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AUGUST 3, 1998:  TOP 100 WAYS TO FEEL STUPID: Seems we've become collectively obsessed with lists here in the penultimate year of the 20th century. From Late Night with David Letterman to the daily papers, we look to the ranked opinions of some arbitrary elite to cast a flashlight beam's worth of illumination on the vast, dark cave of human experience. This is the best we can do to explain and inform our media-saturated microcosm? Ah, well.

What's going on with this ranking of opinion? (The Star's list of "Top 100 Films Ever Made" is enlarged, laminated, and on permanent display at Casa Video, in case you missed it in the paper earlier this summer; and last week's Citizen (Living section, July 22) reprinted a wire story listing the Top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century.

And what a list it is...for a middle-aged white guy whose most daring career decision might've landed him a paper cut. Among other oversights, only eight women authors appear on the list (Virginia Woolf is the first at No. 15), and Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison are not among them.

James Joyce (occupying both the No. 1, for Ulysses, and No. 3 posts), F. Scot Fitzgerald, Henry James and William Faulkner are among those towering literary monoliths who make repeat appearances.

We had intended to complain at length and in detail about the selection committee's nostalgia and narrow view of what constitutes literature "of great merit and proven over time," but instead we'll leave you with these unfinished reflections:

  • The Great Gatsby as the second-best book of the 20th century? We remember this as the single most boring book in our compulsory education. (It's about a bunch of unhappy rich people who lie, cheat, steal and are somehow different and yet not different--that's the profound part--from the rest of us.) It's bad enough it's considered a classic, but this is the epitome of aristocratic arrogance.

  • Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, at No. 53: We challenge anybody to give us a comprehensive and comprehensible plot summary in less than 300 words.

  • James Joyce, James Joyce, James Joyce: If you've read one delicious run-on sentence, you might want to read another and another. But after you've read three voluminous collections of them, couldn't you pick the best one and get on with your life?

We're not big on ranking works of art on a scale of 1 to 100, but when "rank happens," interesting assumptions about our social fabric are revealed. Literature is nothing more than fact reinvented as fiction; it's our social landscape in drag. More than a reading guide, lists such as these offer more than a few insights into what some (how many?) consider the most appropriate, important and eloquent voices to speak for the rest of us who lack the courage or language or opportunity to do so. Are you well represented?

The Citizen wasn't buying it, either. They solicited opinions and Top 10 lists from their readers, and the results will be published in the July 31 Living section. See what these alternate lists have to say about our community, literary and otherwise.

DOG DAYS OF SUMMER: And speaking of research projects, one of our editors is looking for a volunteer for an informal study on the book How to Make Your Man Behave in 21 Days or Less, Using the Secrets of Professional Dog Trainers (Workman Publishing Co.). The book, by Karen Salmansohn, has been sold-out at our usual stable of local booksellers (not a good sign, guys), but we're keeping an eye out. (It's a 1994 paperback, and after some searching, we were comforted to find it's indeed cataloged under "Humor.")

TURNING OVER A NEW PAGE: Good headline news for Apple alarmists and Nintendo nihilists: "Reading Tops Leisure-Time Activity Poll."

According to this byte from the online newsletter for BookZone (http://www.bookflash.com/, "publishing news that just can't wait"), the fourth-annual Harris Poll of U.S. leisure activities declared that of all U.S. residents surveyed, reading topped the list of top-three activities: Thirty percent of respondents said reading is their favorite way to spend their free time. Television came in next with 21 percent, and gardening claimed third place with 14 percent. The poll was conducted by Harris and Associates, a Manhattan-based research and consulting firm.


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