Today, a bold listing of books that've shaped us. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I've just given a luncheon talk at
a meeting of librarians. Now they present me with an odd
book -- a curious, audacious, and fascinating book. It's
actually an exhibit catalog.
The title, Books of the Century, refers to
the centennial of the New York Public Library, founded in
1895. In 1995, the Library exhibited 150 books which, in
their view, shaped and reflect the 20th century. Imagine
having to make such a list!
The task is daunting because it embodies a definition of
culture, and culture is a personal thing. If I were to
form such a list it would include The Good Soldier
Schweik and William James's Varieties of
Religious Experience. Both are on the Library's
list, but my list would also include the more obscure
Marks's Mechanical Engineer's Handbook and
Schlichting's Boundary Layer Theory. They
formed our culture just as surely, if less visibly.
Still, the New York Public Library does not disappoint
me. Along with Chekov, Auden, and Faulkner are Einstein
on Relativity, Madam Curie's Treatise on
Radioactivity, and the 1964 Surgeon General's
report on smoking. The list, culled from 1150 entrants,
recognizes that we are shaped by more than the great
works of literature.
That shaping has not been all sweetness and light.
Hitler's Mein Kampf is there. Churchill said
of it, "Here is the new Koran of faith and war: turgid, verbose, but pregnant with its message."
of Anne Frank is displayed alongside Mein
I'm delighted to find so many of the books that've
defined me: Winnie the Pooh, The
Wizard of Oz, Chesterton's Father Brown Stories,
Fahrenheit 451, Catch-22, and
The Education of Henry Adams. I'm even more
delighted to find books I read to my children: The
Hobbit, Good Night Moon, and Dr.
The list acknowledges that popularity means something. If
we're to know who we are, we cannot turn our backs on
Tarzan, Dracula, Peyton Place, and Stephen King.
Another theme enters on little cat feet -- the struggle
to keep good books out where they can be read. It is
public librarians who have to deal with our fear of good
books. Here's Salinger's powerful coming-of-age story,
Catcher in the Rye. Salinger's keen ear for
dialog has had people on edge ever since. The book has
become a metaphor for the fight against censorship.
So the centerpiece of this luncheon is an Intellectual
Freedom Award, made to a woman who's fought censorship
for years with tact, determination, and good effect. She
gets a standing ovation.
One more book on the list: Superhighway -- Super
Hoax. It seems to be an attack on the
Interstate Highway System. So I leave you, and head off
to my university library. I must see what this one is all
about. I'll bet it holds another story, for me to tell --
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Books of the Century, (E. Diefendorf, ed.).
New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Leavitt, H., Super Highway -- Super Hoax.
New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.
Hasek, J., Osudy dobreho vojaka Svejka za sv etove
valky, 4 Vols. Praha: A. Sauer a J. Hasek,
James, W., The Varieties of Religious Experience: A
Study in Human Nature. New York: Longmans, Green,
Mechanical Engineer's Handbook (L.S. Marks,
ed.), 6 Vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1916-1958.
Schlichting, H., Boundary Layer Theory (tr.
J. Kestin), 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc.,
Einstein, A., The Meaning of Relativity: Four
Lectures Delivered at Princeton University, May
21, 1921 (tr. E.P. Adams). London: Methuen, 1922.
Sklodowska Curie, M., Traité de
radioactivité, 2 Vols. Paris:
United States, Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on
Smoking and Health, Smoking and Health.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and
Welfare, Public Health Service, 1964.
Hitler, A., Mein Kampf: Eine Abrechnung, 2
Vols. Munich: F. Eher, 1925-26.
Frank, A., Het Achterhuis: Dagboekbrieven van 12
Juni 1942 - 1 Augustus 1944. Amserdam: Contact,
Milne, A.A., Winnie-the-Pooh. London:
Baum, L.F., The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. New
York: G.M. Hill, 1900.
Chesterton, G.K., The Innocence of Father
Brown. London: Cassell, 1911.
Bradbury, R., Fahrenheit 451. New York:
Ballantine Books, 1953.
Heller, J., Catch-22. New York: Simon and
Adams, H., The Education of Henry Adams.
Washington, D.C.: Privately printed, 1907.
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Hobbit, or There and Back
Again. London: Allen & Unwin, 1937.
Brown, M.W., Good Night Moon. New York:
Harper and Row, 1947.
Seuss, Dr., The Cat in the Hat. New York:
Random House, 1957.
Salinger, J.D., The Catcher in the Rye.
Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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