Should the American canon be discussed in a public library? The selection of classic American authors in one book reading projects.

Author:Kupfer, David C.

Introduction to Book Clubs and the One Book Project

The book club has a distinguished role in American culture. The clubs were formed in the 19th century, primarily as a way to help immigrants learn the language of their new country. Discussions provided assimilation for a new land; they gave increased literacy, socialization, an upward path of mobility, and a means for the immigrant to speak comfortably in a language that was new (Fabian et al. 46). Today, clubs serve other functions. Barbara Hoffert, Editor of Library Journal, recognizes community health and library publicity as benefits of the reading associations: "It [The club] helps polish the library's image and build bridges to the entire community" (37). Companionship and literary skills can stimulate. Reference Librarian Sarah Scobey writes, "Book clubs fill a real void in our electronic age. They bring people together in an intellectually stimulating yet non-threatening environment, a sort of College Literature 101 course without the burden of exams and papers" (9).

One of the most prominent national reading clubs to emerge in the last decade is sponsored by the Library of Congress through its Center for the Book. Their One Book Reading Promotion Projects are operated by libraries from Hawaii to Maine, and are run in association with One Book Guidelines established by the American Library Association (ALA). The Center for the Book was itself established in 1977 by Congress "to stimulate public interest in books, reading, and libraries" (About the Center for the Book). From a single program in 1998, "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book," started by Nancy Pearl of The Center for the Book, the One Book effort has grown so that it now includes over 350 cities and all 50 states (Cole One Book). The One Book goals, "which connect people to literature through reading and discussion," promote literacy, community discussion, and an appreciation of reading throughout the country (Cole News).

Those familiar with book clubs know adult reading groups were a success long before the Center for the Book became a prominent sponsor. In 1995, Library President Paul LeClerc, of the New York Public Library, declared "the support and promotion of Adult Reading has been a Part of the New York Public Library's Work since the early 1900s," and that promotion has included a community Great Books program, which was popular after the end of the Second World War (Saal x). Book club growth has been supplemented by efforts of current librarians. Candice Michalik, Reference Librarian at Lynchburg Public Library, started in 2002 with a single book, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. After one year she declared, "I would encourage any library considering the one city-one book idea to go for it!" (9). The clubs have achieved a "runaway popularity" (Hoffert 31). Patrons coalesce through discussion and author talks; they grow with "well-crafted, thoughtful books" (McMains 3) to discover "the community of literature" (Holgate).

Projects have many names: "One Book, One City," "One Book, One County," "One Book, One Valley," and "One Book, One Community." Regardless of terminology, the clubs have resurrected the idea that every community can have a successful discussion of a play, short story, poem, long novel, or nonfiction work.

Current Librarians Speak About "Classics"

One Book founder Nancy Pearl has responded to an "unmet desire for discussion of serious literature" (Holgate). If librarians foster the success of the book club, does it follow that they should adopt a particular agenda, one that requires them to select a certain class of literary materials? American classics are mentioned frequently in articles on library clubs. Selection of an author like Willa Cather may be based on whether her My Antonia increases "both the number and diversity of the group" (Davis 30). The idea of broad inclusiveness seems to guide many book clubs. John Cole, founding director of the Center for the Book, summarizes inclusiveness as an appropriate standard for choice. For success, "The idea is to involve as many people as possible" (Holgate 2006).

Does a desire for maximizing participation preclude a preference for selection of literary classics? This question is debated in public and academic circles. Amherst University Librarian Jackie M. Hockett states, "It is not our job to say which books are not worth reading" (8). Other university librarians recognize the importance of encouraging discussion about books, of "gaining a deeper understanding through the exchange of ideas and perspectives with others" (Fabian et al. 46). There is a division between those who argue for patron independence from a librarian's persuasion and those who assert that reading our nation's most revered texts should be encouraged by the librarian.

A recent set of articles in American Libraries shows the conflict in the role of the public librarian trying to be an impartial server of the community and a promoter of a literary canon. One view is that librarians should firmly promote the classics; another is that the librarian should not be false arbiter of taste, one that creates an unpleasantness and hostility between patron and staff. David Isaacson, a retired academic librarian, asserts there is an inherent virtue in supporting reading habits that aspire to the elite in literature. "Librarians ought to be models of good reading" (43), not as a matter of condescension, but as a duty to be an exemplar of education, a discerning purveyor of established literary tradition. By doing so, the "best traditions of librarianship are supported" (43). While Isaacson does not mention the One Book club in his article, his recognition of appropriate works argues for a literacy of discussion on the classics.

Partiality to the canon is not universal. Librarian Craig Gable of Buffalo, New York, responds to Isaacson's challenge with a different view of professional responsibility. Isaacson has confused arrogance with intellectual bravery, according to Gable (38). To insist upon any sort of discrimination, even if its purpose is to elevate a patron, is to become a type of czar. Public servants should not falsely assume the role of "gatekeepers of American freedoms" by using "cultural value" to recommend texts.

Gable's comments show an antagonism toward commending or favoring certain books or types of literature. Given this opposition, should public librarians support American classics in book groups, and can they do so if there is no historic agreement about the composition of that canon?

The ALA Guide for One Book Projects

The authenticity of canon is the crux of the problem for any librarian managing an adult book group. To answer the question of whether American masterworks should be supported, it is necessary to examine a framework of librarianship, as presented by ALA, the "oldest and largest library association in the world" (Home Page). Steve Holgate, Washington File Special Correspondent for the US Department of State, refers to the role of ALA in reading clubs: "The American Library Association also has weighed in, promoting the Big Read, which encourages communities to read classics of American literature" (One Book). Is there anything from ALA within their documents specifically created for the One Book program? ALA uses a document called "Planning Your Community-Wide Read," also known as the "One Book One Community Planning Guide," as a resource (One Book Resources). The Center refers it as a "handy planning guide" (One Book Introduction). The guide can be accessed at no charge through the ALA Public Programs website (One Book Resources). It is a comprehensive 44-page toolkit for creating and maintaining a successful club (One Book Guide). It has clear goals for patron growth. "Civic unity through the readings of literature" (4) is paramount, as well as combating illiteracy, encouraging tolerance of different cultures, and bringing families together through a shared educational experience (4-5) Popularity must also be considered. Thus, the "well-known" book is an integral part of selection, to ensure the "broadest participation" (15).

The One Book Guide does not devote much attention to the appreciation of classics, but it does not ignore their intrinsic merit. ALA sees merit in the selection of literary giants:

The book selection choice you make may be between classic or contemporary literature. Communities have used this initiative to celebrate classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and Farenheit [sic] 451. Readers often rediscover classics that they have not read since high school, and others pick them up for the first time (ALA One Book Guide 16-17). In this pivotal statement, ALA affirms that the American classic is worthy of selection. This validation does not deny the value of public input. Librarians should be sensitive to public perception, but they are not "snobbish" (Hockett 8), nor do they "intellectually discriminate" (Bujold 8) when they recommend a classic over a more popular but less substantial work. To reform Isaacson's argument, the appreciation of great writers can flourish without the imputation of prejudice against the tastes of patrons.

The American Canon

A canon can be defined as a "national literature" and also "a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists " (Baldick). If our nation's top literary critics cannot decide just what the classics are, then librarians have a problem. There is much debate in the humanities as to whether there is a dependable list of "American classics." One respected proponent of the canon is Harold Bloom, author of bestsellers on Shakespeare and Western Literature, and the Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale University (Yale).

In The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages, this preeminent scholar answers those who assert that a distinct literary canon can never be established (Bloom). He defends the idea of a...

To continue reading