“List”-en Up: Or as Plato might say, “Who will evaluate the evaluators?”

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?

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5 Comments

Filed under books and learning, books that shaped America, lists and list making, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

5 responses to ““List”-en Up: Or as Plato might say, “Who will evaluate the evaluators?”

  1. Thomas Johnson

    “But the derivative Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (really a poor-person’s half-assed rendition of Orwell’s masterpiece) get a nod?”

    Ooh, that’s harsh. Even as someone who does not unreservedly love Fahrenheit 451, and desperately needs to re-read 1984, having spent a good part of last summer studying the former, I feel the need to defend it. I think the book is damningly prescient about the modern ubiquity of electronic distractions, in a way that even 1984 is not. Orwell does a great job of capturing the tendency for societies to worship their political leaders; Bradbury captures what I would consider the more terrifying reality — more true today than ever — of the society whose citizens can easily be manipulated by their leaders because they are too busy paying attention to “reality TV” to give their leaders any mind. Thank the Lord, Orwell’s vision of televisions that allow the government to peer into one’s living room is not yet a reality, but “seashell radios” (Ipods) and “parlor walls” (widescreen TVs that are constantly turned on) are the norm — particularly in America. Bradbury shifts his attention exclusively to “the proles,” depicting a dystopia that equally synthesizes the pleasure and pain principles (the latter being embodied in the police Hound) that respectively govern those of Huxley and Orwell.

  2. Thomas–there you go marshaling evidence, arguing cogently, being patient and thorough–you are clearly an anachronism. Of course you are mostly right. I will say that Orwell’s depiction of a society wherein the masses are controlled by the telescreen, lotteries, cheap alcohol, obsession about sports (football–European and American) is actually more accurate. Also, SKYPE seems to me to actually be the telescreen–and the fact that televisions (and cell phones and iPads) can easily be reworked to spy on anyone–seems to indicate that Orwell had the idea that Bradbury merely tweaked. Still, we are on the same team, overall. What Bradbury does is give voice to the idea that all of us are hungering for something intellectually satisfying and that we will seek it out and sacrifice for it–that is fundamentally optimistic (even Rousseauian in its pastoral, romantic escape). Orwell’s artistic vision allows no such notion (though his journalism is among the most optimistic of the WWII era, go figure). I’m humbled that you read and respond–I hope to continue to steal ideas from you as you send them.

    • Ted Bradford

      I’m with you on Fahrenheit-451. I read it the other day when Ray Bradbury died and was completely underwhelmed. Maybe the fawning media gave me unrealistic expectations. I wanted more layers to be peeled back, more context to be given. 1984 is great at that when Winston (and the reader) start to understand what is really going on. It is so satisfying. But with Fahrenheit-451, because so much is left out (“half-assed”), you aren’t given the opportunity to get that feeling of awe that comes from discovering a new world or a hidden truth. I kept on hoping that maybe it would come on the next page, or in the next chapter but then the book just ends. No one likes a tease.

      My addition to the list would be Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. It instilled the quintessentially American “frontier spirit” in suburban kids everywhere and launched a million hikes into the woods.

      I wonder how many of these Books that Shaped America are a part of Oprah’s book club…

      The one book I would love to take off that list (just for being boring) is Atlas Shrugged. However, it has without a doubt shaped the last few decades of American society. Does Ayn Rand count as an American?

      • Ted, thanks for weighing in and classing up the blog. A favorite teacher (imitating Coleridge, I think) once divided the world into the followers of Huxley and those of Orwell (the original was Shakespeare and Milton, I think); I am clearly in the camp of Orwell and all Utopias/dystopias must measure up to that. Bradbury does not do it for me (Thomas Johnson’s superb post notwithstanding). Dan

  3. Thomas Johnson

    I tend to be wary of these dichotomies — Austen or Bronte is one I particularly dislike. Again, desperately need to re-read 1984, but I think Huxley and Orwell cover two sides of the dystopian coin. Personally, I think Huxley’s vision is probably a little closer to the reality of life in the West. Clearly, Orwell’s predictions are spot-on in regards to totalitarian states in the East like North Korea. And I would rather read Orwell over Huxley most days. Still, I prefer not to pick one at the expense of the other.

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