Thursday, February 7, 2013
Books That Shaped Our Nation
The intrepid group of reader-friends first formed to read James Joyce’s Ulysses together, the bunch that last year tackled Dante’s entire Divine Comedy, is taking a winter break this year. We are not weary of reading, simply reluctant to take on a new challenge while one of our members is away for four months. Book groups can be like that: each member is integral to discussion, no one expendable. And we are only seven, forged into historical unity through the fire of some difficult books over the three years of our existence.
Four months is a long time, however, so rather than do without each other altogether for the winter, our fearless leader suggested we gather to discuss a list put together by some folks at the Library of Congress. Unlike Modern Library’s top 100 books of the 20th century, books on this list were not necessarily chosen for literary quality but for the impact they had on Americans in their time. Some of the great works read by our Ulysses group (and another group some of us had formed for another, temporary purpose) are on it, such as Moby-Dick and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. There are also nonfiction works widely read and influential in their time—McGuffey’s Reader, The Kinsey Report on Male Sexuality, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, etc. I was very happy that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is listed. To Kill a Mockingbird is there, as well. You can click here to read more about the exhibit and/or simply scroll through my bare bones presentation of authors and titles below to the rest of my rambling thoughts (following list).
Meriwether Lewis, History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark (1814)
With a list like this two questions naturally spring to mind: (1) Is there anything on the list that you would not have included? (2) What do you think should be here that isn’t?
(Did you find yourself nodding as your eye moved down the screen? Harrumphing as you looked back to confirm, indignantly, the absence of one of your favorites?)
An odd note on the (even) number of works: 88. Why 88? Why not 75 or 99 or 100? It turns out that the books were chosen for a specific exhibit space, so when the space was filled, the list was deemed complete—therefore, is not presented as definitive. Oh! And there’s only one book on it from the new century, which seems fair, as who would want to debate newly published work that may or may not, at some future time, be judged to have shaped the time in which we are now living? But did the Sixties get a fair shake? The Forties? The last years of the 20th century?
Each of us felt the neglect of a different, particular area, depending on our individual interests, and so one member wanted social gospel authors (“Where’s Dorothy Day?”), another more on education (“Where’s John Dewey?”) and politics (The Pentagon Papers). Only one philosophy title had made the list, and while I was happy to see William James there, I’d have thought his Varieties of Religious Experience more widely read and influential than his Pragmatism. (And I definitely agree that the omission of anything by Dewey is shocking and indefensible!)
Here are a few titles and authors we would have added:
Fun With Dick and Jane.
Tom Swift series.
Wilder. Little House on the Prairie.
Updike. Rabbit, Run.
Schumacher. Small is Beautiful.
The Last Whole Earth Catalog.
The Joy of Sex.
Edgar Allan Poe; J. I. Rodale; John Dewey; Dorothy Day; Saul Bellow; Norman Mailer. (We did not choose specific titles for these writers.)
Keller. The Story of My Life.
Halberstam. The Best and the Brightest.
Howard Zinn (various work proposed; my choice was People’s History of the United States).
In the drama category were proposed: “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” and “Death of a Salesman.”
What about you? How many on the list have you read? Do you have a candidate from the 19th century that should be on the list? A book to represent the Vietnam era? Like Modern Library’s list for the millenium, this Library of Congress gathering is a good conversation starter. It can also be an inspiration for further reading, which is always good. Other ideas or suggestions?