Hey, Where’s the Joy of Cooking?

In the spirit of two years ago, I’ve recently been directed to this list of the 100 Most Influential Books of the Century. The shift in directive — influence rather than “quality” — from all those other lists that came out in 1999-2000 makes this one a little more interesting. After all, it’s tough to imagine Heidegger, Heisenberg, and Heller coming in immediate sequence on any of those other lists. But the very same premise — as well as some of the selections — leaves me very puzzled about both the criteria and the results. What constitutes “influentialness”? Influential with whom?

These questions aside, I’m nonetheless left brimming with observations:

1. There’s a decided pre-1970 bias in this list. A mere 11 books published after this date made the cut.

2. Nothing of influence was published during the 1980s.

3. The only book of influence to be published since 1979 is John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992).

4. “Non-fiction” out-influences “fiction” 65-35.*

My favorite part of this list, however, is the ensuing list of “Books that Didn’t Quite Make It.” I think that all canonical lists should now be required to come with also-rans: books that didn’t quite make it onto my syllabus, books that didn’t quite make it onto your exam reading list, books that didn’t quite make it into this summer’s stack of beach reading.

*Both terms very loosely characterized. Poetry (2) and drama (2) are lumped in under fiction. Autobiographies likewise under non-fiction, regardless of the sanity of their writers. Any errors in categorization are errors of this counter, whose eyes are swimming from staring at the list for so long.


  1. Fascinating — arguably moreso than the similarly structured lists of Grrrrrreat Books that there was so much fuss over.

    Where IS the Joy of Cooking? And no Future Shock? Apparently Invisible Man is just for us serphistercates — didn’t influence anyone else.

    Theresa suggests that Judy Blume and Lee Iacocca are both missing.

    There’s a sense here that the “influential” books are often those that bring an important idea or finding into mass-cultural circulation, like Watson’s The Double Helix. It’s almost as if the book’s name or author had to pass into cocktail-party -level conversation to be considered. Stanley Milgram’s ideas (again, my psychologist wife points outs) are arguable as influential than many of the other psychological figures on this list — but his name, unlike Reich’s or Jung’s, didn’t pass into common currency.

    Thinking of more would be a very fun game.

    And hey — where are the fundamentalist Xtians? Where’s The Late Great Planet Earth? WHERE’S CHARIOTS OF THE GODS????

  2. Oh, yes. Are You There, God… absolutely deserves a place. Which goes to the whole “influential with whom” question. Because the answer is clearly not 11-year-old girls.

    And depending on how you measure influence, shouldn’t Harry Potter trump all of this?

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