Who Belongs in the Library of America?

pk-dickA critic for Newsweek, Malcolm Jones, recently published an online piece suggesting that recent writers and subjects selected for inclusion in Library of America are not worthy of the honor. To some degree, Jones is guilty of garden variety snobbery–biases at least as old as those held by 1890s librarians who wanted to keep the patrons from wasting there time on fiction. Genre writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, or Philip K. Dick just can’t be worthy of inclusion in any canon. Subject matters like baseball, food, or travel pieces just can’t be of enough import to merit the honor.

Jones isn’t an absolute snob, he just finds recent choices for Library of America editions arbitrary. He wants LOA to battle for the rights to Hemingway, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot before they go after more recent writers. Jones likes James M. Cain and doesn’t complain about the Hammett or Chandler volumes, so apparently crime fiction is sometimes OK. He doesn’t hate Raymond Carver or John Ashbery, but seems to think they should have waited quietly in their graves a little longer before being re-interred in the famous elegant black volumes with the thin paper. But even John Cheever, one of my favorite short story writers and a choice I would think would not be controversial, incurs his wrath.

What do you think? Is Library of America, as Jones puts it, jumping the literary shark? This would make a fine theme for an upcoming book group. The LOA catalog is online at http://www.loa.org. Most libraries will have many of the LOA editions available for your readers. Pick the volume of your choice (or the equivalent works in another edition) and make the case on its worthiness for inclusion in the American literary canon.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On... Fantasy Fiction and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups.

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