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Big Apple

December 1, 2014

I thought we might skip this week, since I’m in the Big Apple, but before I left a friend sent me an incensed email. Apparently, the Smithsonian Magazine perpetrated “the dumbest thing I have ever seen from Smithsonian.”

They name the 100 most significant Americans of all time. The caveats accumulate immediately, beginning in the subtitle: “… Smithsonian magazine attempts the impossible: to list out the most significant people in United States history.”

Yes, impossible. My friend’s outrage rises out of the shouting in the headline: Most Significant of All Time. Americans, by which we mean United Staters, have only been around a peace-sign’s worth of centuries.

Who have been most significant during this time, which presumably means having an effect that carries forward to today?

The inventor of the Pet Rock became a millionaire at a time when that was significant, but the Pet Rock was a forgettable fad. Except that it’s not forgotten yet and may have a larger significance for generations to come in the example it sets for people looking to make a buck.

What matters? In part, the answer seems: what sells. My friend takes issue with the Smithsonian methodology, a “Big Data” project: “They have their super duper decoder ring approach to figuring this stuff out as internet meme or something but even there they must be picking over their data like a fat man with a three-day-old turkey carcass because they fail to report …” &c.

The list is really the top ten of ten different lists. It includes Madonna, Sarah Palin, L Ron Hubbard, and so on. The headline misleads because one entire category may fail to surpass someone who would be hundredth place in another one.

The core of my friend’s anger? “Edison represents the entirety of American science and invention.” And he’s there under “Empire Builders” along with Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates, Jobs.

So here’s the difficulty. While even Sarah Palin was of some significance in my life, since I know her name, how significant could she eventually be? It’s true, I did write a poem in which she briefly appears. So she’s more significant than Madonna, who merely created a brief difficulty in my professional life by publishing a book of explicit photographs called “Sex” in 1992.

But compared with even the lowliest Edison employee who helped develop the light bulb, neither of them measure up. It’s a silly exercise, really. The significance of any one person is not hierarchical. We tend to think of significance as a trickle-down effect, but we are all placeholders in a network of effects.

If you find yourself facing the decision to go to war, or holding the hopes of throngs of spiritually striving people, or even awaiting a last pitch in the World Series, your difficulties surpass mine. But you can’t do any of those things alone. You can’t go to war if nobody else goes with you.

Anyway, there are people on this list who—no matter the statistical occurrence of their names on the Internet—are more distraction than influence.

The science journal “Nature” published a list of the 100 most cited articles, but it reveals less about significance and more the vagaries of scientific citation. The most cited article describes an outdated protein assay. Science has moved on, the most significant changes writing themselves into the body of knowledge without requiring further citation.

Which brings us to my point: Which books have been most significant to you? I’m not looking for a list of best books or books that everyone “should” read or books that “will change your life.” I want to know what changed yours, and how. Let me know.

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