The Library of Congress is currently running an exhibition (both digital and material) entitled Books That Shaped America as part of their multiyear “Celebration of the Book”. There are 88 books in all, and the list is intended to provoke reading, thought, discussion, and additions: According to the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, it is a “starting point… 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.” To contribute to this conversation, you can take a survey on the site. I have found myself thinking about the list quite a bit over the last week or so, and every time I make a mental case on why a certain book should be (or should not be) on the list I go to the exhibit website and read the Library’s rationale.
The books include classic examples of both nonfiction and fiction: the former category includes several works of grammar, cookbooks, scientific books, and quite a few works which call for social reform, pretty understandable given the list’s focus on impact, influence, identity. There are several early primers, but twentieth-century textbooks do not make the grade. Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796) is on the list, along with Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (1931), but not Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (the first to use standardized measurements) or Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook (which really revolutionized the American palate, in my understanding).
A history of how-to: The New England Primer (1802), The American Woman’s Home by Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869) and Dale Carnegie’s incredibly influential How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936).
The fiction works seem more predictable: lots of New England authors, I must say, including Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, Alcott, Dickinson. Washington Irving is on the list, as is, of course, Mark Twain. All the expected southern authors (with the exception of Flannery O’Connor) are included, and many major twentieth-century texts, from The Jungle to In Cold Blood. The list also includes classic children’s books, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Good Night Moon (1947), and Where the Wild Things Are (1973).
Forceful Fiction: Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951).
Actually, I think that children’s literature is a bit over-represented as compared to other genres. And I know I’m biased, but history seems under-represented, as well as economics (Sandburg’s Lincoln? Milton Friedman?). As for fiction, I think I’ve figured out why works by James Fenimore Cooper and Edith Wharton were not included but why no Poe? Certainly The Raven must be put on the list, at the very least.
Antonio Frasconi illustration for/of The Raven, 1959, in the current exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum: Picturing Poe: Illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe’s Stories and Poems.