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'Books that Shaped America'
August 12, 2012 - Bill Ackerbauer
In late June, when the Library of Congress declared its list of "Books that Shaped America," I couldn't resist scanning the titles to see which ones I'd read and whether I agreed with the selections. I won't bore you with the details of my own history as a reader (at least not today), but I knew back in late June that I wanted to put together a story for The Leader-Herald about the value of great books. Finding a local angle from which to approach that universal topic wasn't easy, but I had some help from our friendly neighborhood librarians and educators. The story appears in today's Living section here: Hooked on Books.
Following up on the Library of Congress list, I asked several dozen local people whom I know to be avid readers to tell me about their experiences with "great books." Here are the questions I asked and some of their responses (in full, as opposed to the short excerpts that appeared in print edition with this story — isn't the Internet grand?).
1. Of all the books included in the Library of Congress list of “Books That Shaped America” (http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/books-that-shaped-america/), do any particular titles stand out to you as having been especially influential on your own development? What about these books made them especially significant for you?
Erica Wing, director of the Johnstown Public Library: "'Charlotte’s Web' was probably my first favorite book. I can remember my parents reading it to me when I was very young, and it being the first book I went for when I was ready to tackle chapter books independently. Fern, Wilbur, and Charlotte became familiar, dependable friends who were always there when I wanted them to be. It is because of them that I came to rely upon books and fictional characters as companions, and that I was drawn to the library to search out others I could come to love, as well. I first read 'The Great Gatsby' in high school, but it was during a re-reading of it in one of my first college courses, in the context of other great 20th century American literature, that I fell in love with the book, and American Literature as a whole. Gatsby cracked me right open. Its symbolism, style and pitch-perfect reflection of the time period were so masterful and left me wanting to know more, more, more about Fitzgerald, his peers, and their works. I can still read the book with fresh eyes, finding and falling in love with something new each time. Other personally notable works from the list include 'The Scarlett Letter,' 'The Sound and the Fury,' 'Moby Dick,' and Emily Dickinson’s poetry. All were completely inventive and so radical that they remain worthy of any reader’s time."
Michael V. Daly, instruction/public services librarian, Fulton-Montgomery Community College:
"Well, I counted, and I've read 58 of the titles mentioned. And as I was counting I realized that the list should be re-titled: "America Shaping Books." There was, for me, an overwhelming sense that none of the books could have, would have, been written in a place other than America. Perhaps I'm making a flimsy chicken/egg argument but there's an interesting cycle herein; America (as place, as country, as idea/l) helps to shape these books, or any book for that matter. You, me, we, read and re-read these books and we in turn are shaped anew. As to those that I found particularly influential:
- "The Great Gatsby." I think I first read this in high school but I'm not entirely sure. What I am sure of is that I've re-read that book every year since about 1996. And it's different every time. - Faulkner's "The Sound and The Fury" also stands out. I remember reading this for the first time in college (as an English major) and realizing how little I knew about reading and writing. That book annoyed me to no end but I made it through and it was worth it. A year later I found myself in Oxford, Miss., for a job interview and silently thanking Faulkner for giving me an understanding of perserverance. - (This one I used last night) "The Joy of Cooking." It's so cool that so many people know this book instantly."
Steven Hymowech, assistant professor of English and Humanities at Fulton-Montgomery Community College: "'Moby-Dick.' One can arbitrarily turn to any page and find literary, philosophical, historical, etc. insight. There is no text like it (read in college). 'Catch 22' defined the American Post-Modern era (read in high school). 'The Education of Henry Adams' — a prophetic text about American and genre blurring."
Debra Kolsrud, adjunct instructor of English, Fulton-Montgomery Community College: "For my 8th birthday present, I opened a card and found—to my delight—a pink-ruled 3” x 5” library card with my name typed neatly at the top. This small piece of paper opened the door to a fascinating world that is forever unfolding.
In 7th grade, I immediately embraced Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Maycomb County as a favorite American story of small town life. Her characters are exquisite in design while exposing cultural values, equity and fairness, the school system, and single parenting, all captured through the wisdom of a child and revealing attitudes about social justice. This novel should be required reading everywhere and teaching it has been a joy throughout my career.
The summer before 8th grade I was captivated by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind for its detailed descriptions of The South and particularly the depiction of women in the story. One cultural attitude Mitchell eloquently described for the late-1800s was the fact that a pregnant woman must never be seen in public and should remain clothed in black. I laugh often today remembering reading that section of Mitchell’s novel because our modern culture seems so obsessed with photographing celebrity “baby bumps.”
Toni Morrison’s haunting 1987 novel Beloved was at once disturbing and illuminating for me. I couldn’t put it down once I started reading. It was added in 1989 to the curriculum of the senior English class I taught. No other American writer has Morrison’s lyrical prose style, captivating plot twists, syntax, and extensive use of symbolism. In 6th grade, I was forever changed after reading the unabridged Les Miserables by Victor Hugo; and every morning since then I still think of Fantine and her sacrifices to help her daughter by selling her hair and her two front teeth while I am brushing my own. The many similarities between Morrison’s main Beloved character Sethe and Hugo’s Fantine were always discussed with my students in terms of integrity, making moral decisions, and the reverberating effects of slavery.
Mark Twain’s 1885 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was one of many of his books I read in college while writing my senior thesis on his works. Twain’s ear for dialects and use of regionalism changed our American literary heritage forever. Not only did his writing sanction colloquial speech as appropriate, he championed ordinary folk as subjects for his stories. The reason I love American writers is their focus on the ordinary over the extraordinary, which is what makes a captivating story. Although vilified by critics and the public for his style when his works first appeared, Twain paved the way for all modern American writers in selecting common subjects, characters and universal themes. I taught his works throughout my teaching career to very receptive student audiences.
I find it curious that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage always makes “the best books” lists touting the realism of his depictions of soldiers because he wrote the novel in 10 days without ever experiencing combat battles himself. However, my students have always liked reading it and it is a good work for discussing impressionistic style with colloquial speech that highlights color and character symbolism. And, students say Crane’s realism makes them feel like they are in the midst of a war. I think that is exactly why I don’t like the novel.
Every college student in my era seemed to carry a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and I was sad to see it missing from this list in favor of Atlas Shrugged. As an undergraduate at Berkeley during years of unrest, I championed Rand’s celebration of the non-conformist as proof that the tenets of Thoreau were right after all. And, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee profoundly influenced my attitude about Native Americans and the disenfranchised, then and now. Poets that influenced me in college and still today are Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsburg and Emily Dickinson who share the common thread of unconventional lives. I’ve lead an unconventional life and they always provide solace for that decision.
I was surprised to see Ernest Hemingway’s 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' make the list when 'The Sun Also Rises' is by far a superior work. The former is a boring war memoir and the existentialist quality of the latter that questions how we know we exist and how we value ourselves always resonated more profoundly with me."
Dan Weaver, owner of The Book Hound, Amsterdam (www.thebookhound.net): "My initial reaction to this list is why was it limited to books by American authors? Many of the books that shaped America were not, or are not, American. Right now we are being shaped by the Koran, whether we have read it or not."
2. How did these books "shape" you? Do you think they could have the same influence on another reader if he or she were to pick up the same titles today?
Erica Wing: "I am a reader, a book lover, and a librarian because of these books. My love for the books on this list brought me to the library in search of others like them, drove me to study literature in college, and, in the hopes of helping others fall in love with stories in the same way that I had, ultimately decide on librarianship as a career."
Michael Daly: "In short, they're still shaping me. I don't think books and/or a reader's experience with a book ends with the last sentence. And a really good book does the job of letting every reader access it in an entirely different way. That was one of the pure joys of being an English major in college and now being a librarian at a college — every book has the potential to mean something different to everyone."
Steven Hymowech: "They helped me understand the complexities of ontological and cultural matters in a way only literature can, without an overtly didactic tone.
Debra Kolsrud: "These books shaped my understanding of social justice, equity and conformity. I feel they would have the same influence on others. The concept of fairness is identified early in life and young people are particularly drawn to such stories as they are evolving their own sense of ethics and morals. And, the rebellious nature in us always tugs to be let loose."
3. Are there any books not on this list that you think every American should read? Any that should be in the collections of every library in America? Included in every high school curriculum?
Erica Wing, director of the Johnstown Public Library: "The most glaring omission I can see from the list is the lack of Edith Wharton’s 'The Age of Innocence.'"
Michael Daly: "As a librarian I tend to shy away from lists, particularly lists that become checklists. This list did, however, give me pause. And when then I hit play and said, "No, there's no one book on here that should be 'everywhere.' That's unfair to books and unfair to readers. Libraries and to another extent school currciula are shaped by any number of factors, but the biggest factor is that they're both social/community endeavors. The content therein shouldn't be shaped from above but pushed up from the roots. And that means that every social community will ultimately shape its own list. And those lists will change over time. And that's a good thing."
Steven Hymowech: "'The Crying of Lot 49' (T. Pynchon), 'White Noise' (D. DeLillo), 'Lolita' (V. Nabokov), 'The Awakening' (K. Chopin), 'Neuromancer' (W. Gibson), 'The Sun Also Rises' (E. Hemmingway), 'Slaughter House Five' (K. Vonnegut).
Debra Kolsrud: "Where is playwright August Wilson’s 10-play 'The Pittsburgh Cycle,' also known as 'The Century Cycle,' about an African-American family? Wilson is a genius at dialogue, theme, story and character development, symbolism and stagecraft. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 'Fences' in 1987. Wilson has given voice to generations of African Americans who share a common past."
Dan Weaver "A glaring omission from the list is the Book of Mormon, especially glaring since one of the current presidential candidates is a Mormon. Some of the books on the list most definitely shaped America — 'Common Sense' by Thomas Paine and 'The Federalist' are two obvious examples. However, unless the Library of Congress is using the word shape in a way that I don't, I don't see how 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison or 'Spring and All' by William Carlos Williams shaped America. About 3/4 of the books on this list should be eliminated. Regardless of how well written or popular they were, it is an overstatement to say they shaped America."
4. Do you think reading long-form works (i.e. books, either in paper or electronic form) is as important to American culture and education today as it was a generation ago?
Erica Wing, director of the Johnstown Public Library: There is nothing that can teach you more about language, writing, and speaking than reading. If anything, in this time when everything is abbreviated and made appropriate for instant transmission, reading these books is more important now than ever. Additionally, the popularity of books like The Paris Wife and movies like Easy A proves that these great books continue to be part of our country’s vernacular.
Michael Daly: As someone who's mired in any number of social media sites and quick to be quicker and shorter in information delivery and absorption, yes, long-form works matter. Continued engagement with another world, a world that's written and must be visualized via the imagination does wonderful things in the immediate and the long term. As an educator, there's a distinct, noticeable, appreciated difference in working with students who have spent time reading long-form works.
Steven Hymowech: "More so, considering today’s youth seems to suffer from a growing inability to attend to complexity for any period of time, confront ambiguity, and see a broader view of the world."
Debra Kolsrud: "YES. I believe imagination thrives on the stimulation of words to spark the creative process as much as visual images and tactile activity. The 'art of conversation' has disappeared from America’s Generation X, Y and Z, replaced by voyeurism, Facebook friend collecting, and tweets by fan-followers. I applaud the Internet for a thousand reasons, but reading engages in a personal way, developing knowledge and articulation, whether by holding a book or accessing an electronic device. Great conversationalists are the envy of every gathering. Parents and educators from birth through college must promote reading fiction and non-fiction, instilling a love of lifelong learning, whatever subjects are of personal interest. American culture requires the contributions of innovators and intellectuals of every generation."
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"The Grapes of Wrath" is seen on the "Required Reading" shelf at the Gloversville Public Library this week. (Photo by Bill Ackerbauer)