Yes, I Abandoned the Modern Library 100 Reading Project

Last year, I started reading all of the books on the Modern Library 100. I wanted to slog through all of the books because it:

  • Gave me a goal that would keep me focused.
  • Was a good way to learn more about the writers that influenced some of my favorite living writers.
  • Would force me to finish some of the most popularly difficult books in modernist literature.

I think I was right about these things. But I didn’t know what I was getting into.

Recent Writing Has More Value to Me

Most importantly, I hadn’t fully considered how sticking to a list would make it impossible for me to read other books. It meant that I wouldn’t read any non-fiction for two years. Over the last few months, I’ve read Black Against Empire and What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. They reminded me that non-fiction needs to play a role in the life of anyone interested in writing accurately.

I also didn’t realize how much the bigotry discussed in modernist books would make me feel. Obviously, Heart of Darkness was going to say some things that I wouldn’t like. That’s okay, because confronting bigotted thinking and imperialism are also crucial.

Humans Are Disgusting Creatures, In Case You Didn’t Know

I might have made a mistake by reading The Sun Also Rises and The Naked and the Dead too close together. They’re probably accurate portrayals of life. They’re also depressing as hell. I came away from The Naked and the Dead wondering why the U.S. even got involved in WWII, other than being pissed off that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Most of the soldiers in that book would have happily picked up guns to patrol a concentration camp. They didn’t even pretend to hide their contempt for a Jewish soldier fighting alongside them.

Again, that’s probably accurate. But it made me dread picking up the book every night.

I have a hard time understanding why anyone really cares about The Sun Also Rises. Maybe it makes sense in a historical context. Reading it now, though, I don’t see why the writing stood out so much to people.

Then there’s the actual content. Staying as drunk as possible is an understandable reaction to a world war. A lot of the characters were living with PTSD. No faulting them there. Constantly hating on a Jewish guy, though? Yep, probably accurate. I don’t doubt that a lot of people responded like that. It’s also disgusting, and Hemingway doesn’t really address it in that way.

Plus, fuck Hemingway for making bullfighting seem like anything less than grotesque. How is it beautiful or heroic to kill a bull that’s already been stabbed multiple times? Take off your fancy clothes and go at it animal-to-animal if you want anything close to respect. I’ll allow you a knife since bulls come equipped with bulk and horns. Outside of that, it’s time for you to admit that you’re a lesser creature that must cheat to win. And you do it for pleasure instead of necessity.

Luckily, it was a short read that I could get away from quickly.

Going Forward

I don’t shy away from difficult topics. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have picked up Black Against Empire. Reading from the Modern Library 100, though, I almost always got the oppressor’s perspective. What did I expect from those writers? I should have known better.

I’ve gone back to my regular approach to reading. Pick up what seems interesting. Support living writers. Learn from the oppressed instead of the oppressor. Try to buy books from Amazon as little as possible, even though I will impulse buy used sci-fi more often than I should.


Month 2 – The Modern Library 100 Reading Project

During June, I finished:

  • The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding*
  • The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer*

Common Themes in a Diverse Selection of Books

Although I picked these books as randomly as possible, I noticed some common themes in them. The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Invisible Man, and The Naked and the Dead are all, to some extent, about young men confronted with a reality that they did not expect.


Holden gets abandoned by his mother and father, who ship him to boarding schools after his younger brother dies.

All of the children in Lord of the Flies face madness, responsibility, tribalism, threats of death, and actual death in a few cases.

The soldiers in The Naked and the Dead have been thrust into a war that has nothing to do with them. They spend most days sweating in intense heat. At night, the huddle against each other for warmth in chilling rain. Like Lord of the Flies, there’s also the responsibility, tribalism, madness, and just loads upon loads of death.

Invisible Man, I think, is primarily about change. The book’s beauty comes from Ellison’s uses every opportunity to add a new voice. You get the voice of a young black man in college; the voice of that same man as he struggles to make his way in Harlem; yet another voice from that man as he finds authority; and another voice from the man once he embraces his invisibility. He couldn’t have anticipated any of the events that happen to him, but he adjusts to the changing realities as they come.

Let’s Add the Dog, Too, Because He Deserves It

If you accept Buck as a young man instead of a dog, then you can find the same themes in Call of the Wild. I can’t imagine denying that Buck has the same level of consciousness as humans. London gives Buck such a wonderful capacity for thought, cunning, strength, and emotion that you could easily mistake the narrative as one from a person.

On to Month Three

I don’t plan to write much here about the books I read, but I will comment on some things that strike me. What I mean to say is that you shouldn’t expect any book reports from me. Then again, I don’t want post lists without any context or content.

Seeing as how we’re already a week into July, I’ve started month three’s books. So far, I’ve finished 1984 and piked up The Age of Innocense and Women in Love. More on that in a few weeks.

Until then, keep reading.

*Indicates the first time I’ve read the book.

The Modern Library100 Best Novels Reading List by Month (updated June)

Here are the books on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels that I’ve finished, by month.

Why am I telling you this? Go here to find out, because I’m not explaining it again.



  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson*
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  • Ironweed, William Kennedy

It’s a small stack, but it will grow quickly.


  • The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding*
  • The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer*


*Indicates the first time I’ve read the book.

The Modern 100 Reading Project

low angle view of tower books

Last April, I looked at the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels and realized that I’ve only read about 30% of them. I didn’t even recognize some of the titles and authors on the list.

It feels strange to spend so much time writing when I don’t know the work of authors that have, undoubtedly even if indirectly, influenced me.

So, I got the idea in my head that I would read all 100 books. Many of the books that I’ve read, I haven’t look at since college, two decades ago. Those include some of my favorite novels like Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, 1984, and A Clockwork Orange.

I’m including them because I’m a different reader today than I was in my teens and 20s. I want to absorb them, find out how I feel now that I’ve spent more than 20 years writing fiction and non-fiction. Who knows how it will go.

The Rules (May They Please Not Be the Death of Me)

I don’t want to walk away from newly published books for too long. And I know that they will tempt me.

To avoid becoming some kind of hermit who refuses to participate with contemporary books, I’m setting a time limit that I hope will not a) kill me or b) make me hate reading.

With that said, it’s an ambitious schedule for someone who doesn’t see the point of speed reading novels that should bring pleasure to their audiences.

Here are the basic goals that I’ve set for myself:

  1. Finish all novels by the end of May 2021 (that gives me a month’s wiggle room since I started the reading project at the beginning of this May (2019)).
  2. I can skip around and read whichever books appeal to me at the moment. I don’t agree with the Modern Library’s list order. I also think that reading some of these books in a row would kill my desire to finish the project. I need the weight of momentum to keep me going. I loved Ulysses the one time that I read it, but reading it took a lot of time and effort. Starting with it would likely end the project. If I’ve read 50% of the books on the list, though, I’ll feel obligated to get through books like The Great Gatsby (I didn’t care for it the two times I read it) or, shudder, Finnegan’s Wake (the literature professor I read Ulysses with planned to read Finnegan’s Wake in his retirement, and even he was unsure whether he could get through it).
  3. Keep a journal of my experiences reading the books. Ideally, the reading project will turn into a writing project. Standing here at the beginning, I have no idea how that will go. It could end up like Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED (I did this so you don’t have to) or Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock (here are the things that happened during this period of my life) or something different that I can’t foresee.
  4. At the very least, publish monthly updates on my progress right here on the blog. I’m not committing to a specific schedule because I’ll buy most of these books used when I run into them.

Read Along and Share the Joy/Misery to Come

If you care to join me, these are the books I completed in May:

  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  • Ironweed, William Kennedy

Yes, I’m aware that I need to pick up speed. May is a long month. I should have finished at least six books. In my defense, I’m very near the end of The Naked and the Dead.

Wish me luck.