U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reflections on the "Books That Shaped America": Questions, Answers, and More Questions

The Library of Congress has fashioned an exhibit that will surely be of interest to intellectual historians. The exhibit, “Books That Shaped America,” lists 88 works that the LOC calls “a starting point—a way to spark a national conversation on books and their importance in Americans’ lives, and, indeed, in shaping our nation.”  They add (bolds mine):

The titles featured here (by American authors) have had a profound effect on American life, but they are by no means the only influential ones. And they are certainly not a list of the “best” American books, because that, again, is a matter of strong and diverse opinion. Curators and experts from throughout the Library of Congress contributed their choices, but there was much debate—even agony—in having to remove worthy titles from a much larger list in order to accommodate the physical constraints of this exhibition space.

Some of the titles on display have been the source of great controversy, even derision, yet they nevertheless shaped Americans’ views of their world and often the world’s view of the United States. As you go through this exhibition, we hope the books you see will inspire you to think of other “books that shaped America” and that you will share your choices for future lists at www.loc.gov/bookfest. Please tell us how you think your book shaped America.

This online survey adds to the exhibit by asking viewers a few questions, the first of which is as follows: “Which THREE of these books do you think shaped America the most profoundly?”

According to the Chicago Tribune article wherein I learned of the exhibit, it appears most of the press release above was authored by James H. Billington, the thirteenth Librarian of the United States Congress (sworn in September 1987). Billington was trained as a historian (PhD, Oxford Balliol) and taught at both Harvard and Princeton from 1957-1973.

With only a little reflection, the most surprising thing about the list is that it is ahistorical. The list does not specify whether we are to judge these “books that shaped America” based on America today or on the America affected by the book shortly after the publication of each. I assume they mean today—which makes the exercise exceedingly difficult for both the professional historian and the lay person. What intelligent thing(s) are we supposed to say about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852, in relation to 2012?

All lists are controlled by space. That is one the things that makes them controversial. That limitation exacerbates perceived poor choices. Limitations give rise to complaints. As such, I wondered why the LOC stopped at 88 books? The press release above notes that “exhibition space controlled the size of their list. Fair enough. To show actual books, one must deal with the material size of the book, exhibit cases, room for text, and room for viewers to maneuver. So those factors probably explain the number 88. But those factors do not absolve one from poor selection criteria—for poor exhibit conception.

Because of these factors I looked at the online survey and threw up my hands in confusion. The selection criteria are not outlined in the obvious parts of the exhibit through which I surfed. Even so, I went ahead gave an answer to the first question in order to see the rest of the survey. I chose The Private Life of the late Benjamin Franklin  (more commonly called The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin—I have no idea why they chose to use the more obscure title), Thoreau’s Walden, and Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (for whimsy’s sake).  


Here is question two: “Which ONE of these books had the most impact on YOU, personally, rather than America as a whole.”  Here I chose Melville’s Moby Dick.  Question three, on this same page, asks “Please describe how this book changed you.” I answered in a brief fashion to move the survey along: “I first read this in high school and it opened my mind to the complexities possible in a novel, in one’s private life, and in the process of chasing our goals.”

Question four asks: “What book that is NOT on our list should be? (Title and author, please.)”

Can anyone predict my answer?  … … Again, I chose to have a little fun here:

Mortimer J. Adler’s *How to Read a Book* (1940).

Question five asks: ” Tell us why your nominee should be added to the list.”  Here was my off-the-cuff, lightly edited answer (edited more here than there):

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After its publication in 1940, Adler’s *How to Read a Book* set in motion a chain of events with no conclusion in sight. Indeed, this survey and the and the “Books That Shaped America” exhibit is a part of that historical chain. How? What are the events to which you are [I am] referring? Here’s how—as briefly as possible: 

Adler’s book laid out a plan to improve upon the population’s basic literacy skills. He linked the need for improvement with an imperative for thoughtful citizenship. At the end of the book he provided a list of books (Western in nature) on which one should practice the skills he laid out in *How to Read a Book*. That list, known now as “The Great Books,” inspired thousands of people in the 1940s—diverse in terms of wealth, gender, religion, and race—to set up Great Books reading groups. One of those readers was William Benton, who used his position (i.e. CEO) at Encyclopaedia Britannica to hire Adler (among others) to publish the *The Great Books of the Western World*. That set sold thousands of copies, but Great Books reading groups also proliferated due to the work of the Great Books Foundation (which also lists Adler as a founder). The great books idea has since inspired regular readers (young and old), as well as college students via their professors, to challenge themselves to read the very best books ever published. The great books idea has also undergone renovation. In the wake of a heightened awareness of American diversity that has occurred since the 1950s and 1960s, today the great books idea exists in the form of a plurality of lists about the best books. Even so, readers are still living with the challenge to read the very best books—to obtain the highest form of literacy possible in relation to being both the best thinker and citizen. And the great books idea lives on in college curricula and in library-sponsored reading groups for general citizens outside of education institutions.

I would argue that Adler’s book inspired the creators of this very exhibit. We have been asking ourselves all through the twentieth century how we can navigate, in time with our limited energies and life span, the plethora of books in print. This exhibit and Adler’s list(s) provide starting points for endless revision in relation to our changed historical circumstances.

This is why Adler’s *How to Read a Book* should be on your list. It is “the book” which has challenged [people] since publication to choose the best books for close reading (and rereading). It is the book which linked excellence in reading with excellence in citizenship. 

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So my answer was not that brief. And with it I ended up taking the survey more seriously than I intended. As for the rest of the survey, questions six through eight asked demographic questions: What is your state and/or country? What is your age? What is your gender?

How about you? What are your thoughts on the exhibit? What of my nominations and answers to the survey questions? – TL

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Here’s the list of 88—from the Chicago Tribune article, sorted by title, A-L here, and M-Z in the next comment:

    “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (1884)
    “Alcoholics Anonymous” by anonymous (1939)
    “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons (1796)
    “The American Woman’s Home” by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
    “And the Band Played On” by Randy Shilts (1987)
    “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand (1957)
    “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)
    “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1987)
    “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown (1970)
    “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London (1903)
    “The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss (1957)
    “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)
    “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger (1951)
    “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White (1952)
    “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine (1776)
    “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” by Benjamin Spock (1946)
    “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan (1980)
    “A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible” by anonymous (1788)
    “The Double Helix” by James D. Watson (1968)
    “The Education of Henry Adams” by Henry Adams (1907)
    “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” by Benjamin Franklin (1751)
    “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury (1953)
    “Family Limitation” by Margaret Sanger (1914)
    “The Federalist” by anonymous/ thought to be Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787)
    “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan (1963)
    “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin (1963)
    “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
    “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
    “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown (1947)
    “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language” by Noah Webster (1783)
    “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck (1939)
    “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
    “Harriet, the Moses of Her People” by Sarah H. Bradford (1901)
    “The History of Standard Oil” by Ida Tarbell (1904)
    “History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark” by Meriwether Lewis (1814)
    “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis (1890)
    “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie (1936)
    “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg (1956)
    “The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill (1946)
    “Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures” by Federal Writers’ Project (1937)
    “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (1966)
    “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison (1952)
    “Joy of Cooking” by Irma Rombauer (1931)
    “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair (1906)
    “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman (1855)
    “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving (1820)
    “Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy” by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

    • Part 2:

      “Mark, the Match Boy” by Horatio Alger Jr. (1869)
      “McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Primer” by William Holmes McGuffey (1836)
      “Moby-Dick; or The Whale” by Herman Melville (1851)
      “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass (1845)
      “Native Son” by Richard Wright (1940)
      “New England Primer” by anonymous (1803)
      “New Hampshire” by Robert Frost (1923)
      “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac (1957)
      “Our Bodies, Ourselves” by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (1971)
      “Our Town: A Play” by Thornton Wilder (1938)
      “Peter Parley’s Universal History” by Samuel Goodrich (1837)
      “Poems” by Emily Dickinson (1890)
      “Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth” by Benjamin Franklin (1758)
      “Pragmatism” by William James (1907)
      “The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D.” by Benjamin Franklin (1793)
      “The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane (1895)
      “Red Harvest” by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
      “Riders of the Purple Sage” by Zane Grey (1912)
      “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
      “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” by Alfred C. Kinsey (1948)
      “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson (1962)
      “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
      “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
      “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner (1929)
      “Spring and All” by William Carlos Williams (1923)
      “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert E. Heinlein (1961)
      “A Street in Bronzeville” by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945)
      “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams (1947)
      “A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America” by Christopher Colles (1789)
      “Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
      “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
      “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960)
      “A Treasury of American Folklore” by Benjamin A. Botkin (1944)
      “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith (1943)
      “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
      “Unsafe at Any Speed” by Ralph Nader (1965)
      “Walden; or Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
      “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes (1925)
      “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak (1963)
      “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum (1900)
      “The Words of Cesar Chavez” by Cesar Chavez (2002)

  2. My eyes get crossed the longer I look at the list. I just don’t “get” some of the selections:

    ———————————————
    “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons (1796)
    “And the Band Played On” by Randy Shilts (1987)
    “A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible” by anonymous (1788)
    “The Double Helix” by James D. Watson (1968)
    “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin (1963)
    “Harriet, the Moses of Her People” by Sarah H. Bradford (1901)
    “Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures” by Federal Writers’ Project (1937)
    “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (1966)
    “Mark, the Match Boy” by Horatio Alger Jr. (1869) [Why this particular selection?]
    “Mark, the Match Boy” by Horatio Alger Jr. (1869)
    “Peter Parley’s Universal History” by Samuel Goodrich (1837)
    “Red Harvest” by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
    “Riders of the Purple Sage” by Zane Grey (1912)
    “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert E. Heinlein (1961)
    “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith (1943)
    “The Words of Cesar Chavez” by Cesar Chavez (2002)
    ———————————————

    Why? And I think I’m being generous in only listing these as questionable.

    I understand that some children’s books should be on here, but why *Goodnight Moon* and *A Cat in the Hat* but no Laura Ingalls Wilder?

  3. It’s interesting to think about how a book might change one’s thinking. One doesn’t usually go to a novel to be changed but maybe to be enlightened or to achieve some unexpected understanding.

    I like your answer of “How to read a Book” because it engages you differently from these other books. It overtly is trying to teach you something and you gravitate to it to learn something in a step by step way.

    I would add “The Other America”, Michael Harrington, to this list. I think it opened national eyes and influenced social policy to some degree.

    • *The Other America* is definitely not a bad choice in relation to the others selected. It definitely reset the focus during what many saw (at the time, I think, but definitely in hindsight) as an age of affluence. – TL

  4. A list like this, which tries to incorporate popular genre fiction, children’s books, cook books, etc., is a little odd because it take the structure of “great works,” which are defined as individual texts, and then tries to put texts that represent popular views or genres or cultural “diversity” into the same frame. So, the WPA Guide to Idaho represents the type–I don’t think we’re supposed to think that this was the greatest of the WPA State Guides (maybe I’m wrong about this.) Somebody somewhere said, hey, we need a book that deals with gay life and culture, what can we include? What about that Shilts book on AIDS? Yeah, I think that probably works better than Judith Butler, since it won some journalism prizes and was made into a movie. And we can’t include Giovanni’s Room, because we already have a book by James Baldwin, and nobody gets to have more than one book on the list. And who’s the most important Hispanic figure in American history? Chavez. Did he write any books? Let’s check Amazon on that. Still, even in a list like this I expected to see Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, and Riesman’s Lonely Crowd. But when you’ve got to get your list down to 88, I guess something’s gotta give.

  5. There’s an implicit (I think) assumption that shaped equals positive in this list. Is there a book that shaped America that would have had a negative influence? Did Mein Kampf shape Germany? Is there a linear progression bias in this thinking? Are there notable books that shaped us to our misfortune? Not trying to put a downer on this list but me thinks I smell the odor of exceptionalism.

  6. Where the hell is the King James Bible? I know I’ve said it before, but for frack’s sake — there is not a single text, never mind a single book, that has exerted more influence on American thought and culture. (And yes, I know the Bible is technically not a single book, but it has been so produced, so presented, so received, and so used in that way for centuries.)

    I’d stack up the primary sources (and most of the secondary works!) on my reading list for U.S. Intellectual/Cultural history against this assemblage any day.

    • I think the LOC is talking about Americans talking about Americans, if you know what I mean. Of course if God wants to crash this party I will stand aside and but you know if that happens Locke and the Enlightenment crew can’t be far behind.

  7. The criterion of American authorship could have been met, one supposes, by including an important/influential early American printing of the KJV. I mean, if they’re going to inflict us with such inanities under the criterion of “influence,” I would hardly expect them to nit-pick on the category of authorship.

    Don’t get me wrong — the LOC is my favorite place, virtual or real, in DC. But the curatorial philosophy behind this list/exhibit is bemusing, to say the least.

  8. Did anyone contact the LOC to get more details about the curatorial philosophy? They may be interested (and unaware) of these responses from historians, and we historians may, in turn, learn more about what it means to put on a public exhibition of books, the challenges of meeting wide and diverse audiences, the influence of current ‘culture wars’, etc. I find it hard to believe that the curators turned to Amazon in their quest to find a book to fit a particular niche, as indicated above, but perhaps I’m wrong. Why not ask them???

  9. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos–lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

  10. Anonymous, that’s a great idea. Be sure and let us know what you find out from the good folks at the Smithsonian. That would make for an interesting addition to the discussion.

  11. I’m surprised that Owen Wister’s ‘The Virginian’ is not on the list. Although the Western as a genre is not as popular as it once was, it’s still around. Hollywood still makes some Westerns. And Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’ is a sophisticated literary novel, but arguably it’s also a Western (so is ‘All the Pretty Horses’, prob. more obviously). You can still hear ‘Gunsmoke’ episodes replayed on the radio. All this began w ‘The Virginian’, the book that made the Western an identifiable, popular genre and enshrined the strong, laconic, chivalrous, fair-dealing cowboy in American myth.

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