In case you're wondering, the perfect gift for someone like me, who loves books but has a house full of them already and a to-read list that's longer than the reading years I have remaining, is a reference book. Most books, like a New Yorker subscription, carry with them the stressful, underlying question, "Lovely, but when am I going to get to read it?" The beauty of a reference book is that you never need to read it. You certainly never need to finish it, and you really never need to begin. The reference book is patient: it waits for you, in all its bulk, for that moment when you might need it, or, better yet, have a spare moment of not-needing, when you can noodle around in it at your leisure, with no responsibility to the usual demands of plot or argument that make poking around in most books an incomplete pleasure.
But there are reference books and there are reference books. A very few, written with personality and style and opinion, are among my favorite books for browsing and even for geekily reading right through from start to finish: David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, Bill James's Historical Baseball Abstract, even last year's deliciously useless (at least to me) Perfumes: A Guide. And Harvard's New Literary History of America is aiming for those. It doesn't have the cohesive and idiosyncratic spirit of having been written by one or two people, like the ones I just mentioned, but it does clearly have a guiding philosophy. As a former English grad student and a former encyclopedia editor, I've read (and written) enough reference entries to know that the usual method is to cram lists of names and movements and titles into catch-all essays sucked dry of all style and verve. If you like reading literature, you probably won't like reading most literary reference books.
But editors Werner Sollors and Greil Marcus don't feel the usual burdens of comprehension and responsibility in this history. If they spend four pages on one topic and ignore another of equal historical importance, that's fine. (You'll find Linda Ronstadt in the index, for instance, but not Marilynne Robinson.) They've organized their literary history into a chronological series of cultural moments, and they've strayed far from the usual bounds of capital-L "Literature." The title is telling: it's not a history of American literature, but a literary history of America, which takes everything from the invention of the telephone to the skyscraper to, most notoriously already, the memoirs of Linda Lovelace (as well as usual suspects like Dickinson, Melville, and Bellow) and treats them with the same analytical lens as literature. And in keeping with the pairing of Harvard's Sollors with independent cultural critic Marcus, their contributors are a fresh mix of scholars, novelists, and freelance critics, often in inspired pairings of author and subject.
In the spirit of a true reference book crush, then, here's a sampling of some of the most appealing entries in the table of contents:
- 1798: Marc Amfreville on Charles Brockden Brown (weirdo!) and the American Gothic
- 1850: Greil Marcus on Moby-Dick
- 1884: Ishmael Reed on "Mark Twain's Hairball"
- 1888: Jonathan Lethem on "The Introduction of Motion Pictures"
- 1899; 1924: Gilberto Perez on McTeague and Greed
- 1900: Gerald Early on The Wizard of Oz
- 1901: John Edgar Wideman on Charles Chesnutt's fabulous Marrow of Tradition
- 1903: Luc Sante on "The Invention of the Blues"
- 1905: Kerry Roeder on Little Nemo in Slumberland
- 1923: David Thomson on Chaplin and Hart Crane
- 1926: Walter Mosley on "The Hardboiled"
- 1930: Robert Gottlieb on the talking pictures
- 1930: Sarah Vowell on American Gothic
- 1935: Michael Tolkin on Alcoholics Anonymous
- 1938: Douglas Wolk on Superman
- 1945: Glenda Carpio on Pynchon and war
- 1951: Gish Jen on Catcher in the Rye
- 1953: Dave Hickey on "The Song in Country Music"
- 1956: James Miller on "Roll Over Beethoven"
- 1959: William J. Mann on Some Like It Hot
- 1961: Charles Taylor on JFK's inaugural address and Catch-22
- 1962: Howard Hampton on Manny Farber
- 1968: Mary Gaitskill on Norman Mailer (!)
- 1982: Hua Hsu on Wild Style
And for a take from people who have actually read the book, there's reviews by Wes Davis in the Wall Street Journal, Laura Miller in Salon, and our customer reviewers, one of whom notes that the book's structure was likely inspired by Denis Hollier's New History of French Literature, which looks pretty appealing too. And there's a site for the book itself. --Tom
Recommended for fans of Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film and Marcus's Mystery Train.