October in the Library: Books that Started Something!
This is a rich category, and includes much besides the hypothetical books that ushered in an exciting new age in driveway design, or maybe changed forever the way we think about the gypsy moth. In our own growing collection we have two novels that have, arguably, started wars: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (JC 177 A5 1993; published in 1776), and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (PS 2954 U5 1960; published in 1852). If you prefer less sanguinary reading, but still harbor a taste for the bizarre, Mary Shelley’s well-known Frankenstein (PR 5397 F7 2008; published in 1818) has been called the first science fiction novel, among its other achievements.
I asked librarians Larry Gainor and Jane Stimpson to root around upstairs for books that started something.
Larry came back with Terry McMillan’s 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale (PS 3563 C3868 W35 1992). Exhale was perhaps the first novel to bring the personal lives and challenges of successful African-American middle-class women to a large audience. It was a bestseller, and was made into a movie in 1995. Speaking of starting something, Ms. McMillan’s interest in books started with the job she got in a library when she was 16, or so I’m told at the Goodreads website.
Larry also found Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 study Against Our Will, the first book to bring wide public attention to sexual assault. If you’re convinced that such assaults are not the victim’s fault, or that they are crimes of power and not lust, you are in Ms. Brownmiller’s debt. It is largely through her groundbreaking work that these concepts are now considered basic and unimpeachable wisdom. The book is still in print.
Jane made it back downstairs with several classic firsts. Jessica Mitford’s exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death (HD 9999 U53 U554), is still in print in a revised edition, and getting the same enthusiastic reviews that the original got in 1963. Before then the mortuary industry was a necessary, off-putting trade, but beyond scrutiny. Her book was the first to look closely at their slick business practices. Her literate and engaging prose enlivens what would otherwise still be a revealing look at the dour business. A convincing majority of the book’s many Amazon reviewers had no problem giving it five stars, and quite a few of those correctly cited Ms. Mitford’s humor as a defining quality of the book.
While we’re chasing grim topics, Jane also found a nifty two-volume Everyman’s Library edition of Samuel Richardson’s sluggish and overstuffed Pamela (PR 3664 P3 1974, vols. 1 and 2), first published in 1740. The title page of the first edition reads Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. In A Series of Familiar Letters From a Beautiful Young Damsel, To Her Parents, and when you reflect that this is what Mr. Richardson does to the book’s title, you can little wonder that poor Miss Pamela’s correspondence stretches out to two volumes of dinky type. Although I spent the greater part of the 1970s as an English major I somehow avoided Pam. One friend in my dorm wasn’t so lucky; he got stuck reading Clarissa, Mr. Richardson’s next novel. I still remember the trouble he had even pretending to convince his instructor that he had read more than representative snippets of the darned thing. His earnest and colorful denunciations of Mr. Richardson and all his works seemed a bit overripe to me at the time, but with the perspective afforded by age I think I now understand. I’m not telling you why Pamela is still considered a literary prototype because then you might want to read it, and reading it, you would never speak to me again, and I value your friendship.
Jane then came up with Silent Spring (QH 545 P4 C38 2002), Rachel Carson’s 1962 indictment of the overuse of pesticides. The book is credited with fostering the widespread acceptance of environmentalism. You cynics out there won’t be surprised to learn, if you couldn’t guess already, that Ms. Carson’s testimony against DDT provoked howling denunciations of her research, and indeed, her personal life as well, from the powerful corporations whose profits depended on the insecticide’s unimpeded use.
South Campus Library Director