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Wednesday, May 25,2011

Let the discussion begin

East Lansing author and professor Thomas Foster’s “Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America” will be criticized as much for what’s in it as for what he left out — and that suits him fine.

by Bill Castanier

The book’s subtitle: “How White Whales, Green Lights and
Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity” gives hints about a few
of the titles. (Just how many books are there about white whales?) It’s
fun to guess what’s on the list, and almost as much fun to learn what
didn’t make the cut. The chapter title: “A Boy and a Raft” pretty much
gives that selection away, but “The Bird’s The Word” will be a tough
call.


But no Holden Caulfield? What’s that all about?


Foster said when he decided to write this book he wanted
to be sure the title didn’t include the words “like a professor,” a
reference to his two popular books “How to Read Novels Like a Professor”
and “How to Read Literature Like a Professor.” 


“I don’t believe that these are the greatest novels,” he said. “They are exemplary rather than definitive.”


Foster also is careful to note that the books “shaped” — not changed — American culture.


He said if change was in the equation,
books such as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would have made the list. They didn’t. He also
stressed what he calls “imaginative writing,” so Dale Carnegie’s “How to
Win Friends and Influence People” is nowhere to be seen.


However, Foster, an English professor at
the University of Michigan-Flint, did select John Steinbeck’s “The
Grapes of Wrath” for his list of 25, even though it advocates strongly
for reform: “’Grapes of Wrath’ works on a lot of levels. It’s a
tremendous story and has incredible prose.”


He said the two books that are not on the
list that he expects to hear the most about are “The Catcher in the
Rye” and “The Red Badge of Courage.” But, to cover himself, he’s added
those in a last chapter titled “Fifteen More and the G.A.N.” — G.A.N. is
his acronym for the Great American Novel — along with a book about a
wonderful wizard.


As for L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful
Wizard of Oz,” Foster said, “I left it off because I wasn’t sure I could
make an argument how it shaped our culture.”


The list of 25 is strongly skewed to
fiction, but also includes biography and poetry selections. The most
recent book, “Love Medicine,” was published in 1986.


There are several of what might be called
unexpected selections, such as Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” and John
Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.”


Although a number of the books have won
Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards or other major honors, Foster said
that wasn’t a criterion in the selection. “Awards committees are often
mistaken,” he said.


Indirectly, by creating this list, Foster
is suggesting that readers go back to these books and re-read them.
“Maybe you read them in high school or college — it’s amazing what time
can do,” he said. “When I went back to these books, I had new
experiences.”


Foster said to get to 25 he initially started with a list
of 50 and whittled away, always keeping in mind that the books needed to
represent “what it is to be part of the American experiment.”


And like a “professor” — or, for that matter, Oprah
Winfrey — he wanted to stimulate discussion. “I want people to come up
with counter proposals,” he said.


Now that Winfrey is moving on, Foster may
have carved out a second career for himself as the nation’s book club
leader. Foster has deep respect for what Winfrey accomplished by
promoting good reading.


“She will be missed. I don’t see any way around it. She
caused books to become the center of attention and discussion. It wasn’t
happening before, and I don’t know if anyone will fill that vacuum.”


In the final chapter, Foster writes about finding great
books: “Find that gold. Set your own standards for excellence and
greatness. Don’t take someone else’s word for it — even a professor’s.”


Thomas Foster: ‘Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America’
7 p.m. Wednesday, June 1
Schuler Books & Music
2820 Towne Center Blvd.
Lansing
Free
www.schulerbooks.com
(517) 316-7495


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