Saturday, July 7, 2012

The 88 Books That Shaped America

There are endless lists of must-read literature propagated in newspapers, magazines and Internet sites all over the world. Nonetheless, you'd be hard-pressed to find one that contains both Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat (1957) and Alfred C. Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). That is, until the United States Library of Congress recently released its tally of the "Books That Shaped America."

In conjunction with the Library's 2012 National Book Festival, to take place this coming September 22nd and 23rd on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the Library tasked its librarians and curators with assembling a list of the books written by American authors over the past 26 decades that have most significantly influenced the way Americans perceive themselves and the world, and in turn, the way the world views America and its people. After due deliberation and debate, the Library's team presented its conclusions. Beginning with the 1751 publication of Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity, and finishing with The Works of Cesar Chavez, published in 2002, the list sets forth 88 books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry that reflect the evolution of American thought on an array of subjects including politics, culture, race, sexual relations, child-rearing, and even cooking.

(Note, the list is restricted to American authors. Were it not, it would be difficult to explain the absence from it of scads of books such as the Bible, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, and maybe even -- based on recent sales data -- 50 Shades of Grey.)

So, who made the list? You can check that out for yourself by clicking here. But until you make that click, some highlights are in order. The "author" who appears most frequently on the list is Anonymous, for his (or her) four works Alcoholics Anonymous (1939), A Curious Hieroglyphik Bible (1788), The Federalist (1787), and New England Primer (1803). Only one other author makes the list more than once, and that is the afore-mentioned Mr. Franklin. In addition to his book on electricity Ben charts twice again, with Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth (1758), and The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D. (1793). The remaining 79 entries run the gamut of tastes, styles and mores over the past two and half centuries of American composition. Some of those other books, you might well expect to find on the list. Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is there, as is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), and Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).

On the other hand, some of the books that made the cut might leave you curious, bemused, or even aggrieved. Two cookbooks are on the list (Amelia Simmons' 1796 culinary guide American Cookery, and Irma Rombauer's 1931 tome Joy of Cooking). The Common Sense Book of Baby Care, released in 1946 by Benjamin Spock, joins the ranks along with Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963), Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in 1971 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon (1947), and Allen Ginsburg's 1956 beat poetry anthology, Howl.

As interesting to contemplate as the authors and books that are included on the list, are those that aren't. The hugely prolific and popular Stephen King is arguably the modern American counterpart to the Brothers Grimm, but the list features not one of his novels. None of The Godfather (Mario Puzo, 1969), The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper, 1826), Bernstein & Woodward's All the President's Men (1974), or Jaws (the novel Peter Benchley published in 1974 that forever changed our relationship with saltwater beaches and effectively launched Steven Spielberg's career) are on the list. Nor is any collection published by Edgar Allan Poe, who is routinely credited with the invention of the detective story that has been the bread-and-butter of a massive swath of literary, and later television and movie entertainment, since "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" first came to light in 1841.

Incidentally, if cookbooks are eligible to make the list, I'm comfortable venturing just a bit further afield. Action Comics #1 (1938) wove inextricably into the American fabric Jerry Siegel's and Joe Shuster's seminal creation, the virtually indomitable hero Superman. It should be on the list. So too should Richard Sears' Sears Catalog. First published in 1888, the hefty catalog (and its later Sears & Roebuck Company editions) helped fuel westward continental expansion, and paved the way for the American mail order business so vital to Internet behemoth and its ilk to this day.

You'll agree with some of the selections on the Library's list, disagree with others, and lament like me over exclusions that seem arbitrary, myopic, or unjust. Besides, 88 is a strange number for a "best of" type list, don't you think? Round it up to an even century, if for nothing but appearance's sake, and at least some controversy could be stilled. That said, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington cautions that this list is merely "a starting point." Billington says the list is intended to "spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not."

Nothing by Hunter S. Thompson? I'm feeling grievously sparked already.

"Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else."
~~ Fred McFeely Rogers~~


  1. How much more politically correct can you get that than this list. Wow. So many cater to minority people and minority thought. Important to some but nothing to do with shaping society as a whole or the direction of the country in thought or action. Obviously placed on the list to pacify the educational establishment. Many good choices but not a list I would share with ordinary citizens or successful people and especially not children.

  2. The Joy of Cooking is actually a good addition to the list. More or less every family in America had that book, and parents would give it to their kids going to college, etc. -- for decades, it was the definitive book around which American family meals were planned. Similarly, Spock's (now largely discredited) book on child-rearing was in almost every home in the 1950's and 60's and it was the first serious book-with-a-plan on raising a child ever released in this country. Both of these books had enormous influence on our culture and our lives. Now, that other cookbook, I've never heard of.

  3. And Unsafe at Any Speed single-handedly changed the auto industry. Before it was published, there was very little information available to the public on the unsafe aspects of the vehicles we drive. We owe seatbelts to that book. Its influence shouldn't be underestimated.