates or Forster's Have The Men Had Enough?, or should I draw every reader's attention to the brilliant, just-published The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver?

Tough decisions of all kinds await compilers of such books, but what fun the editors must have had. We are invited to share the fun, by agreeing and disagreeing with them. They are, moreover, only considering work from the past 50 years, written in English. If translations were allowed, they'd have to include W G Sebald's masterpiece The Emigrants, wouldn't they? And if the list took in books from the 1940s, William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It would have to be there, along with Tanizaki's glorious The Makioka Sisters.

When this book arrived, I gave a whoop of joy and settled down at once to revel in two of humankind's most basic pleasures - nosiness and lists.

Nick Hornby's wonderful novel High Fidelity (why isn't it here?) is full of lists, and many people spend hours composing them. Things to do, things to buy, people to invite to things: these are the stuff of most lives. But lists of the best this or that make a terrific kickstart to argument, thought and interest. They send you back to look at favourites. They draw your attention to books you've overlooked.

I am going straight to the library to take out Peter Taylor's A Summons to Memphis, which I have walked past a thousand times. Another incidental pleasure is the feeling of vindication when the editors pick someone you've loved for years, such as the incomparable Barbara Vine. Even here though, there is room for dispute. I would have chosen Asta's Book but the editors' choice, A Dark-Adapted Eye, is also terrific.

There is also a good mix of the popular and the literary (see Nick Hornby above), although both editors seem to favour the literary. And drawing the line at 1950 prevents them choosing such books as Finnegans Wake, which is not part of most people's mental furniture.

As well as the editors' 194 choices, additional lists appear at the back - winners of various prizes, the best poetry collections (lots to argue about there), biographies of the chosen writers and so on. For a general reader, the book provides a starting-point. As long as you remember that it boils down to the opinion of two people, you will love it and not become enraged.

Callil and Toibin have left out Tolkien, which is fine by me, but others will not be pleased. They ignore science fiction, which is also all right, although I would have made an exception for the fantastic Kurt Vonnegut and for Mervyn Peake. They have put in some books, such as Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, which I have never fancied in spite of many recommendations. In the end, this book should be the sort of friend who is interesting, even if sometimes a little misguided.

More bookshops are selling more books to more people. More adult library loans are for novels (that's 260 million books). Reading is more popular than gardening, DIY or football. These are all reasons to rejoice. Nothing in the world can take the place of a book: not films, not television, not videogames, not CD-Roms, not audiotapes. Books are a way of living more lives than we are given - as many lives as we desire. And as Maurice Sendak (who should be on every list of best anythings) discovered when he was only five years old, they smell good too.

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