Friday, December 30, 2005

Back in the 1960s & ‘70s, Marxist theorists, particularly those who practiced some variant of Western Marxism, had a phrase for the retrograde dictatorships of the old Soviet bloc – “actually existing socialism” – the phrase at once captured the realization that there was hardly anything recognizably socialist about any of these regimes, since the state monopoly of all resources was hardly the world Marx envisaged, particularly once the state was in the hands of a murderous & corrupt elite. The term enabled some to envisage new more hopeful projects – everything from the resurrection of Gramsci as a force outside of the Italian Communist Party to student movements in France & the U.S., and it enabled some even to see the commonality between the resistance to the reactionary regimes of the west – the U.S., France, Mexico – and resistance to Stalinism in Poland & Czechoslovakia. But the phrase “actually existing” also carried within itself a certain amount of bad conscience – an implicit acknowledgement that there were things amiss with Marxist theory itself. A recognition that an objective view would have to come to terms not just with the gulag, but with the corporatist socialist parties of the western democracies. And that the blatant failure of “socialism in one country” proved Marx’s prediction that globalization was a pre-requisite.

Consider then another theoretical term nearly as broad (and amorphous) as socialism: canon. Lets see what the 1,001 most common books in the world’s libraries tell us about it. The OCLC has just updated that list. Some 53,548 libraries in 96 countries and territories belong to the OCLC, the worldwide library cooperative.¹

Two books – The Bible & the U.S. Census – dramatically outrank all other items. OCLC libraries possess just under 800,000 copies of the former, some 460,000 copies of the latter. No other item can be found in even as many as 70,000 copies. Indeed, none of the items listed at 750 or below show up even 6,000 times – which is to say that the chances of finding a copy of one of these volumes in your library are about one in nine. The bottom 250 on this list combined have about as many appearances in library collections as the top two items. But even the least of these books lives in pretty rarified terms.

Bowker, which tracks the publishing industry, puts the number of titles issued in the English-speaking world alone at 375,000 in 2004. It’s a hard road for any one volume to get up into this list at all. Only one of the top ten items was written by someone alive during my own lifetime – The Lord of the Rings. And the highest ranked listing by any living author is Jim Davis, who comes in at number 15 for his Garfield books. None of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels make it into the top 200, tho their eventual arrival in the upper reaches is no doubt inevitable. This, as you can see, is an “actually existing” canon, distinct from any one you or I or Mr. Bloom might prefer. It has no theoretical justification. It simply is what is. At the most, you could say that it reflects the reading habits of library users over time.

Not quite half the books on the list are novels, but just 61 of the 1,001 titles listed are poetry – unless you count The Bible, which the OCLC does not. Of those 61 books, no more than ten are by Americans – and that is including Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child Garden of Verses & Bill Martin’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass shows up at number 11 on the poetry list, right behind The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám & Shakespeare’s Sonnets. There are just two twentieth century volumes aimed at adults written by U.S. poets, and they aren’t by Eliot or Frost or Lowell or Stevens or Williams or Pound or Stein. They are Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology & John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benét. Whoda thunk?


¹ That acronym hardly reflects the group’s global mission today – that “O” originally stood for “Ohio” – Ohio College Library Center, to be exact.