Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1115:
BOOKS OF THE CENTURY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1115.

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." The Diary of Anne Frank is displayed alongside Mein Kampf.

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. Seuss.

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 -- another day.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


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, 1920-23.

James, W., The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Longmans, Green, 1902.

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., 1960.

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: Gauthier-Villars, 1910.

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, 1947.

Milne, A.A., Winnie-the-Pooh. London: Methuen, 1926.

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 Schuster, 1961.

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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