Monday, July 30, 2012

The Shaping of Americans

[By Jerry Ward]

By listing 88 books published between 1751 and 2002, the Library of Congress seeks to begin “a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives whether they appear on this initial list or not.” . You can take an online survey on the list at  and nominate other titles for inclusion.  It is likely much of the conversation will be conducted in social networks, in media that encourage rants or snippets of opinion more than sustainable conversations.  Conversation in twenty-first century America is a fossil, one of the lost human arts.

To begin on the good foot a la James Brown, you must notice that books alone do not shape a nation. People shape a nation. Everyone knows the United States of America has been shaped by the tragic fate of indigenous peoples and religion-haunted Puritans and the blues-agonies of enslaved peoples and joy-drunk Cavaliers and savage misinterpretations of the Bible and a motley crew of besotted politicians, many of them not exceptionally literate. Violence, spectacle and visual representation, and music compete with the book for the gold medal of what has most influenced our lives, our habits of thought and heart.

Books do, however, shape a people’s deepest prejudices and passions. Books inculcate divergent values.  Despite the vast amount of publishing done in the United States, large numbers of Americans choose to be aliterate. Our smart, profit-greedy publishing industry exploits what is central in the American character: the authentic will to be confused and confusing.

Can the conversation proposed by the Library of Congress liberate a few Americans from philosophical caves, forcing them to see “reality” in the bitter light of “actuality”?

Perhaps not. 

How have  Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (19 77), Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987), Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens ( 1983), Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Ishmael Reed’s Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), Rebecca Sklott’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2011) John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by James Agee and Walker Evans influenced our lives?  It is tremendously difficult for the majority of Americans to understand the nature of that question.

As the conversation on books inches forward, we may find Americans in agreement that David Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; together with A Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in particular, and very expressly, to those of The United States of America (1829) and Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.’s Ku Klux Klan trilogy ----The Leopard’s Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907) have essential influence.  How could a people who are confused and confusing have the bloody audacity to deny the centrality of these texts?

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