Tome Deaf

The New York Public Library's "Books of the Century" is a rigged literary parlor game

Published April 6, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Of the various dorm-room pastimes that divert the adolescent mind in its occasional attempts at sublimity, making up lists of "the greatest writers of all time" is one of the most gratifying. What could be more enjoyable than to assemble, from the comfort of a decaying thrift store chair, your own personal Literary Rotisserie team, each author appearing on a baseball card with his or her lifetime stats printed on the back?

The charms of Literary Rotisserie are as endless as they are mindless. Should you trade franchise player Will Shakespeare, the Willie Mays of English letters (.354, 708 HRs, 1770 couplets batted in) for a blockbuster package including brilliant but neurotic closer Franz Kafka (45 saves and an earned-angst average of 1.09), dependable second baseman Jane Austen, and fleet-footed but erratic center fielder Henry "Tropical Heat" Miller?

Of course, those sophomoric arguments about whether Hemingway or Faulkner was a better writer can never be settled -- that's what makes them fun. And the publication of "The New York Public Library's Books of the Century," even though it only fitfully addresses questions of literary supremacy, should lead to plenty of table-pounding in bookish circles.

"Books of the Century" is a compilation, based on a 1995 exhibition curated by Elizabeth Diefendorf, the New York Public Library's research chief and editor of the book, of what the institution deemed to be the books that would best "recall this past century and its tremendous changes." Not the best books, be it noted, or even the most influential, but simply those that "recall" the salient events of the 20th century. If a major social movement or phenomenon or genre or psychological state or ethnic group didn't happen to produce any major works, no problem -- minor ones will do. (In fact, books suitable for conveniently "recalling" historical events are often minor -- as some of these selections prove.) The overriding concern here is to represent important 20th century events and historical changes, not to honor the best or most important books or writers. This leads to certain awkwardnesses.

What kind of events and changes do New York's librarians (the list was drawn up by soliciting suggestions from librarians throughout the city) deem important? In her introduction, Diefendorf proclaims that "our choices, though certainly diverse, represent a perspective that is urban, American, and profoundly concerned with issues of social justice and freedom of expression."

This sounds unobjectionable, and if the editors had been allowed to choose 500 books, they probably could have gotten away with some of the feeble titles on their list. They only had 175, however, and so this becomes a stark zero-sum literary game: every mediocre work selected because it recalls "issues of social justice and freedom of expression" takes a slot that could otherwise have gone to a magisterial work that had a significant impact on 20th-century literature, thought or society.

The book is divided up into 12 sections, including "Landmarks of Modern Literature," "Nature's Realm," "Women Rise," "Protest and Progress" and "Optimism, Joy, Gentility." These wedges make up a respectable enough combo pizza, but it's a Procrustean one: literary works are repeatedly shoved into categories that are too small for them. Are Conrad's "Lord Jim" and Camus' "The Stranger," for example, best described as novels about "Colonialism and Its Aftermath"? Is it really appropriate to place "The Age of Innocence" in the "Women Rise" chapter?

The impression of didacticism is only furthered by the disproportionate attention paid to certain subjects. The "Women Rise" chapter includes not just such reasonable selections as Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" and Zora Neale Hurston's "Dust Tracks on a Road," but also such dubious selections as "Sisterhood is Powerful," "Against Our Will," and "The Color Purple." The point is not that the issues addressed in those books are unimportant: it is that mere association with important issues should not be sufficient reason to canonize books of limited influence and literary merit. In a related vein, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On" was chosen not on its merits but because the AIDS crisis "needed" a book.

In some ways "Books of the Century" resembles an exercise in intellectual affirmative action, in which there are a certain number of places reserved for feminist works, a certain number for black works, a certain number for gay works, a certain number for "post-colonial" works and so on. Those seeking a Maya Angelou-like celebration of diversity, a kind of State of the Century speech in which every constituency is patted rhetorically on the head, will find "Books of the Century" enthralling. Those who welcome diversity, but are concerned to preserve shared critical and historical standards and respect for the great works of 20th century literature, will be considerably less happy.

To which, those responsible for this list might respond: WHOSE 20th century literature? -- and then go on to make the familiar argument that the Western tradition, dominated by Dead White Euro-American Males, isn't worth preserving in the brave new multicultural world.

The problem, of course, is that the Western tradition (which, in the 20th century, has increasingly become the world tradition) isn't owned by any one group: it's the tree that all Americans, whatever their skin color or ethnicity, are sitting in. Langston Hughes is the spiritual son of Walt Whitman, just as Walt Whitman is the great-great-grandson of Shakespeare. Everyone wants an inclusive canon, but you don't create one by destroying the tradition itself, any more than you can expect fruit to grow in a tree if you chop down its trunk.

This collection doesn't exactly chop down the great tree, but it certainly doesn't go out of its way to water it. And it ignores some pretty big apples.

The illustrative approach chosen by the editors ignores what T.S. Eliot called the "ideal order" that books form, the fact that they are just as related to their strong predecessors as they are to the political events of their time. Unable or unwilling to acknowledge this, the editors are forced to pick and choose through an eclectic assortment of issues, ideologies and constituencies. The result is a politicized collection that, although it does include some offbeat, fun choices, is ultimately thin, watery, and predictable. "Books of the Century" is a typical product of a contemporary "sensitive" cultural bureaucracy: in trying to say everything, it manages to say almost nothing.

Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of this book's politicized selection criteria is that it makes it difficult to evaluate the actual influence of many of the works. Not being familiar with the book or its reception, I have no way of knowing whether Carrie Chapman Catt's "Woman Suffrage and Politics" had any actual influence or was simply included because women's suffrage, like AIDS, "needed" a book to represent it. (The short, uninspired paragraphs of text accompanying each book don't help, either: why weren't notable writers hired to write idiosyncratic appreciations?) The same holds for works by two little-known (to me, at least) African writers, Tayeb El-Salih and Buchi

The complete list of the "Books of the Century"

Emecheta. By putting forward works of underappreciated writers rather than established figures like Wole Soyinka or Naguib Mahfouz, the editors may well be performing a valuable function -- but one may wonder, probably unfairly, whether these works are included more because of their subject matter than because of their literary merit.

Or take "There Are No Children Here," Alex Kotlowitz's fine 1991 study of two small boys in a bleak Chicago housing project. How much influence did this book really have? Did people suddenly become aware of the tragedy of the contemporary American inner city after it came out, as people became aware of the corrupt and deadly practices of the meat-packing industry after Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle"? Did social policy change? Was welfare given a shot in the arm, were draconian drug laws liberalized, did wretched ghettos schools get more money, were job programs created? No to all of the above -- but, as the accompanying note says, "'There Are No Children Here' was adapted as a TV movie, produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey, which aired on ABC in 1993."

Again, the point is not to belittle the power of Kotlowitz's moving book, or to deny that its subject is enormously important, but to question whether it really stands as one of the 175 most important books of the century: They might just as well have chosen Susan Sheehan's New Yorker pieces on the devastated lives of African-Americans in the New Haven ghetto. Straining after contemporary relevance, the editors overlook works that have proven staying power: wouldn't Claude Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land" or Piri Thomas' "Down These Mean Streets" be better choices?

Strangest of all, "The Books of the Century" doesn't even get its multiculturalism right. It's strong on sub-Saharan African and African-American writers, decent on Latin Americans, weak on East Indians (no Narayan, no Rushdie) -- and includes not a single work by an Asian writer except "Quotations From Chairman Mao." Where are Mishima, Kobe, Endo and Oe, to name just four from Japan?

In the book's blue-chip literary category, "Landmarks of World Literature," the choices are mostly on target. No matter how much the curators may have wanted to, they couldn't exile such Eurocentric masterpieces as "Ulysses," "The Magic Mountain," "The Three Sisters" and the poetry of Yeats. But in a spasm of political correctness, or just plain stupidity, the curators originally decided that William Faulkner wasn't good enough to make the cut -- a fact which by itself makes it hard to take this collection seriously. Public outcry led to Faulkner's inclusion, along with seven other writers.

Another major eyebrow-raiser is the choice of Edna St. Vincent Millay as one of the century's five "landmark" poets, rubbing shoulders with Eliot, Yeats, Lorca and, bringing up the rear of this Olympian company, Auden. (Elizabeth Bishop is honored in another category.) Millay is a wonderful poet, but to choose her over Pablo Neruda, or Ezra Pound, or Robert Frost, or William Carlos Williams, or Wallace Stevens -- to take five of the most deserving candidates -- seems a bit peculiar, at least on grounds of influence. One may be forgiven the cynical assumption that it's gender-payback time. As with some of the other dark horse selections, however, there is a positive side: it leads readers back to a first-rate writer they might otherwise have ignored.

Not surprisingly, it's when "Books of the Century" turns to contemporary writing that it is most controversial. In the original exhibition, the only post-WWII American writers included under the "Landmarks" heading were Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison: Philip Roth and Jack Kerouac were added later, along with Faulkner. Bellow? Updike? Still not ready for prime time.

Saul and John shouldn't brood, however -- they're in good company. Most people not suffering from a bad case of didactic multiculturalism would probably be fairly pleased with a Literary Dream Team composed of Thomas Hardy, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ezra Pound, Robert Musil, D.H. Lawrence, Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Yukio Mishima. Nor would they complain if Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and Michel Foucault made the philosophy cut. Or if Noam Chomsky, Claude Levi-Strauss, Antonio Gramsci, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin or Marshall McLuhan came aboard on general intellectual grounds.

None of those figures made it into the exhibition. (In another howler, even Samuel Beckett, a no-brain choice if there ever was one, didn't make the first cut either.) Instead, the book elevates the likes of Shilts, Tom Wolfe, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Susan Brownmiller, Maya Angelou, Rigoberta Menchu, Kotlowitz, Marguerite Duras, Ed Krol and Robin Morgan (in her capacity as editor of the no-longer-epochal-if-it-ever-was feminist anthology "Sisterhood is Powerful").

There's nothing shabby about these writers (well, maybe there is something shabby about some of them), but putting them up against the aforementioned Big Kids, whether on grounds of aesthetic quality or cultural and literary influence, is, to be blunt, a colossal joke. Even the second-tier names that are left out -- Theodore Dreiser, Heinrich Boll, Gunter Grass, Milan Kundera, Andre Gide, Alfred Jarry, Italo Calvino, Bertolt Brecht, Salman Rushdie, Iris Murdoch, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, William Styron, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, etc. -- can whup most of these featherweights with ease.

It may be objected that Diefendorf et al. do not claim to be creating a canon at all, so criticizing them for creating the wrong canon may seem a bit like apples and oranges. But there is something slightly disingenuous about this argument. Like it or not, this is indeed something of a canon -- after all, these are "The Books of the Century."

The editors do come up with some creative and stimulating, even inspired, choices. Michael Herr's "Dispatches" is an unusual, and eminently worthy, selection under the "War" heading. Dos Passos' too-often neglected masterpiece "U.S.A." receives its due, as does Sarah Orne Jewett's lovely "The Country of the Pointed Firs." And to tear into tiny pieces any list of 20th-century books that doesn't have P.G. Wodehouse's name on it would be for me the work of a moment.

Other selections, or non-selections, inspire debates that take the reader back, for better or worse, into that paisley-decorated room where the nasal-voiced guy holding a bong is forever holding forth. Why is Hemingway represented by "For Whom the Bell Tolls," instead of by the superior "The Sun Also Rises"? Or, better still, why not by a short story collection like "In Our Time" or "Across the River and Into the Trees"? Should that wiggy Ayn Rand have been allowed in? Shouldn't "Howl" have made the cut? What about some New Age pabulum? Was "Peyton Place" really a better choice than Jacqueline Susann's deathless "Valley of the Dolls"? Where is "Little House on the Prairie"? Did "Mein Kampf" and "Quotations From Chairman Mao" kill as many people as the "Surgeon General's Report on Smoking" saved?

In the end, despite its shortcomings, "The Book of the Century" does manage to do what books like this are supposed to do: stimulate, amuse and provoke. No matter how hard you try, you just can't go wrong with a list.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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