"Books That Shaped America" According to the Library of Congress

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 13:14

Staff at the Library of Congress has come up with a list of 89 books that significantly “shaped Americans’ views of their world and the world’s views of America.” The eclectic list includes poetry, fiction, plays, cookbooks, biographies, self-help, investigative journalism and books for kids. The Bible is not on the list. The earliest book is Benjamin Franklin’s 1751 “Experiments and Observations On Electricity”; the latest, Cesar Chavez’s 2002 “The Words of Cesar Chavez.”

A little history lesson – the Library of Congress, founded in 1800, is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. When the first library building was burned by the British in 1814, Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library of 6,487 books to replace the destroyed volumes. A copyright law passed in 1870 required all copyright applicants to send two copies of their work to the Library, immediately skyrocketing its collection numbers. Today, the LoC is the largest library in the world with a collection containing more than 144 million items. Huge, but still in the Interlibrary Loan chain – I borrowed an obscure Australian book on motorcycles from the LoC just a couple of months ago.

The list of books is intriguing.

Only one author has multiple books: Benjamin Franklin with three. His book on electricity marked the first time an American gained an international reputation for scientific work. In America, he was best known for his wit and wisdom, reflected in almanacs such as “Poor Richard Improved” (1758). His autobiography, “The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, L.L.D.” is “one of the most influential memoirs in American literature.”

Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (1776), which helped launch the American Revolution is a no-brainer, as is “The Federalist” (1787), “now considered to be the most significant American Contribution to political thought.” But what about Amelia Simmons’s “American Cookery (1796)? This is the first American-written cookbook to include native American ingredients never before seen in recipes.

Fiction, the largest category with 29 titles, is a list of American classics: “To Kill A Mockingbird” (Harper Lee, 1960), “Catch-22” (Joseph Heller, 1961), “The Catcher in the Rye” (J.D. Salinger 1951), “Fahrenheit 451” (Ray Bradbury, 1953), “Moby-Dick” (Herman Melville, 1851), “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852), “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ernest Hemingway, 1940); “Gone With The Wind” (Margaret Mitchell, 1936); “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith, 1943), “Tarzan of the Apes” (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1914). William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Lousia May Alcott, Toni Morrison, Robert E. Heinlein, Zane Grey, Richard Wright, Ayn Rand, Horatio Alger Jr., Washington Irving – all famous authors on the list.

Three authors and their books are not so well-known. One – Benjamin A. Botkin’s “A Treasury of American Folklore” (1944) is featured because of his unique collection. However, the other writers – Zora Neale Hurston (“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” 1937) and Ralph Ellison (“Invisible Man,” 1952) – are African-American writers whose works never received wide recognition.

Three plays: “Our Town,” “The Iceman Cometh,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” are included. Volumes by poets Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Allen Ginsberg made the list.

Many of the non-fiction books shook up American’s view of itself and ultimately led to a widening of perspective: “The Feminine Mystique,” “The Jungle,” “And The Band Played On,” “Silent Spring,” “Unsafe At Any Speed,” and “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee,” among others.

The books for kids are still popular today: “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “Goodnight Moon,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Snowy Day” and “Where the Wild Things Are.”

The “Books That Shaped America” list is designed to stimulate discussion. Did they get it right? If you don’t agree or want to make nominations of your own, go to http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2012/12-123.html for a complete list of the books, its description and reasons for being selected. And, if you are interested in reading the books, most of them are available through the Anchorage Public Library system. If APL doesn’t have a volume? Well, you can always reach out to the Library of Congress through Interlibrary Loan.


Toni Massari McPherson is the Community Relations Coordinator for Anchorage Public Library. Reach her at [email protected].

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