City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
List-o-mania
The Library of Congress’s arguable roster of “Books That Shaped America”
3 July 2012

In 1987, David Letterman inaugurated his famous Top Ten lists, which included Elf Pickup Lines (Sample: “I’m down here”); Ways to Reduce the Federal Deficit (“Sell ad space on president’s forehead during State of the Union speeches”); Unsuccessful Mall Shops (“Jiffy-Spay”); and many others. American media had already been infected; magazines and newspapers promptly took List-o-mania to the next level. Today Esquire publishes a roster of the Top 100 Women, Time offers mini-biographies of the Most Influential People, Forbes identifies the Most Powerful Celebrities, the New York Times informs its readers of the Top Ten Must-Have Apps, and the Washington Post reveals the Top 15 Happiest Countries.

One might think the august Library of Congress would be immune to pop trends, but one would be wrong. A group of anonymous librarians have just revealed their own list: 88 “Books That Shaped America.” The fiction list is mainly a catalogue of obvious choices: Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Women, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Among them, however, are some questionable items. Why Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and not his Collected Stories, which completely reshaped American prose? Why Gone with the Wind? Did it really change America, or just the budgets of American cinema? Similarly, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan is hardly a nation-shaping novel; its sway—if any—was to give employment to a parade of Hollywood actors, white and black, as well to a series of chimpanzees who played Cheetah.

Seven works of poetry made the cut: Emily Dickinson’s Poems, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Gwendolyn Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville, Robert Frost’s New Hampshire, Langston Hughes’s Weary Blues, William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. If all these are deserving, why not influential works by such masters as Wallace Stevens? Marianne Moore? ee cummings? Robert Lowell? John Berryman? Sylvia Plath? In the field of nonfiction, the librarians perform a balancing act worthy of a circus aerialist. The muckraker Upton Sinclair is represented by The Jungle (an exposé of the meatpacking industry), and Ida Tarbell by her History of Standard Oil. The list must have seemed a bit too anti-business, for the librarians shoehorned in Atlas Shrugged, by the libertarian icon Ayn Rand.

The librarians seem a bit pathetic in their yearning for political correctness. Obviously they felt that gays had to be represented, so here is Randy Shilts’s And The Band Played On, about the AIDS epidemic. African-American writers are omnipresent, from Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois to Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Hispanics are represented by Cesar Chavez, feminism by Betty Friedan, Native Americans by non-Indian Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. But where are Asians? How about Maxine Hong Kingston? Amy Tan? David Hwang? Evidently, after the librarians fit in Zane Gray’s Riders of the Purple Sage and Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, there just wasn’t any room.

The number seems arbitrary as well. Maybe the librarians were thinking of the Steinway keyboard. Or of Mandy Patinkin, who played a character called 88 Keys in the movie Dick Tracy. Or of the number of constellations in the sky. Or of the atomic number of radium. It’s hard to know what they had in mind—other than joining the ranks of list makers like Letterman. The big difference is, audiences laugh with David.

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