Modern Library

The Modern Library, a current division of Random House publishers, was founded in 1917 by Albert Boni and Horace Liveright. It was bought in 1925 by Bennett Cerf. Random House began in 1927 as a subsidiary of the Modern Library, but eventually became the parent company.


Recent history

The Modern Library used to publish only hardbound books until the 1980s, when they began to release Modern Library College Editions, a forerunner of their current series of paperback classics. Their homepage says:

In 1992, on the occasion of the Modern Library's seventy-fifth anniversary, Random House embarked on an ambitious project to refurbish the series. We revived the torchbearer emblem that Cerf and Klopfer commissioned in 1925 from Lucian Bernhard. The Promethean bearer of enlightenment (known informally around the old Modern Library offices as the "dame running away from Bennett Cerf") was redesigned several times over the years, most notably by Rockwell Kent.
Today's Modern Library proudly displays the Bernhard colophon and endpapers, but everything else is new - we've designed new jackets and created new bindings; worn out type has been reset; out-of-date introductions have been replaced, translations scrutinized, titles added, and a line of Modern Library paperbacks has been launched, including Science, Food, Exploration, The Movies, Humor and Wit, and War. A Board of prominent thinkers advises us on selections, and our readers are participating as never before in the workings of the Modern Library via this website's Reading Guide Center and Suggest a Title link and 100 Best polls for the best novels and nonfiction of the 20th century. [1] (

In September 2000 they launched a newly designed Paperback Classics series. Six new titles are published in the series on the second Tuesday of each month.

Modern Library lists

The Modern Library identified itself at its onset as "The Modern Library of the World's Best Books". In trying to keep with that identity, they made a list of what they called "100 best novels and non-fiction books of the 20th century" in 1998; an unscientific web poll to gather public opinion on the same was also conducted. The list was actually restricted to works in English, but the title of the list was not modified to reflect this, and little attention was paid to the fact in publicity for the list. The top ten books from both lists in each category are shown below. According to an article about the list in the New York Times,

Executives at Random House said they hoped that as the century drew to a close their list would encourage public debate about the greatest works of fiction of the last hundred years, thus both increasing awareness of the Modern Library and stimulating sales of novels the group publishes. [2] (

The lists have drawn heavy criticism. Their ranking system and the arguably sexist and extremely insular selection annoyed the majority of professional scholars and critics. The board members themselves, who did not create the rankings and were unaware of it until the list was published, expressed disappointment and puzzlement [3] ( There are only eight or nine women on the list, some highly influential works are ranked below works of questionable literary merit, and the works of major writers from many English-speaking countries apart from the USA and England - such as Australia, India, Canada, Sri Lanka and South Africa - have been ignored. There were also hypotheses that the Modern Library merely made a selection based on its stocklist. A. S. Byatt, the well known English novelist who was on the board, called the list "typically American."

The list was compiled simply by sending each board member a list of 440 pre-selected books from the Modern Library catalogue and asking each member to place a check beside novels they wished to choose. Then the works with the most votes were ranked the highest, and ties were broken arbitrarily by Random House publishers. This explains surprising results like the #5 placement of Brave New World, which most of the judges agreed belonged somewhere on the list, but much lower than the very top.

The list itself does not confirm the titular implication that a sincere effort was made to survey and adequately represent the immensely vast and varied body of international 20th century literature, which has seen so much innovation, so many movements and the increased awareness, in Anglo-American academia, of previously unrecognized but substantial literary traditions. While Random House claims they were merely interested in bringing what they call "the greatest" books to the attention of the public and boosting the sales of their publications, critics believe the list and rankings have little or no merit as a serious evaluation of literary achievement, despite occasional consistency with conventional academic opinions on Anglo-American literature.

Board Selections

Best 20th Century Novel

  1. Ulysses by James Joyce
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  8. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  9. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
  10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Best 20th Century Non-fiction

  1. The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
  2. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
  3. Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
  4. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
  5. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  6. Selected Essays, 1917-1932 by T.S. Eliot
  7. The Double Helix by James D. Watson
  8. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
  9. The American Language by H. L. Mencken
  10. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes

Reader Selections

As David Ebershoff, the Modern Library division's publishing director, carefully stated "the people who were drawn to go to the Modern Library Web site and compelled to vote have a certain enthusiasm about books and their favourite books that many people don't, so that the voting population is skewed." [4] ( In other words, it was an insecure web poll. Others have been still less charitable; librarian Robert Teeter remarks that the ballot boxes were "stuffed by cultists." [5] ( Note the prevalence of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard in the lists.

Best 20th Century Novel

  1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  2. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  3. Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
  4. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  7. Anthem by Ayn Rand
  8. We the Living by Ayn Rand
  9. Mission Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
  10. Fear by L. Ron Hubbard

Best 20th Century Non-fiction

  1. The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand
  2. Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health by L. Ron Hubbard
  3. Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff
  4. 101 Things to do 'Til the Revolution by Claire Wolfe
  5. The God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson
  6. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life by Michael Paxton
  7. The Ultimate Resource by Julian Simon
  8. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt
  9. Send in the Waco Killers by Vyn Suprynowicz
  10. More Guns, Less Crime by John R. Lott


  1. July 20, 1998 article in the NYT: "'Ulysses' on Top Among 100 Best Novels" (
  2. The Lowdown on the Literary List by David Streitfeld (
  3. Modern Library Collector's FAQ (

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