Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Brief Discussion with Jay Parini on Thirteen Books That Changed America:

The Committee Room continues its exploration into the books that have been most influential in the shaping of American culture with a discussion of Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America (Doubleday, 2008) by Jay Parini. Reading Promised Land is like taking a speedy cruise through American literature with a genial and well-informed guide. 

In his introduction Parini writes -- "this was never meant to be a list of the 'greatest' American books: not The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, or The Education of Henry Adams.  Although I love poetry, I knew that not even Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, let alone Wallace Stevens or Elizabeth Bishop, had noticeably 'changed' America in any significant way (except among that tiny group who actually read poetry)...I wanted books that shifted consciousness in some public fashion, however subtly, or opened fresh possibilities for the ways Americans lived their lives."  

Jay Parini is a poet, novelist, essayist, and scholar whose work includes major biographies of Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner and the volumes of poetry The Art of Subtraction, Town Life, and Anthracite Country. One of his novels, The Last Station, about the final year in the life of Tolstoy, was made into an Academy Award nominated film.

Jay Parini's List of 13 Books That Changed America

1.  Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford (written 1620-1647, published 1856)
2.  The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787-1788)
3.  The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin (1793)
4.  The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1810)
5.  Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
6.  Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
7.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
8.  The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois (1903)
9.  The Promised Land by Mary Antin (1912)
10. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)
11. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock (1946)
12. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
13. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)

Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America includes an appendix of one hundred additional books that, as Parini writes, "actually shifted something or solidified a change already in place."

Jay Parini recently talked with TCR about books that changed America

TCR Talks with Jay Parini

Jay Parini
Q: You write that "novels have rarely had a discernible effect on the public" yet you include three novels in your primary list of thirteen most influential books. Could you comment on this?
A: I really don't think novels have much cultural impact, at least not in a flashy way.  But Uncle Tom's Cabin was an obvious exception.  Stowe really did shift public opinion in favor of abolition in the northern states. It's no wonder Abe Lincoln called Stowe the "little lady who started this great war."  Huckleberry Finn was just a book I thought was too central to the making of the American character to avoid, and I wanted to write about it.  So I did.  Same with On the Road.  I think Kerouac was the least of these novelists, as an influence. But his book marked a flowering of the counterculture, and it gestured toward the sixties and the major cultural shifts of that time.  I wished I could have written about The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath.  But there was no room.  And these books didn't really change anything, although they depicted aspects of American life in such vivid ways that people often think they did.

Q: You write that bestsellers reinforce ideas already in place rather than shape new ideas. Could you comment on this?
A: My guess is that bestsellers work because they make people say in their heart of hearts: "Ah, yes. This is how things run." Genuinely original novels don't do that.  They confound our easy assumptions about the way the world operates. Thrillers, horror, detective novels, etc:  these are the books that play off received ideas.  It's literary fiction that cuts through thick ice, and creates pathways to knowledge.

Q: The list of thirteen has a thirty year gap in the mid-nineteenth century -- nothing between Walden and Huckleberry Finn.  A list of twenty-five books that changed America compiled by Robert Downs (see TCR post 4/12/2012) in 1970 also has a gap in this time frame. Could you comment on why this period seems to have generated nothing of consequence?
A: I noticed this gap but don't fully understand it.  It's possible that after the Civil War a certain exhaustion -- imaginative exhaustion -- set in, and it took a long time for anyone to rev up the engines of invention to the necessary level.  I wish I could answer this question; it's an important one.

Q:  The most recent book in the list of thirteen was The Feminine Mystique published way back in 1963. Could you comment on why nothing more recent was selected?
A: Well, in the appendix I do go up to 2006 (An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore) but it's hard to know what books in the past half a century have had a very powerful effect.  It takes time for anyone to judge such things.  I didn't know of a single book that had dramatically changed our view of the world after 1963.  I'm sure that someone more informed about current trends than I am could manage; but I'm more of an historian in the sense that I have a better sense about things that have really receded in the rear-view mirror.  I am quite sure there are lots of important books that have shifted things dramatically; I just don't know myself how to talk about them in the same way you can talk about the thirteen books I studied.  I suspect that several books on climate change will have had a huge effect on our times, including The End of Nature by Bill McKibben.

Q: Could you comment on books published since the 1980s? In looking at the appendix, the 1960s and 1970s were a vibrant period. The appendix includes nine books from the 1960s and seven from the 1970s. However, from the 1980s there are just four books and there is just a single book from the whole decade of the 1990s (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington).
A: It's as I said above, the closer we get to the present, the harder it is to understand what is happening.  History takes time to gather in focus.  I just know of few books in the eighties and nineties that made a difference.  We might not know about them for a few more decades.  Or know about the impact they had.  The eighties and nineties do, from where I stand, seem awfully dull as decades -- politically and intellectually less well-defined.  Perhaps the really important books are so far to the side -- philosophical tomes, for instance -- that they will take a long time to digest.  I often read books by thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Charles Taylor, for instance; the latter, a Catholic liberal from Canada, seems to me extraordinary but difficult.  Martha Nussbaum may be another philosopher who will make a difference.  But it's early to tell on any of these.  I also think highly of Wendell Berry and many nature writers, who have a lot to tell us about our world.  But it will take a long time to assimilate this work and understand what effects it has had on how we live our lives.


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