Some People's History of the Century: Not Everybody's, and Very Slowly

Today I offer a frustratingly joyful--if joyfully frustrated--celebration of a book which seems to have been written just for you, by which I mean me, us. It arrives to meet a need, answer a desire. It's impossible, finally, for The Bibliofella not to share without also going on and on, and in this unquenchable need to inspire delight in others (you) he cannot shut up. Somebody will like it, maybe even lots of readers, but likely never enough to suit me and my ridiculous expectation that it become a runaway bestseller, coffee table presence, book club pick, water cooler conversation, city-wide group read in towns, villages and municipalities from sea to shining sea. This phenomenon, called (by me), Wish Half-fullfillment suggests an excited crush, sexual tension, like foreplay, if that's not too frisky for you on a Sunday morning. Someday I will write an essay about trying to share this variety of obnoxious joy with others --"You Must Read - Like, Embrace - This!"--with a special version for students, who often resist it. Too much sincere. Too much enthusiasm, Professor Andrew. I will title that particular essay "Pedagogy of the Unimpressed," after Paolo Freire, who is not included in Professor Peter Dreier's new book because he was not "American" as in USA, though he was, of course, one of the greatest humans of the 20th, or any, century. 
Because, yes, as Whitman said, good books require good readers.  And, put more generously, reading requires resonance, a kind of near-human presence looking over the shoulder, of another reader who is you, or like you, or at least, cheering along with you when the book is happening.  Theater. Chorus. Community.

The book that's got me too stupidly overexcited is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame by Peter Dreier, whose CV is as long as your arm. He teaches at Occidental, and is a journalist you've heard on public radio and read in The American Prospect and at the Huffington Post. Or should have. He's chair of the Cry Wolf Project a nonprofit think tank that fact-checks the Chamber of Commerce-types, who spend a lot of money telling us that health, safety and environmental regulation is expensive, bad and anti-American. 

So, no, scholar, teacher, journalist and activist Dreier's collection of a hundred two or three-page profiles of "greatest" Americans is not going to be some apolitical or, worse, reactionary please-all Reader's Digest or Parade or TIME magazine deal about who some Americans "say" in some contrived poll that they admire most, usually the First Lady and Princess Diana and an astronaut and a general and a baseball player.  It's not about monetizing power or sexuality or about killing people.

In fact, the introduction to The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century starts off provocatively fun with a definition, a polemic, and distinguishes itself from other lists by excluding Americans who the professor says did "not contribute to making America a more just, equal, or democratic society." Conspicuously, justifiably absent are John Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Thomas Watson, Sam Walton, Ray Kroc or Bill Gates, to name a few. In this way the book is both predictably satisfying and also a discovery, with plenty of names new to this amateur Lefty history scholar--and a generous "B" list of another fifty of Dreier's favorites, including a bunch more of my own, including Bernice Johnson Reagon, singer and musicologist and founder of one of the greatest singing ensembles ever, Sweet Honey in the Rock.

I could go through the entire contents, which include bios of Eugene Debs, Teddy Roosevelt, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emma Goldman, A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Paul Robeson, Lyndon Johnson (!) and Dr. Seuss. For now, you might like to know that the first entry is of Tom Johnson, progressive mayor of Cleveland, Ohio and an early reformer and builder of public projects, including its famous park system and municipally-owned electric utility, later defended by Mayor Dennis Kucinich against the privatizers. 

Sure, you can read it in any order you like, but the "greatest" list ends with genius playwright and activist Tony "Angels in America" Kushner.  Friends, if you think I have trouble explaining my enthusiasm and containing my joy about books and art, imagine what it's been like to have met adulthood and its possibilities and challenges with the election of Ronald Reagan. And the subsequent drift toward so-called "conservatism," with the odious Bill Clinton and two Bushies.  I am still feeling betrayed, angry, and going on and on about how that happened!  "Anger is an energy," thankfully.  So I really appreciated Dreier helpfully quoting Kushner, circa 1995, who contextualizes this reader-citizen's experience.

"What used to be called liberal is now called radical. What used to be called radical is now called insane. What used to be called reactionary is now called moderate. And what used to be called insane is now called solid conservative thinking."

Dig it. John Cage didn't make it. Neither did Laurie Anderson. So I'll share the anecdote, real or apocryphal, about these two great artist-musicians, toward further framing my own appreciation of Dreier's encyclopedia of Greats. Anderson is supposed to have asked Cage if life was, generally, getting worse or better.  "Of course it's getting better," Cage replied."It's just that it is happening so slowly."

But in his clearly life and struggle-affirming collection of portraits of some of the greatest citizen-activists in the history of our republic, Peter Dreier might fool us into seeing something like progress, and reconsidering our view, and even Cage's. Reading these lovely sketches, of real people (with failings, tragedies, mistakes made) he seems to me to add lightning velocity to betterness and betterhood. Even greatness, if without the arrogance and chauvinism which that word often suggests a la the chanters of "USA, USA" and dumb flag-wavery. (By the way, did anybody else just love the NASA folks yelling "Science, science, science!" the other day, upon successfully landing their Rover on Mars, and not, say, "God!" or "USA" or "Capitalism!"?)

RIP:  David Rakoff, (1964-2012) truly great naturalized American writer, born in Canada.  He wrote about his bumpy, funny, ironic path to citizenship in Don't Get Too Comfortable. one of three great collections of his essays. Rakoff was scheduled as a guest on Bibliocracy earlier this year, when he was in the lineup for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, but he got sicker and cancelled. That was in April.  Now he's gone, if immortal on the shelf, which seemed to be his goal. An extremely smart, humane, funny writer. I heard his voice on Terry Gross's Fresh Air the other night, on my way to see Ladysmith Black 
Mambazo singing and dancing under the stars (and the big orange balloon) at the terrific Irvine Great Park outdoor concert series, and I found myself feeling that emptiness which only half-fullfillment can, well, attempt to assuage.   

The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, Peter Dreier, Nation Books, 500 pps., $19.99

Half Empty, David Rakoff, Doubleday, 250 pps., $24.95

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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