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Literary Letdown

Why is technology so conspicuously absent from the roster of the century’s greatest books?

Last year, to celebrate the centennial of its founding, the New York Public Library mounted a show entitled “Books of the Century.” All the librarians-from 4 central research facilities and 82 neighborhood branches-were asked to suggest books published during the past 100 years that had “a significant influence, consequence, or resonance.” From more than 1,100 titles recommended, 159 were selected for the exhibition. Now, a year later, the library has issued a book summarizing the contents of the show.

Browsing through this attractively presented slim volume, I was at first enthralled. Each entry is described and justified in an informative one-page essay. Selections include works by literary greats such as Proust, Kafka, Chekhov, and Joyce; influential near-greats such as Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and popular mass-audience writers like Zane Grey, Agatha Christie, and Stephen King. But “literature,” in the usual sense, is just the beginning. The richly varied list ranges from volumes by Dr. Spock, Emily Post, and Dale Carnegie, to those by Malcom X, Churchill, Hitler, and Mao.

Combining the diversion of a parlor game with the satisfactions of a history lesson, Books of the Century is delightful to peruse. But when I looked at the project afresh, this time through the eyes of an engineer, my mood soured abruptly.

Science is nicely represented-in works by Einstein, Marie Curie, James Watson (The Double Helix), Edward Wilson (The Diversity of Life), and a few other volumes less well known but clearly deserving. For engineering, however, one must look under a section entitled “Economics & Technology” to find only the following three selections: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, a “sardonic critique” of mid-twentieth-century city planning; Super Highway-Super Hoax, by Helen Leavitt, an “impassioned polemic” against the people responsible for the interstate highway system; and Small Is Beautiful, by E. F. Schumacher, whose ideas about appropriate technology evolved because he was “disillusioned with Western materialism.” That’s about it for engineers, unless you want to count The Whole Internet User’s Guide & Catalog. Out of the past hundred years, these are the books chosen to represent technology and the engineering profession! Let me take a moment to regain my composure.

I will not quarrel with the selections themselves, since concern about technical progress has certainly been part of our cultural scene during the past century. Nor do I object to the inclusion, in other categories, of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984. But I am moved to ask: Is there absolutely nothing significant, consequential, or resonant written in the past century that affirms technology and the work of engineers?

Interestingly enough, one of eight books that exhibit attendees cited as worthy of inclusion is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This once enormously popular novel, written in 1957, describes how America’s engineers, distressed by government controls and “liberalism,” go on strike until the public comes to its senses. It is not, however, a book that I admire, so its addition as a footnote does nothing to assuage my gloom.

All right then, the librarians of New York might well ask: What specific books do you think should be added? This question brings to mind an effort of a decade ago, when 100 technologists and technology scholars participated in a survey to select “The Great Books in Technology.” At the head of the list of 52 books was Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, first published in 1934. Mumford helped found the field of history of technology and he championed technical creativity before becoming disenchanted in his later years with the dehumanizing influence of “the machine.” Technics and Civilization would have been a good choice for the New York librarians.

Of the many other fine books on the technologists’ list, two had the public impact that could have qualified them for the Books of the Century show. These are Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Most books about technology deal strictly with hardware, sometimes rounded out by consideration of history and social influences. Kidder and Pirsig probe deeper, exploring the emotional aspect of technical work. Their books portray the excitement, joy, and spiritual satisfaction inherent in engineering-in Soul, the design of a new computer; in Zen, the immersion of ego in work with machines.

These remarkable books were celebrated by critics and also sold well. One would have thought that their success-both literary and commercial-would have inspired others to examine the same sources of human experience, but this has not happened. We can only conclude that writers’ misgivings about technology-which date back at least as far as the classical age of Greece-persist to this day.

I am disappointed by the librarians of New York. But I am more disappointed by the ancient and forbidding gulf that still lies between engineering and creative literature. Perhaps calling attention to this gulf will encourage efforts to bridge it.

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