A Favourite Reference Book – About Books…

The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel ed Peter Parker.

I know that you bookish sorts like nothing more than a book about books, so today I shall introduce you to one of my favourites. Published back in 1994, and edited by Peter Parker, (consultant editor Frank Kermode), this chunky tome chronicles the twentieth century in novels, (well up to 1993), featuring over 750 titles from around 400 authors.

The main part of the book is arranged chronologically, with key events for each year preceding the Editors’ choices of novels for that year, many of which are given around a full page per entry.  Synopses are sometimes accompanied by quotations, and commentary. Added to this are short biographies of the authors, indexes of the books, by year and title, and authors.

Recently, after posts by DGR and Simon T, I treated myself to a 1p copy of The Modern Library – The 200 best novels in English since 1950. I’m pleased that they share many titles, but with its size The Reader’s Companion can suggest more titles per year, and of course it goes back to 1900.  One way of comparing is to pick a year … say 1960 when yours truly was born:

Modern Library

  • To kill a mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The Balkan Trilogy – Olivia Manning
  • The Rabbit Quartet – John Updike
  • Jeeves in the Offing – P G Wodehouse

Reader’s Companion

  • We think the world of you – J R Ackerley
  • The L-shaped room – Lynn Reid Banks
  • A kind of loving – Stan Barstow
  • The Sot-Weed Factor – John Barth
  • Bid to me live – H D (Hilda Doolittle)
  • The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell
  • To kill a mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The London Trilogy – Colin MacInnes
  • The Great Fortune (see Balkan Trilogy, 1965)
  • The Violent Bear it Away – Flannery O’Connor
  • The Country Girls  (see Trilogy, 1964) – Edna O’Brien
  • Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (see Anthony Powell, 1975)
  • The serpent and the rope – Raja Rao
  • The Waters of Kronos – Conrad Richter
  • The Affair (see Strangers & Brothers, 1970) – C P Snow
  • This Sporting Life – David Storey
  • Rabbit, Run (see Rabbit Quartet, 1990

Not all years have as many entries though; the majority have between 6 and 10, some fewer, and some more.  It was interesting that the Modern Library puts series of books at the start of the series year-wise, whereas the Reader’s Companion puts them at the year completed.

How many have I read though?  Harper Lee and all three parts of the Balkan Trilogy – so the same two from each book!  One day I will read Anthony Powell, and try the Rabbit books again, and I do have Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes on my shelf.

For anyone who’s not scared by a large reading list to pick from, and anyone joining in with Simon’s Century of Books The Reader’s Companion is probably the one for you, if you can cope with its physical size. If you prefer a smaller and perhaps more personal one, and in a handy normal paperback size, go for The Modern Library.

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I bought my books. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Modern Library: 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950 – Carmen Calill and Colm Toibin (from 28p (no 1p ones left!), old version; updated one from £3.95)
The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel – ed Peter Parker (from 1p!)

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5 thoughts on “A Favourite Reference Book – About Books…

  1. What an interesting post. I am quite surprised at how many of the books from both lists that I have read: the same as you plus The L Shaped Room, A Kind of Loving, This Sporting Life, The Country Girls trilogy and Jeeves In The Offing.
    Equally there are an awful lot of books and writers that I haven’t even heard of never mind read!
    I suspect that these reference books would be extremely dangerous in my hands but I am still very tempted to have a look and see if there are any cheap copies left!

    • Liz – I spent too many years reading nothing but SF in the 70s and 80s when I could have been reading all these modern classics, but it’s never too late to catch up (and I did/still do love my SF).

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