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):
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.
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