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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Top Ten

Top Ten lists are as fun as they are meaningless, so I can't help responding to this Volokh Conspiracy post by Tyler Cowen, a list of the recent (1950 - 2000) works that will still be significant in 200 years. The titles selected are from David Frum; the comments are from Cowen.

1. A. Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. A wonderful book, but too narrowly political, not in my top ten by any stretch.
2. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao. I haven't been there, but by all photos and accounts a very strong masterpiece, an easy candidate for my list.
3. The paintings of Jackson Pollock. If you didn't see the Pollock retrospective at MOMA a few years, you won't know how good he is. A good pick.
4. The Godfather I & II. I prefer I to II, but in any case these are in the running.
5. C. Milosz, The Captive Mind. I have trouble putting a novel on this list. Our time offers many very very good novels, but I wouldn't cite any one of them as up with the all-time greats, such as Joyce or Cervantes. Pale Fire was perhaps the last stunning novel. For me, Milosz isn't close.
6. West Side Story. I admit it might be good, but I can't stand it. I wouldn't sit through it for $100. Bernstein's composing pulls too many sleazy tonal tricks, and the book is now cliche.
7. M. Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I enjoy his books but for me he is a lightweight.
8. The collected “I Love Lucy.” Good pick, but I think you have to go with "Highlights" rather than "collected." Don't forget Lucy on the assembly line, trying to make, what was it, doughnuts? Or Vitameenie-Vegamin? I would put Seinfeld first, though, it is darker and more interesting, at least when they don't treat Kramer like a modern-day Fonzie substitute. It is the best ensemble comedy, ever, I think.
9. VS Naipaul, A Bend in the River. Stronger and deeper than the other books selected.
10. Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA. Surely this one belongs in a different category.

I'll go with Cowen on items 1, 2, and 10. For 3, I would drop Pollock and go instead with the paintings of Chagall. But he may not qualify, since most of his greatest and truly original work was done before 1950. On the Godfather films, I too prefer I to II; I've always thought that the sections of II where De Niro plays the young Don Corleone, struggling to imitate the voice and bearing of Brando's great portrayal in I, are an unacknowledged weakness. But I would rate Chinatown as the greatest of American crime movies, and my own favorite movie of all time. It lacks the epic sweep of the Godfather series, but this story of interlinked personal and financial corruptions is just perfect on its own small scale.

Cowen's comments on 5 are an embarassing blunder. "The Captive Mind" is a great book; maybe not great enough to be on this list, but a masterpiece. It is, however, an essay, not a bit of a novel. The books listed at 7 & 9 I have never read and won't comment on.

Camille Paglia, often an interesting observer of culture although vapid on politics, has pointed out that we live in a poor age for the traditional high culture forms. It is quite possible that no paintings or sculpture from our era will matter in 200 years. It is all but certain that this is true of our operas, symphonies, and compositions in other traditional classical music forms. Hey, none of them matter today; what's the chance they will in 200 years?

The modern highbrow literary novel is harder to rate, but I have my doubts. The most acclaimed novel of my life, "Gravity's Rainbow", is well on its way to becoming a classic in the mold of "Ulysses", admired by all and read by almost nobody.

But where these traditional forms have lost their resonance, new forms and styles have emerged. Recent operas are feeble, but our musicals are likely to hold their interest for centuries to come, with "West Side Story" and "Les Miserables" topping the list. Most conspicuously missing from Frum's list is the even less prestigious form of the pop song. The single modern work that I feel genuinely confident will still matter in 200 years is the Beatles catalog. It's hard to say what other pop music will last, but the legitimate contenders, led by Dylan, Springsteen, and the classic Motown recordings, are numerous.

Fiction is trickier, but again I think that the work most likely to survive is from what is now dismissed as generic fiction, particularly SF, rather than the mainstream. SF is potent in today's worl and will be moreso in the future because the themes central to the genre, the paths of technological change the impact of technology on society and individuals, are now part of everybody's life, and that certainly won't change in the future. Indeed, as we move towards a future that, in the next 25 - 50 years, is likely to feature fully Turing Test capable software, routine genetic engineering of embryos, and possibly even alien contact, science fiction's questions about the boundaries and meaning of humanness will surely become more compelling than ever. By contrast, far too much mainstream fiction seems to be more about pure style than about compelling stories, characters, or problems. Borges, for his short fiction, is the only 'highbrow' writer who would make my top ten list. Heinlein and Dick are possible survivors; both did most of their best work before 1970, but are as widely read today as ever. "The Lord of the Rings", published in 1954 and after but largely written in the 40s, is another likely survivor, if counted as eligible. Among living authors, Wolfe, Crowley, Sterling, Le Guin, Brin, and Bujold are some I would regard as strong candidates.

This is not particularly a new development. Genre author Conan Doyle and borderline genre author Jane Austen matter far more today than almost any of their contemporaries.

Television has had a vast impact on society and culture, but predicting what, if anything, will survive from that vast wasteland is deeply problematic. "Seinfeld" seems wildly overrated to me, as is most of "I Love Lucy". The best of Lucy was brilliant, but the majority not especially memorable. In this it is similar to "Monte Python's Flying Circus": the best pieces are as funny as ever, but the series as a whole shows its age. In general, the best British shows improve on anything done in Hollywood, probably because the larger number of shows required for an American season makes high quality difficult to sustain. "The Prisoner", at once a strong action adventure and a playful yet profound psychological drama, is probably the strongest candidate.