“I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size,” Barry Goldwater explained in 1960s Conscience of a Conservative. “I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.”
The Arizona senator dreamed that such rhetoric would become a staple of stump speeches. And it has. The Conscience of a Conservative became not only a most unlikely bestselling political book — Shepherdsville, Kentucky isn’t exactly the capital of publishing — but it transformed a party, bequeathed one of the 20th century’s most consequential presidencies, and animates a political movement more than a half-century later. It’s hard to imagine the Reagan presidency, the Contract with America congressional takeover, or even the Tea Party without Goldwater’s slim volume.
Yet The Conscience of a Conservative failed to make the cut of the Library of Congress’s “Books That Shaped America.” In fact, no explicitly conservative book — not Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, or Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind — did.
Congress may be divided between a Republican House and Democrat Senate. The Library of Congress boasts liberal uniformity.
The 88 highlighted books, exhibited at the Jefferson Building this summer, includes Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, and W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk.
The exhibit features more Communists than conservatives. About as close as the compilers get to throwing conservatives a bone is Atlas Shrugged, a book loved by conservatives written by an author who despised them.
One fully gleans that this is a book list by people who don’t read them when encountering the bizarre inclusion of The Words of Cesar Chavez, a posthumous collection of speeches so utterly lacking in influence that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia entry despite being the sole book on the list published after the web encyclopedia’s launch. On the other hand, its three Amazon reviewers uniformly awarded it five stars — so the Library of Congress isn’t alone in its starry-eyed assessment.
Perhaps the most preposterous inclusion is Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s quackifesto Family Limitation, which is neither a book nor, thankfully, very influential. The 1914 pamphlet suggests the anti-malarial medicine quinine, which in large quantities can cause uterine paralysis, to prevent pregnancy. Elsewhere, Family Limitation prescribes laxatives as a method of birth control: “A very good laxative (though it is a patent medicine) is Beecham Pills. Two of these taken night and morning, four days before menstruation, will give a good cleansing of the bowels, and assist with the menstrual flow.”
Like so many with laxatives on the brain, Margaret Sanger was full of, well, you know. Women heeding her advice got full of babies.
The utterly unreadable Upton Sinclair makes the list with The Jungle. The activist-author explained in Appeal to Reason, which first serialized The Jungle in 1905, that he had written a “Socialist novel” to show “the workers their way of deliverance.” Therein, the American dream is shown as a nightmare. Unforgettably, a worker falls into a lard vat to become another’s breakfast. The propagandist claimed this aspect of his fiction for fact. “Naturally, this was a hard matter to prove,” he later maintained, “since in each case the families had been paid off and shipped off to other parts of the world.”
True believers truly believed.
Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male certainly shaped America. The Indiana University zoologist bedded interview subjects, paid a friend to pretend to be his statistician, and demanded sexual access to his fellow researchers. Kinsey relied on pedophiles to compile data on small children, who, Kinsey assured readers, experienced sexual climax through a “loss of color,” “violent cries,” an “abundance of tears,” and other manifestations of terror rather than ecstasy. Prison inmates constituted about a quarter of the study’s sample group, dramatically skewing the results to portray the abnormal as the norm.
Kinsey showed Americans a picture of his perversions and told them that they were looking in the mirror.
The “Books That Shaped America” misshapes America. The Library of Congress imagines a center-right nation distinct for such cultural markers as faith and free enterprise as an aggressively ideological crusader state on par with Jacobin France.
It’s not just that the politicized exhibit excludes worthy conservative books. The race-class-gender-sexuality obsessed compilation continually mistakes journalism for literature. The nonfiction showcased leans heavily toward “art as a weapon” and away from “art for art’s sake.”
The canon contains few canonic religious titles. Are not the Book of Mormon, the Baltimore Catechism, Cotton Mather’s Magnalia, and even Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking more critical to shaping America than, say, Toni Morrison’s Beloved?
Business, another American obsession, seems completely alien to the librarians. Surely Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management molded America as much as Ida Tarbell’s History of Standard Oil. But its use as a tool to aid businessmen rather than to antagonize them doesn’t mesh with the 88 selected books.
Lists tell us more about the compilers than the compiled. Rather than reflect the influence of the listed, they betray the compulsion of the list makers to influence. The librarians suffer from author envy.
The “Books That Shaped America” shows us the America that the Library of Congress desires. It doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the America that is.