Social Studies

LOC Weighs In: The Books That Shaped America

By Ellen Wexler — June 27, 2012 2 min read
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The Library of Congress, as a part of its multiyear “Celebration of the Book” exhibition, recently opened “Books That Shaped America.” Located in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, the exhibition is displaying editions of books held by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The Library of Congress has posted the initial list of books online and hopes it will generate a nationwide discussion and debate about American literature.

The list is not meant to be the definitive compilation of America’s greatest literature. Instead, there is only one qualification a book must meet to make the list: It must have been exceptionally influential.

Many of these are the books that spurred controversy, as The Washington Post reported. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Silent Spring to Atlas Shrugged, these are the books that prompted the strongest responses, strayed the farthest from the mainstream, or challenged accepted ideology. In short, these books made the list because they shocked people. They either initiated widespread reform or generated passionate opposition—either way, we have remembered them as a result.

Some books on the list are the instructional kind that have a prominent spot on our national bookshelf. Many Americans have turned to these books over the years in hopes of learning how to cook (Joy of Cooking), how to be successful (How to Win Friends and Influence People), or how to raise our children (The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care). Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the lasting impact of these books, is that people sought out their pages over the years with the specific intent of making changes to their lifestyles.

Others are on the list because of their popularity. They may not have changed the way we see the world, but they’re the books we’ll remember just because we liked them. Many of these are classic children’s stories, like Goodnight Moon and Charlotte’s Web, that have maintained the interest of generations of readers.

There are currently 88 titles on the list. With so many books left out, the list has the potential to create debate—and this is exactly what the Library of Congress would like to occur. A survey on the Library of Congress’ website invites readers to share their thoughts on the list and their suggestions for what it should or shouldn’t include. According to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, “the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives.”

And it already has. “Shouldn’t the work of the pioneer-iconoclast H.L. Mencken be represented?,” argues Michael Dirda of The Washington Post. “And where is the great storyteller of our generation, Stephen King?”

The “Books That Shaped America” exhibition will be on display from June 25 through Sept. 29. The book list and the exhibition, in addition to initiating nationwide conversation about literature, are meant to promote one of the largest events in the “Celebration of the Book” project, the National Book Festival in Washington. The festival will be held on the National Mall on Sept. 22-23, as we’ve mentioned previously on BookMarks.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.