Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How does a book shape a country?; Or, Why can't you read?

This is late news, but then again, this is a semi-moribund blog, so it fits.

Starting in late June, the Library of Congress put on a display of Books That Shaped America, which is the kind of title that demands to be shouted from the rooftops. It's a collection of 88 books by American authors that "have had a profound effect on American life." 

There are numerous problems with a list like this. For instance, presentism: we read the development of America from a particular point in time, so certain things will seem more or less important now than they once were. 

Case in point: Moby Dick, which has been around for roughly 150 years but pretty much only read for 100. So if you organizing this exhibit in 1900 and wanted to include Moby Dick, there's a chance you would've been locked up as incurably crazy. It's true that it's shaped reading lists in schools for the past century, but how has that really shaped America? Here's a counterfactual thought experiment: Imagine a US where Moby Dick was never written--what's different from our world?

Case in point (2): I would've included some Jonathan Edwards, an important theologian, author of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and intellectual forebear of the Great Awakening--even though he's not all that important to America today in a direct way.

Another problem--though it's probably a self-conscious strategy on the part of the LoC--is that the concept of "shaping" is inherently vague. So the exhibition can say that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was a best-seller (in England), but that's a far cry from saying that it started a tradition of American supernatural folk-tales or somehow shaped America in some way besides making money.

So the list has problems, sure, but it also has a built-in argument that these are some of the books that shaped America. This isn't an exclusive list; and it isn't even presenting itself as a list of the books that most shaped America. This is simply an exhibition to start a conversation. If you don't like this list, make up your own to add the books that you think should be added to this category.

That said, there's a lot of predictable boo-hooing about how mean this list is to religious-Americans or otherwise fails--complaints that tend to cast more light on the writer's ignorance or perversity than on the list's failure. 

For instance, professor of religion Stephen Prothero complains that there's not enough religion on the list; we could call this the "Where's the Bible?" problem, as I've seen that question asked around the internet in comments. Except the list is clearly restricted to American authors and people would know that if they bothered to read the info. Prothero knows this, but oddly calls the restriction "a technicality," making it sound as if it's a quibbling little detail instead of the organizing principle of the whole exhibit. He probably means that it's "arbitrary," which is fair, but then most organizing principles are. It's especially telling that his list (in a book you can buy now!) includes several non-book items, like a memorial, which shows how non-conventional his thinking is--or how he refuses to obey the rules of the game.

On the more materialistic end of the spectrum, Reason magazine blogger Tim Cavanaugh complains that there aren't enough best-sellers (because, for a Libertarian, the market is always right). I agree in parts with Cavanaugh's argument about presentism, though it pains me to be on the same side as someone who can't bother to look up how to spell Edgar Allan Poe's name. But Cavanaugh's organizing principle ("Who made the most money?") is so blinkered and narrow that it comes out self-parodizing: "to shape America" is the same thing for this crowd as "to make money." Cavanaugh's entry ends on the perfect note, with a complaint that the LoC has too many librarians. Because who needs librarians when you have best-seller lists?


  1. But isn't he pleased that "Atlas Shrugged" is on that list? All libertarians love it, right?

    In all seriousness this post struck a chord.

    First, looking at the list I wonder if the books so much "shaped America" or if some simply defined the time they were written in. For instance, I love "The Great Gatsby" with all of my heart but I feel it is no longer the "Great American Novel" as it has been called. But books like, "The Feminine Mystique" definitely brought attention to women's issues that were not addressed in public so much. To say that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" didn't "shape" our country in a way feels wrong. So anyway, yeah, the list has problems but is not definitive. I won't even touch upon my feelings on if the Bible should be on the list.

    Anyway, so here is what got me. Best sellers. I get a ton of grandparents in around the holidays with the New York Times Best Seller list for children's books. They want to see them and decide if they should wrap them up for their grandchildren to put under the tree, menorah or whatever. Many times they are shocked and disappointed in the books. A lot of children's best sellers (picture books especially) are really books packaged for adults in a children's format or written to look like a children's book but with zero child appeal. I then explain to them that, "best seller" doesn't necessarily translate to, "good book". It is simply a book that has sold a lot of copies. There are some exceptions, but this happens so often.

    I mean this is the case in adult books too. I'm sure James Patterson doesn't even write half the crap he puts out but they sell like gang busters. Don't even get me started on Dan Brown.

    1. What kills me about that is the self-confirming aspect of best-sellers. Take 50 Shades of Gray (or any best-seller): there are probably people out there who wouldn't have bought it except that everyone was talking about it. And so being on the best-seller list helps to sell books (or at least get people interested enough to ask for them at the library).

  2. Yep. 50 Shades gained popularity through word of mouth and hit the best-seller list from there. It made a fan fiction writer very wealthy while tons of erotic novels hit the shelves yearly and seemingly go unnoticed. On the other hand women who supposedly hadn't read a book in years started again because of 50 Shades. So, that's good right? A previously unknown author is now known! People are reading! Yay!

    The real question is will they read erotic fiction BEYOND the one that is on the best seller list, or is that book "safe" because it "holds merit" ("It's a best seller!")