I love lists and rankings–they are a wonderful inducement (incitement) to dialogue (argument), they teach us about evaluation and force us to discuss our values, and they ask us to consider the notions of inclusion and exclusion. Here is a discussion starter I have with a baseball-geek friend of mine: Who are the best baseball players eligible for the Hall of Fame who are not in? (you can substitute football, basketball, etc.) So, is Pete Rose “eligible” (not in my book!); is “Shoeless” Joe Jackson eligible (tougher call but I’d say no). I’d say that Tim Raines is the best player not in who should be in; “but what about Dick (Richie) Allen?” you might say–and off we’d go trying to discover what we value, how we value it, and how we can get others to agree with us.
When I was in Japan I read a fascinating guide-book that announced we were going to the “third most beautiful man-made garden in all of Japan.” Who could resist such a proclamation?! What are the first two? How do you “know” one is more beautiful than another? Is there a combined ranking of “man-made” and “natural” gardens?
I was put in mind of the wonders of lists and list-making when I read Michael Dirda’s piece regarding the Library of Congress’ list of the “Books That Shaped America.” (BTW–it seems, unnecessarily in my view, that the books that shaped America are all written by Americans. Why must this be?) Before we get to why that list is all WRONG (I just know you’ll agree with me about everything!); I have to mention my favorite story about lists.
The great scholar of the Victorian period and noted expert on Sigmund Freud, Peter Gay, has a wonderful book called Reading Freud. In that book he relates a story where, in 1906, Freud was sent a request by one Hugo Heller–a Viennese bookseller and publisher–to send him a list of “ten good books.” Heller’s idea was to write to numerous luminaries and compile the responses (a cool idea and one that has been done numerous times). Freud’s response to Heller survives and is fascinating. He points out that Heller wants “ten good books,” which may be different from “the ten most magnificent works” in world literature or the “ten most significant books” or even Freud’s “ten favorite books.” In each case, Freud would list several books such as, “If you asked me about my ten favorite books I might say [and then he’d list several books], but if you ask me for the ten most signficant books I might say Copernicus, Darwin’s Descent of Man [not Origin?], etc.” In this way, despite Heller’s request for “ten” (how totally arbitrary this number “10” is!–or maybe not given our base ten system–though that is a different conversation), Freud ends up naming about 60 books and–bonus for us–defines “good book.” The good book is defined as “somewhat as one stands with ‘good’ friends, to whom one owes a portion of one’s knowledge of life and one’s world view. [They were books] that one has enjoyed oneself and gladly commends to others….” Making Freud’s final ten are these surprises (to me, anyway) Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain’s Sketches, the essays of Thomas Macaulay, and a novel by Emile Zola! I tell my students that they should ALWAYS write something interesting even if they have to abandon, mutilate, or ignore the prompt I have given them for their essay–and what a brilliant job Freud has done in answering/refusing to answer Heller’s request. (Send me your “10 best books”)
As stated before, the reason to have a list is to provoke discussion–so here goes. The link for the full list is http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/books-that-shaped-america/. How in the world does Ben Franklin (and I’m a big fan) rate 3 books! I love Melville and could make a compelling argument that he is America’s greatest novelist, but how does Moby Dick make this list? It was widely panned when published (1851), did not sell, was not read, and was not even really recovered until a brief Melville revival in the 1920s. Moby Dick only “shaped” America as a doorstop. How does Horatio Alger’s Mark, the Match Boy make it over Ragged Dick–the book that made Alger famous?
Moving on to those who were snubbed. Where is the love for EA Robinson, America’s greatest versifier, four-time Pulitzer winner, and the most popular poet in America for the first 3 decades of the 20th century? William Carlos Williams gets in though? I’m not even going to argue The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye (though those two make my list of the “most overrated books of all time”) because they have such a large following. But the derivative Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (really a poor-person’s half-assed rendition of Orwell’s masterpiece) get a nod? That book changed America? How does Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee get in over Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man or Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins since it looks like we decided that ONE book on Native Americans would be the limit. Apparently we needed two crappy books from the Beat generation (Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road), but had no space for any humorists–Robert Benchley and James Thurber get shut down? James Baldwin’s great The Fire Next Time and The Autobiography of Malcolm X make the list but not Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait? I wonder what caused that. What about Thomas Kuhn’s remarkable The Structure of Scientific Revolutions?
From 1971-2012 only FIVE books (even 1758-1789 had SIX books)! Peter Benchley’s Jaws doesn’t make the list? Crichton’s Jurassic Park? No tip of the hat to Steven King? We’re not talking great literature (or maybe we are!); we are talking “books that shaped America.” Not ONE graphic novel!?
I will appreciate knowing why I am criminally mistaken about any and all of the above–after-all–that’s what lists are for. There are some cool effects of the wisdom of the crowd, however. Go to any school, ask 60 students, 10 faculty/staff members, and 20 parents who the best teachers are–you’ll get a remarkably small (and accurate) list–it’s the “knowable but unquantifiable.” Let the Games Begin! Who are the 10 best baseball managers? Funniest TV shows? Best movies? Best movies to watch with your family? Best breeds of dogs? Cats? Beaches? Cars? Relief pitchers? Overrated symphonies? Underrated rock stars? Best popular songs?…Best blogs on pulp teaching?