Unvarnished Veritas

THE HARVARD GUIDE TO INFLUENTIAL BOOKS edited fry C. Maury Devine, Claudia M. Dissel, and Kim D. Parrish.Harper & Row, $18.95.

SOON AFTER THE appearance of the second book, according to Herodotus, there appeared a man who took it upon himself to compile a list of books that other men ought to read. Before long this man had company. Compiling book lists was undemanding at first (the lists, as Tacitus relates, were short), but by the eighteenth century the task had acquired the status of a profession, with standardized fee schedules, a code of ethics, and peer review. With the expansion of literacy during the nineteenth century, didactic volumes promoting the fifty, one hundred, or one thousand “best books” became a staple in the literary marketplace. They continue to proliferate.
More than once in this century (most famously in 1909, with the inauguration of the Harvard Classics) Harvard University has produced a list of preferred books. Now, in commemoration of the university’s 350th anniversary, comes The Harvard Guide to Influential Books. It is a book intended to speak with authority and to uplift the masses—to serve as “a means for all to learn and progress regardless of their circumstances.”It aspires, in other words, to be a monumentally insufferable piece of work, like most of its ancestors. Here and there it succeeds. But somehow, I must confess, The Harvard Guide makes of the reader a reluctant friend. Of course, one cannot entirely banish an urge to take the thing to the nearest church fair, place it on the dunking stool, and underwrite three tosses of the softball by everyone in attendance. One is likely, however, to resist such a step until reaching the end, where there appears a mostly blank page titled “Reader’s Reflection” ("What books have helped to shape your thinking? Why?”) and after that a page titled “Reading Plan” (“Space is provided below where you may list the books that you hope to read”).
What makes The Harvard Guide an unwittingly winning enterprise has a lot to do with the inexperience of the editors. They are former graduate students at Harvard, unfailingly earnest and still in awe of their professors, and they appear to have been unwilling to cut, trim, shape, or otherwise tamper with any of the material that they solicited. The editors asked more than a hundred prominent faculty members and administrators at the university to name—and, if so inclined, briefly to reflect on—the half dozen books that had been most influential in their lives and careers. But as replies drifted in, it turned out that many respondents preferred to list books that had, in their view, been influential in a more general way, and that others simply wanted to list books that they felt people ought to read. They were allowed to have their way. The editors, according to their preface, “considered restraining the contributors from any discussion of the classics,” on the grounds that classics are, well, classics, but the occasional respondent would insist on mentioning Great Books, and so “some have, therefore, been included in the Guide.” The editors advanced other preferences and laid down other guidelines, but ultimately everyone was allowed to say what he wished (even the two contributors who wished to say that exercises of this kind are silly and pointless) and the remarks were printed more or less verbatim. In firmer editorial hands The Harvard Guide to Influential Books might have been made coherent in concept and consistent in tone, with no surprising detours—a prim, edifying English garden. What it turned out to be, happily, is Harvard in the wild.
TO JUDGE BY the books that they deem important, the contributors have little but Harvard in common. I began to get that impression at around page 50, and at page 100 I stopped and spent an afternoon adding things up. There are 113 contributors (presented alphabetically, from Daniel Aaron, a professor of English, to Abraham Zaleznik, a professor at the business school) and citations for nearly 600 books (ranging from The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams, to The Psycho-Biology of Language, by George K. Zipf). Of the books cited only five—the Bible, The Republic, War and Peace, Huckleberry Finn, and The Federalist—are mentioned by as many as five people. (Shakespeare and Freud receive, as authors, comparable recognition, though no single work by either does.) Only eight books—by Churchill, Darwin, Homer, Thomas S. Kuhn, Montaigne, Schumpeter, Thucydides, and Tocqueville—are mentioned by four people. And only six books—by Faulkner, Joyce, Machiavelli, Mann, Anthony Powell, and Weber— are mentioned by three people. In contrast, 482 books have only one person each to recommend them.
I’m not sure what such catholicity says about a Harvard education, but it does save The Harvard Guide from becoming repetitious. Indeed, the sheer variety is what keeps one reading. The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), by Norton Juster: “reminds us that we might well be able to do things that people say could never be done.” Chimpanzee Politics (1983), by Frans DeWaal: “insightful analysis of our closest relatives—with whom we share more genes than horses do with zebras.” My Antonia (1918), by Willa Cather: “the only thing I ever read that helped me understand why people like the Midwest.” The Phenomenology of Mind (1807), by G. W. F. Hegel: “an attempt to put everything together before anything was clear.” The Works of Christina, Queen of Sweden (1753): “never fails to provide a chuckle.” Any good cookbook: “The most soothing of all reading. The rational is still achievable in the most chaotic of worlds.”
The contributors are by turns voluble and laconic, humble and self-important, dour and witty. Most supply a hortatory prolegomenon. Several include pleas for nuclear sanity. The least interesting remarks (and choices) tend to be those of political scientists, educationists, and professors at the business school. Members of these groups generally favor the familiar postwar scholarly standbys that have defined their academic specialties. On the whole, the most interesting remarks and choices are those of professors emeritus, scientists, and people born in foreign countries (except Canada). I can only speculate as to why this should be, and therefore won’t. But I have entertained the nine or so plausible explanations that are possibly occurring to you right now.
What is appealing about the scientists is the way they seem to interpret their lives as a series of experiments, some of them failures, that finally yields a convincing result (which is them, now). The biologist Edward O. Wilson, curator of entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, acknowledges an early passion for the theories of Trofim D. Lysenko. “Although I was later to see Lysenkoism for what it was,” he writes of Heredity and Its Variability (1943), “I was enchanted by this little book when I encountered it at the age of sixteen. . . . It seemed to me that Lysenko was offering a radical and effective challenge to conventional science, and that even the callow and inexperienced might have a chance to proceed directly to new realms of discovery.” Gordon R. Willey, the archaeologist, writes of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1919— 1922): “I was bowled over by this vast, absurd, learned, pretentious book when I read it in 1936. I suppose it was the first ‘Big Book’ I had ever read.” Another trait apparent among the scientists is their high regard for precision, even if it must come at the expense of comprehension. William Bossert, a biologist, in recommending Shikubu Murasak’s Taleof Genji (circa A.D. 1000), offers one of the most ambitious similes I have encountered in some time: “Despite its age, nearly a thousand years, this work is as fresh as a well-written novella from Brazilian television.” It is noteworthy that the scientists who have contributed to The Harvard Guide recommend lots of nonscientific books, but the non-scientists recommend few books about science.
THERE ARE CERTAIN conventions in a book of this kind which 1 once believed were the result of deliberate editorial intervention, so consistently are they observed. Book lists always have a place, I have noticed, for Trollope. In The Harvard Guide one finds Barchester Towers, The Last Chronicle of Barset, and The Warden, all courtesy of John Kenneth Galbraith. There is always a place for the unexpected lowbrow book—the book whose recommendation implies about the recommender that, while his IQ serendipitously rivals that of Benjamin Franklin, he is nevertheless just folks. In The Harvard Guide Stephen Jay Gould, who reports that as a child he “played stickball and poker instead of doing a lot of reading,”recommends Joe DiMaggio’s Lucky to Be a Yankee. There is always, too, a slot for a book that points up a flaw in the contributor which somehow MIRVs into several virtues. Christopher Edley, of the Harvard Law School, writes in The Harvard Guide that Josef Maria Jauch’s Foundations of Quantum Mechanics brought him “face to face” with his “intellectual limits” but left him as a result with “new stores of patience, humility, and, strangely, confidence.”As far as I can tell, all of this stuff has crept into the Guide without anyone’s invitation. Maybe human nature is the goad.
As noted above, two of the respondents found the compilation of The Harvard Guide repellent—“an act of collossal hubris,” one of them writes. He goes on: “I have no list to submit. I care not for this cargo cult.” What a sourpuss. This honest, bumbling book does little harm and maybe some good. It affords considerable entertainment. And, like the best of its predecessors, it seems destined to perform admirably in its most useful role: not as a reader’s guide for the living but as a piece of historical evidence, for generations to come, of what a tiny part of the world was like at a particular time. Between the covers of The Harvard Guide it will always be Cambridge, 1986, for better or for worse. □