A conversation with literature professor Thomas C. Foster about how he selected the titles in his latest book
Narrowing down more than two centuries of American literature to a list of 25 influential books is daunting. Do you include Hemingway or Fitzgerald? Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer? And how do you determine what makes a book influential in the first place? This was the task University of Michigan literature professor Thomas C. Foster took on when he wrote Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America, which comes out today. In an interview with The Atlantic, Foster described how he made his list—and pondered whether changes in reading habits could affect the role of books in American culture.
What was your methodology for picking the 25 books on your list?
You're giving me credit for having a method—that's probably more than I deserve. When we first started talking about this project, I thought, "How in the world am I going to limit this? Where am I going to take it?" Part of the problem was solved by Jay Parini, who, right around the time we signed the contract and I sat down to get going brought out Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America. And my first thought was, "I'm in trouble now." And my second thought was, after I'd looked through the table of contents and what he was doing, "This is great because he's done a bunch of things I didn't want to have to deal with."
His book is primarily about nonfiction works including How to Win Friends and Influence People, which I had no interest in doing. And I thought, "That's been done. I'm off the hook."
Parini also uses the phrase "changed America" rather than "shaped America," which is what you use.
I wanted "shaped" because I thought "shaped" opened up some possibilities. But it also meant they didn't have to be books where you could say, "This law got enacted because of this book. "
What else did you consider when you were making the list?
I wanted a representative sampling: Quite a lot of books from the 19th century, quite a lot of books from the 20th century. I wanted to have various groups represented. I didn't say, "I want one from column A, I want one from column B," but I wanted books that would look at the Midwest experience, some Eastern experience, various takes on race and ethnicity.
I started coming up with a list. I wasn't sure how I could get down to 25, but I could get up to 50 or 60 pretty quickly. And then I started culling. It was more a matter of justifying the books I was staying with than it was asking the books to meet a standard. I assumed there was a standard—I just hadn't articulated it for myself.
I was very careful—and I think I addressed this several times in the book—I was very careful to avoid the definite article in the title. Because these are 25 books. These are not the 25 books that shaped America. There's a big difference there. They're exemplary rather than exclusive, I think. And that's how I intended them to be.
How did you cut the list from 50 or 60 down to 25?
I went with books that I had a fairly strong feeling about—mostly positive. I make an exception for The Last of the Mohicans, for which I was grinding my teeth. I'm with Twain on the subject of [James Fenimore] Cooper's prose. At the same time, he can make you turn pages in a way that any contemporary thriller writer would be happy to be able to do. Cooper's sort of a mix blessing where I'm concerned. I know a lot of people liked him rather better than I do.
Were there any books you wanted to include but didn't?
I get into AP English classes on a fairly regular basis, and there was a class over in East Kentwood, right by Grand Rapids, and I said, "Ok, I'm going to do this book on 25 American books—what should I include?" And I got the usual smattering of answers—everything from Gatsby to Ayn Rand to Chuck Palahniuk. But the title I heard almost universally from them was The Scarlet Letter. And I thought, "Well, you know there's something that works there for them." It wasn't that I didn't want to include it, it's just that I thought Seven Gables would take me in a different direction.
I did the same thing with Huckleberry Finn. I wanted to go with Tom Sawyer because the white-washing of the fence and Injun Joe and all that stuff—that's what people think they remember about Twain. And none of that is in Huck Finn. But you just can't not do Huck Finn. So I did Huck Finn.
Which books are people going to complain aren't on the list?
There are two that spring instantly to mind: One is Catcher in the Rye, and the other is Red Badge of Courage. I may be wrong, it may be something else. I thought of Roots, I thought of Native Son, which I do address [in the conclusion]. It could be one of the McMurtry books—it could be Lonesome Dove. I doubt that. I think Catcher and Red Badge are where I'll catch the most flak. And that's OK. I want a conversation. I want people to engage the book. And part of that is, I suppose, to annoy them by not having everything that they might expect.