By Dante on July 17th, 2012
At the end of June, the Library of Congress released a list of the 88 Books That Shaped America. Since then, it has been worming its way through social networks. I discovered it last week thanks to film critic Roger Ebert.
The list feels like the establishment of a canon — it’s the Library of Congress, after all — but James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, disagrees. “This list is a starting point,” Billington said on the LOC’s website. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”
Sounds good. Let’s start a conversation about what is — and what isn’t — on this list, this beginning of America’s Bookprint.
What jumps out at me is what is included at the expense of what’s excluded. For example, some of the earliest books on the LOC list are Experiments and Observations on Electricity (Benjamin Franklin, 1751), Common Sense (Thomas Paine, 1776), The Federalist (anonymous, 1787), and A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America (Christopher Colles, 1789). All are important American texts, but Franklin’s Electricity is a series of letters, Common Sense is a pamphlet, The Federalist is a collection of essays originally published in newspapers, and A Survey is something like a magazine. Are they important to the U.S.? Certainly. Are they books, as we consider the term today? That’s debatable. But their inclusion means that truly influential American authors are left off the list.
Missing are Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Parker, Edith Wharton, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, Gore Vidal, and Sinclair Lewis, to name a few. Confederacy of Dunces is missing, as is anything published between 1988-2011. There’s non-fiction here, like Cosmos by Carl Sagan, but where’s Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities? The Huffington Post points out other notable exclusions: Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and Henry James.
You can read this list as being a populist, even sentimental view of America’s vital texts (everyone loves Where The Wild Things Are, but how many people will pick up Portnoy’s Complaint or Gravity’s Rainbow for fun and/or nostalgia?), but it’s also very narrow. Eighty-eight is a limiting number, and what’s squeezed out here is the breadth of the American experience. National myths, like Franklin’s experiments with electricity, are included, but where’s the Native American stories that have certainly been collected into single volumes?
It’s hard to argue with most of what’s included on the LOC list. But what is missing is glaring and confounding. Lists, by their nature, are subjective and prone to rabid support and condemnation. Personally, I find this list severely lacking. Still, if the Library of Congress, by putting this together, gets people talking about books — American or otherwise — that’s what matters.
What do you think this list gets right? What’s it missing? Let us know in the comments below!
Image (via): The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the Library of Congress’ 88 Books That Shaped America.
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