As the clock clicked down on the arrival of the new millennium, Alex and I were bemused at the spate of “100 best of the century lists” pouring forth from the New York Times, the New Yorker, Salon, the Guardian and other liberal publications. The lists were predictable and not many of the entries remained on our groaning shelves. So we decided to compile our own catalogue of the best books written in English and, later translated into English, during the 20th Century. We spent weeks whittling it down to roughly 100 titles for each. These became reading lists for like-minded CounterPunchers and proved two of the most popular pieces we’d ever run on the website, even pricking the interest of many librarians who were forced to confront the gaps in their own collections.
Over the decade, those pages were up on the site they attracted well-over two million unique visitors. Then disaster struck. During the Great Transformation of the CounterPunch website to a Word Press platform, those lists were mangled beyond recognition. I remember calling Alex and telling him to cautiously look at the wreckage. He clicked on the page, gasped and even sniffled a bit. “It’s the burning of the Alex…andria library all over again!” he quipped. Neither of us had the energy to recreate the lost pages.
Since then we’ve received many pleas to resurrect those lists, the most recent coming from an old pal of ours whose book had earned a spot in the top 100. Finally, I relented. I spent the last couple of weeks reviewing the entries and some old email exchanges with Alex about books that we both admired, which had been published in the intervening years. So we now present once again our 100 best non-fiction books published in English in the 20th century (with a few important additions), along with the introduction we wrote for our book Serpents in the Garden. (The translated books will follow.)
Jeffrey St. Clair