Good books can never die, but they do suffer neglect

On Books

July 04, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

What's the point? Well, for the fun of it, and to startle myself and maybe a few others into thinking, or thinking a little bit differently. So on this American birthday have a look, give a thought, to the 18 serious nominations on these pages for the most neglected of great American books.

They speak for themselves, and I have nothing to add to them -- or detract. I found it pleasing, somehow, that of the 18 responses we are publishing there is not a single duplication. It also charmed me that six of the 18 are books that not only I have not read, but was not aware of.

I am ashamed to say I can't be quite sure how many of them I have actually read. I am certain of six, but there are three or four others that I may very well have read, and yet the memory is so dim that I am not sure whether I had simply read of them, heard about them -- or actually sat down and gone from the opening page to the closing. All are provocative in their own ways. Putting aside Margarete Parrish's worthy prescription of the scriptures, the subject matter ranges from 17th century Massachusetts to virtually up to the minute -- or into the post atomic holocaust future.

Letting my mind wander over the proposals, I was struck by the variety of their principal themes: feminism, social justice, sin and morality, language, love -- and the mysteries of youth, of family, slavery, growing up, humor, witchcraft. And, of course, America.

Last year here we had a jaunt with what one book would best help an alien from outer space understand modern America. None of them turns up today.

In 1997, we published 27 proposals for the worst American novel. Most significantly three of those respondents chose Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" -- and on the same pages in 1996 among the 19 people who cited the Great American Novel an equal three named "Moby Dick."

The Great American

Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" got citations in both categories. The winner of the Great American novel survey was Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," with four votes, and tying with "Moby Dick" was Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Being referee of these games lets me break the rules, of course. I struggled for a single nominee of my own and failed. High among dozens that come to mind and are not otherwise cited here are: "Pudd'nhead Wilson," so often overwhelmed by one of the prime contenders for the great, "Huckleberry Finn." Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," itself so often eclipsed by other Hemingway novels, several far less important. John Dos Passos' "U.S.A." -- mentioned on these pages today by Vince Fitzpatrick.

Books games never cease. They can be nourishing as well as entertaining -- harmless unless they get in the way of real reading. One of a half dozen new books on books is "For the Love of Books," a compilation of 115 writers' responses to queries from Ronald B. Schwartz, a Boston lawyer who seems fond of the things (Grosset/Putnam, 297 pages, $24.95).

He wrote to a huge number of writers, asking them to identify three to six books that "have in some way influenced or affected you most deeply, 'spoken to' you the loudest, and explain why -- in personal terms."

I was particularly delighted by Arthur Miller's citation of Richard Hughes' "A High Wind in Jamaica," one of the books that most moved and puzzled me, boy and man. He also gives credit to Franz Kafka's "The Castle," which I would not argue with.

Kurt Vonnegut briskly cited "The Spoon River Anthology" by Edgar Lee Masters and "The Theory of the Leisure Class" by Thorstein Veblen -- an extraordinary combination that I would love to read side by side.

Broad spectrum

Among the 115 respondents in the book, those that caught my eye were probably almost random. I think P.J. O'Rourke, -- the satirist and commentator -- produced perhaps the richest little list: James Whitcomb Riley's "Collected Poems," Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," Max Beerbohm's many and various essays, Friedrich von Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom," and Jonathan Swift's masterpiece, "Gulliver's Travels."

There is a strong and natural tendency for authors to cite books that in some way closely relate to what they do -- really, to who they have become. Ken Auletta, who is a marvelous investigative reporter and the originator of the term "the underclass," leads his list with "Les Miserables," "Crime and Punishment" and Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" -- all of which have social justice at their cores.

Above all, I was delighted to find an enchanting two-page entry by Clifton Fadiman, one of the truly distinguished gentlemen of letters in American history, who died last week at the age of 95.

He was a writer to begin with, but importantly also an editor, an anthologist, a critic, a magnificent man whom I had the pleasure of sharing meals and some very, very good wine with from time to time.

Fadiman cited a single book, which he had read when he was 13 -- his older brother's Columbia College freshman literature anthology. Having been responsible for probably more first-rate anthologies than any other editor in the English language, Fadiman modestly concludes: "I may be the only man in the world whose life was influenced by an anthology." It set him to reading, of course.

But I would argue with that, and wish it were still possible to argue with him. But for anyone who loves language and literature, civility and genuine curiosity, Clifton Fadiman's contribution is enormous. At 95, I suspect, he deserved to rest. He will be missed -- but will live on for time, I believe, without end.

Pub Date: 07/04/99

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