In late 2008 I was offered a position for which I later realized I was not qualified. Since I needed a job, and since no background or credit check was required, and since it paid nineteen dollars an hour and was as close to a dream job as I could imagine, I took it. The task: compile a list of the 1,500 most important works of literature, catalog them, buy them, and install them in my new employer’s private library, a tastefully converted attic space lined with empty, dedicated shelves in an old Austin house not far from the University of Texas. JB, my employer, a man of some means, explained that he wished to retire early from medicine, a job of some means, and have immediately at hand all the literature that matters. The Victorians would have classified this a gentleman’s library…
I adored this essay, as of course I would, starting as it does with a duo of pre-starts: a subtitle, followed by an abstract (both of which are available online in the substantial excerpt provided by The Believer). After that tone-establishing prelude, it settles down to a more standard narrative, albeit with tongue firmly retained in cheek throughout. And it’s about books. What could be better?
Cotter starts by defining the boundaries of literature: “fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and orature. In other words, everything.” Except for a few prohibited categories: no musical theatre, journalism, single letters, or technical papers, etc., but of course he then includes works in these very categories, works that still reek of “literature” and are indisputably important:
“…Le code civil des Français, for example, is a code of very civilized civil law so elegantly and economically composed that the entire text of the first edition formed a volume about the size of a hardcover of Gone With The Wind….Also excepted: Einstein’s letters to Roosevelt, the charter of the nuclear arms race.
Sojourner Truth’s “Aint I A Woman?” – word for word the most powerful antislavery speech ever delivered; Emile Zola’s J’accuse…!….Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s last theorem, a 106-page solution to the most famous unsolved problem in mathematics, at least up until 1995. Evidently only two or three people understand it. (it is unknown whether Wiles is one of them.)….
He gives us his twelve criteria for “important” (including such benchmarks as longevity, generation of controversy, baptism of a new genre, or a seminal place in a social, political, or religious movement) and his research sources, which range from Wikipedia to Bloom’s The Western Canon (funny, that seemed so controversial back then, but how narrow-minded can it be if it lists S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a book I adored as a 1960s teenager, unaware it would become a generational touchstone?).
Some of the technical details of both gathering these books (how would one include a book which, though available online, insists that the only permissible reproduction is in a handwritten copy, to be buried with the copyist on his death, under penalty of the author’s damning curse?), and cataloging them:
In addition to walls lined with books awaiting his retirement, part of JB’s vision for his library was an accompanying sortable database in which each work would be catalogued, described, summarized, reviewed, and appended with numerous tags. If, say, JB was in the mood for seventeenth-century Ethiopic philosophy, the ideal database would respond to a search for those three tags by returning 1667’s Hatata, by Yacob Zera, north Africa’s greatest ethicist.
What Cotter first estimated would take him a couple of weeks, became a plan for a year-long project, and stretched to two still in the planning phases; it still seems to be an ongoing mission, in fact.
I think this could be classified as a “What Would You Do” piece: How would you select works for such a library? But it’s also a technical piece, and, in itself, a mini-catalog (in addition to the works named in the piece – and there are far more than I’ve included here – Cotter has an appendix, helpfully available online at The Believer). And a wonderful read.
Pushcart knocked it out of the park when they chose nonfiction; I’m surprised that it’s been my favorite part of this read. This is the last NF in this year’s volume (I ran out of fiction a while ago, but there’s still a bit of poetry to go) and I’ll miss it. But there’s always next year – and I could go back to all the years I missed.