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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).

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?


Loreen Niewenhuis said...

I love that you added drama selections. I'd have to add the play "Angels in America" (both parts).

I read "My Side of the Mountain" as a young girl and this book expanded both my sense of my self and my world.

I was thrilled to see "Silent Spring" on the list.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting and varied list -- seemingly kind of a random. I agree with many of them, others I'm not familiar with, and a few I downright wonder the Idaho guide?

Before I read the list, the first ideas that popped into my head were To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, so I was glad to see those. I also like your additions.

Off the top of my head I would add John Knowles A Separate Peace and Harriette Arnow The Dollmakerand Conrad Richter's The Awakening Land series.

P. J. Grath said...

I'll need to check out MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN. Haven't checked this yet but am guessing that maybe the Idaho guide was the first of the WPA series. I'd definitely put THE AWAKENING LAND on a list of top American fiction, but was it a very influential work?

dmarks said...

"My Side of the Mountain" was good.

I noticed that the list had the limiting factor of having to be by an American. Unless I missed something.

I figure there's several that could be added that "shaped our nation" as much as many of those, but came from other countries. (Some might think Cesar Chavez might count, but he was indeed born in the US.

One I would easlly add that fits the 'for Americans by Americans' rule is Alex Haley's "Roots".

Edgar Rice Burrough's "A Princess of Mars" is perhaps more influential than the Tarzan books.

Another landmark science fiction novel that tied into environmental concerns is "Dune" by Frank Herbert.

Also in the science fiction realm but not fitting the rule is George Orwell's "1984". Not for Americans by an American, but it shaped our nation, for sure, again as much as many of those in the list.

Perhaps there might be something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to add too. "100 Years of Solitude", while it doesn't satisfy the rule, is as important as the Oprah-promoted novels that start to appear at the end.

A couple of obvious ones to add might be Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard, and The Book of Mormon. These books were made by Americans, bringing new religions to Americans. The second one especialy has been influential.

dmarks said...

By the way, I have a huge shaggy and shabby copy of "The Last Whole Earth Catalog" no one seems to want, and I can't bring myself to recycle it.

Others to add:

"The Power of Positive Thinking" by Norman Vincent Peale.

Lee Iacocca's autobiography. Sort of the tip of the iceberg in very popular and influential businessmen's autobiographies. I'd rather name him than Trump, anyway.

Again breaking the "for Americans, by Americans" rule; "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran.

And also breaking the same rule, "The Road to Serfdom" by F. A. Hayek, which Wikipedia describes as having "a significant impact on twentieth century conservative and libertarian economic and political discourse"

And finally "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert M. Persig.

P. J. Grath said...

In Paris once I saw a large exhibit, at the Grand Palais, of Chinese influences on French art and architecture, so I can appreciate the idea that America was shaped by works written elsewhere, as well as those homegrown. This book exhibit at the Library of Congress was, however, limited to American works, written in English.

BOOK OF MORMON is another our group proposed and discussed, and I forgot to include it in my “what was left out” remarks. When I read your second comment, dmarks, I saw Norman Vincent Peale, THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING, and thought that had been on the original list, but when I looked back I realized I had confused it in my mind with Dale Carnegie, HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE.

The last time I had THE LAST WHOLE EARTH CATALOG in my bookstore it was around for quite a while until just the right customer came along. For me it does indeed encapsulate an entire age—but the “capsule,” I realize, is a pretty big one, and maybe there wasn’t room in the LOC exhibit space for such a large-format book.

Your mention of Hayek makes me think there are probably more books on business, economics and finance that could be included, too. And we, too, thought of ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, as the overlapping group (several members of this group were in that other, time-limited, goal-focused group) but didn’t feel as strongly about that as some other omissions.

Isn’t this fun?!

P. J. Grath said...

This is a comment that came to me by e-mail. I'm not sure if the sender had trouble commenting or wished to remain anonymous, so here is comment without identification:

"Dear Pamela,

"Oh, if we're a people shaped at all by books, as a civilized country usually is, this list should make us think hard. The Library of Congress says it will help us explore our literary tradition. They do use the word literary. I know this is an exhibit and probably had to fit into some glass cases, but the list...! I counted fast but I think nineteen of the names (about a fifth) are women, one a women's health book collective. Of these, almost a third are cookbooks or books on home and health.

"Where are Sarah Orne Jewett, and Pulitzer winners Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Sylvia Plath? Where are Mary McCarthy, Tillie Olsen, Denise Levertov, Flannery O'Connor? And if Ayn Rand shaped us, where are Emma Lazarus, Emma Goldman, Meridel LeSueur, Nobel-winner Jane Addams, Margaret Fuller?

"Anyway, a glance at the counts on VIDA: Women in Literary Arts ( shows us how pervasive the Library of Congress's take on women in our literature still is. A few years ago Modern Library's list of the 100 best novels in English included, I believe, nine women.

"And leaving aside the issue of the absence of women's thought and work from these lists, some things here are just bizarre. No Emerson! No Henry James! No Sherwood Anderson, James Agee, Dreiser, Jeffers, Pound, Stevens. No Aldo Leopold. Yikes.

"Not much real literature at all.

"Oh, and as you suggest, Zinn's People's History of the United States and Ellsberg's The Pentagon Papers are glaring omissions.

"Please excuse this rant. The whole list seems entirely random to me."

Phew! You see? Everyone sees different omissions!

And what about Herman Wouk? EVERYONE was reading THE CAINE MUTINY and MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR, and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE was even made into a--was it a movie or a miniseries?

dmarks said...

I've read a lot about Jane Addams' work, but I had no idea she was an author as well.

As for Wouk, his name brings to mind James Michener as well.

(As a total aside, seeing Emma Goldman's name reminds me of what a contradiction she was. She claimed to be an anarchist, yet argued again and again for the government to have more power).

About women's work... again, breaking the rule and being non-American: Mary Shelley.

dmarks said...

A few more names to add: Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster. Stan Lee, and also Bob Kane.

P. J. Grath said...

You've got me totally flummoxed by those last four, dmarks. Who are they?

dmarks said...

Hard to pin them to one particular book... but they are the writers who created Superman (the first two), most of these Marvel characters (Spider-Man and the Hulk), and then Batman.

Thinking about "Kavalier and Clay" made me think of them. Very influential in their way, but probably the two who made "Superman" stand out above the other two. They have had a lot of influence in many ways, including over Stan Lee, Bob Kane, and Michael Chabon.

P. J. Grath said...

Well, that makes perfect sense now. Superheroes have definitely shaped American views of themselves and the world.

BB-Idaho said...

Washington Irving was an author of note in the early to mid 1800s..
Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip van Winkle; my interest in western US history had me reading his Astoria and Adventures of Captain Bonneville at least twice. Irving is often associated with the "Poetics of Western Expansion'.

P. J. Grath said...

Did you see LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW on the list, BB? It's there.

In response to earlier comments from dmarks and my e-mail correspondent, here's a link to the life and work of Jane Addams:

I had not remembered that she was born in Illinois, but I bought many books at the Jane Addams Bookstore in Champaign, IL, while in graduate school at U of I.

dmarks said...

Seigel and Schuster are the somewhat the real life prototypes for the Kavalier and Clay characters.

I remeber standing in the observation deck in the top of the Sears Tower squinting to see the site of Jane Addams' Hull House.

Larry Coppard said...

I would add Michael Harrington's The Other America. It changed the conversation about poverty in the US during the JFK and LBJ years and gave support for the war of poverty and the civil rights movement--powerful stories and the right message at the right time.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you for that addition, Larry. Do you think it's time for Harrington's work to be updated and reissued?