The turn of the century is a time to take stock of the path we have followed, the better to discern where we ought to be going. Historical discernment requires coming to judgment about what has been noble, good, and beneficial in our time, but also about what has been base, bad, and harmful. In the life of the mind, what has our century produced that deserves admiration? What has it produced that deserves only contempt?
Earlier this year, the Modern Library published a list styled The Hundred Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century. A list of significant books can make a compelling statement about how we are to understand an age. In judging the quality of a book, one necessarily judges the perception and the profundity which the book displays, as well as the character of the book’s influence.
Yet many were dissatisfied with the several “Best” lists published in the past year, finding them biased, too contemporary, or simply careless. So the Intercollegiate Review (IR) set out to assemble its own critically serious roster of the Best—and the Worst—Books of the Century. To assist us in this task, we relied on the advice of a group of exceptional academics from a variety of disciplines.
To make the task more manageable, our lists include only nonfiction books originally published in English, and so certain giants of the century such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn will not be found here, on two counts. We left the definition of “Best” up to our consultants, but we defined “Worst” for them as books which were widely celebrated in their day but which upon reflection can be seen as foolish, wrong-headed, or even pernicious.
Among their choices:
Preferable to Lewis’s other remarkable books simply because of the title, which reveals the true intent of liberalism.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)
The master of paradox demonstrates that nothing is more “original” and “new” than Christian tradition.
Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950)
An essential work of European history that shows how the rise of Christianity altered civilization in the West. Credits the Roman Catholic Church with keeping civilization alive after the fall of Rome and during the barbarian invasions.
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (1992)
Revisionist history as it was meant to be written: as a correction to centuries of Whig historiography. Demonstrates that the brute force of the state can destroy even the most beloved institutions. What do you know . . . Belloc was right.
and a book I have not read, but certainly should:
Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better? No, and Butterfield provides the intellectually mature antidote to that premise of liberal historiography.
Check out the rest of the list here. How many have you read? Do you think they chose the right books?