Minnesota Historical Society: 150 Best Minnesota Books

MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Ok. The hardest part is just getting started. Do I begin at the beginning, with the earliest indispensable Minnesota book? Father Hennepin’s books will surely make the list. Or do I attempt the impossible; begin with the least important book on the list and end with a drum role and suggest the ultimate state volume?  Since I’m not ready to pronounce The Leaches of Minnesota less important than The Great Gatsby, let’s jump right into the middle of this.

Today is grey and cold. I am in a dark mood so very, very uncharacteristic of the Irish. It does remind me of another ethnic group’s stereotype, however, so we will begin our Best Minnesota Books list with two Norwegian-Minnesotans.  

Thorstein Veblen Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. New York: Macmillan Company, 1899.

O[le] E[dvart] Rolvaag Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927. 

Veblen’s provocative and seminal first book is the only one on our list that is also on the Grolier Club’s list of One Hundred Influential American Books Printed before 1900. No one could coin a phrase like Veblen. His term “conspicuous consumption” was perhaps more relevant than ever as McMansions sprung up like dandelions in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. His related concept of “conspicuous waste” plagues us more today than at the time Veblen wrote his treatise. Veblen’s beautiful rhetoric reminds me of the late William F. Buckley. The last line of Theory, for example, is: “The advantage of the accredited locutions lies in their reputability; they are reputable because they are cumbrous and out of date, and therefore argue waste of time and exemption from the use and the need of direct and forcible speech.” The price of a first edition of this book is beyond most collectors’ means. There are nice copies available however; John Kenneth Galbraith wrote the introduction for a 1973 reprint of Theory and several variant editions are currently in print, including one retitled Conspicuous Consumption.

Rolvaag’s book was first published in Norwegian under the inexplicably dull title I de Dage or “In Those Days.” There is no more powerful description of pioneer life in this region than Giants and no better example of how fiction can enhance historical understanding. I love to phone my non-Minnesota friends – who don’t understand the harsh life of the Upper Mid-Westerner – and read the last paragraphs of this beautiful novel. It is worth giving away the ending. Collectors will want to find the beautiful but rare first edition, with the woodcut image of a sod house on the dust jacket. O. E. does the same great job describing the urban immigrant experience in his 1933 The Boat of Longing, which is another “must read.”

Check back to see if Boat eventually makes our list of 150 Best Minnesota Books.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jon Larson on 05/08/2008 - 03:23 pm.

    Thank you for this. Any Minnesotan who has not read Veblen and Rolvaag has truly missed out on the best books for understanding the Minnesota our grandparents built.

    The Minnesota home of Thorstein Veblen is in excellent shape. For further info see:
    http://elegant-technology.com/EThistoryBASE.html

    The Rolvaag home in Northfield Minnesota is occupied by a grand-daughter and her Lutheran minister husband. He is the preacher at Gol Lutheran near Kenyon which is probably the best example of immigrant building in stone that is still operating as a church.

    The Valley Grove Lutheran Church on the edge of the Big Woods State Park near Northfield, where Thorstein Veblen was confirmed and his parents are buried, has been extensively renovated. Repairs done just last winter have added at least a hundred years onto the life of the 1862 stone church.

    They have a website at:
    http://www.valleygrovemn.com

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