Monday, June 15, 2009

It's a cute list with a flawed premise.

Never one to denigrate the great literary culture of Boston and its environs, I was delighted to see that the indentured servants over at the Boston Globe came up with a list of the 100 Essential New England Books. It is a great idea to showcase all of the writing that has come from the smallest corner of this huge nation. It is a reminder to all that we still lead the league in healthier, happier, sexier, smarter lives than the rest of the United States (oh, and I heard that our french fries taste the best too). All the usual suspects are on the list:

The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

You get the idea...but wait there's more! There are some pretty clever picks that I didn't think of when I perused the list (but I will let you discover those for yourself). However, there is one huge problem with the list. Apparently, and I may be wrong here but it seems like anyone who has ever heard of New England can make the list. For instance, the #1 book on the list is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I agree that he once lived in Massachusetts or that the book is set in Boston but so what? What, really, does Infinite Jest tell anyone living outside of New England about New England? Team of Rivals by Doris Kearnes Goodwin checks in at #7. Again, so what does this have to do with New England? Not a thing really other than some of the politicians in the book are from Massachusetts and DKG lives here. Here are a few more of the books which stretch the category of the list to its breaking point (with Globe commentary added):

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, 2006

Somerville resident and Yale graduate Messud wrote this bestselling, critically acclaimed 2006 novel about three privileged friends in their early thirties, living in Manhattan in the months before Sept. 11, 2001, and their struggles to achieve lofty expectations in their personal and professional lives.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, 2003

Born in Exeter, N.H., Brown has become one of the giants of contemporary fiction. In this wildly popular mystery novel, Brown’s plot describes the efforts of Robert Langdon, professor of religious symbology at Harvard University, trying to solve the murder of renowned curator Jacques Saunière of Paris’s Louvre Museum.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac, 1957

Lowell-born Kerouac’s great road novel remains a monument of the entire Beat Generation. Kerouac’s improvisational, experimental writing style, and his unconventional way of living, is everywhere on display in this classic 1957 story about freedom, the open road, friendship, art, and adventure.

Couldn't Ms. Messud's book be thought of as really about New York, not Boston? Isn't the DaVinci Code really about the Catholic Church or, at least, Europe? And no one-absolutely no one-thinks of New England while they are reading On The Road. Sorry, the truth hurts. What about Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama? I mean, he attended Harvard and, until recently, had a family member living in Boston. Seriously, I think that the plan was a great one but the executionof that plan really suffered by allowing anyone who once vacationed on the Cape to be eligible for inclusion on the list. Am I being too nitpicky? I don't thing so because our region of the US is often used as the butt of jokes around the country about elitism, over-intellectualism, snobbery, etc...and all this list does is suggest that if you are smart enough to have written a book and either set said book in New England or lived in New England yourself then "you are one of us." I think that does a disservice to the reality of New Englanders who have lived in this great area all their lives and understand far more fully, in ways that David Foster Wallace simply couldn't, that New England is mostly a state of mind and disposition not geography.

Oh, and any list which includes Andre Dubus III to the exclusion of his father Andre Dubus, Sr. is not worth its weight in computer pixels. If you really want to learn about the New England mindset and what it means to live here, please, please, please go pick up any of Andre Dubus's first 4 collections of short stories: Separate Flights, Adultery and Other Choices, Finding a Girl in America, or The Times Are Never So Bad. Though not all the fiction here is set in New England the pieces that are deal with the lives of New Englanders in ways not even imagined in most, if not all, of the Boston Globe's list.

Finally, just to show you that New England is more a state of mind than a location I present as evidence that the books from Andre Dubus I referenced above are written by a son of Louisiana who moved here and made this area-with its history, its religious pressures, it permissiveness, its intellectual attitudes, etc-his own.

Plus, no one really thinks those Yankee fans along the beaches of the Long Island sound are really New Englanders anyway. Just sayin'.


Brian said...

Short of the tears you shed when the Red Sox won the World Series after "the curse," this is the most New Englander thing you've ever done or said.

Christopher said...

Thanks! Positive comments make positive neighbors.