Culture War

Library of Congress Picks 88 Unobjectionable Books that "Shaped America"


Atlas Shrugged shaped America? You wouldn't know to look at the place.

The Library of Congress, established by President John Adams, has announced its list of "88 Books that Shaped America," determining that two-thirds of America's cultural history took place in only the last 112 years. 

That at least is the evidence from the publication dates, just 27 of which are from before the twentieth century. Only 20 predate the Civil War. Suck on that, Francis Hopkinson, Susanna Rowson and Charles Brockden Brown! Phyllis Wheatley, you did your people great honor, but you just didn't shape America. 

All those people were big sellers. Hopkinson signed the Declaration of Independence. But even once-popular writers who are still known didn't make the list. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gets shunned. (You know, he's only the guy who came up with "I shot an arrow in the air" and "Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere" and "By the shores of Gitche Gumee…" It's not like he wrote anything hummable.) James Fennimore Cooper is nowhere to be found. Ralph Waldo Emerson doesn't show up. Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe. 

These lists are more or less designed to rub you the wrong way, so I have two big beefs. One is the lack of early literature noted above. The other is the hesitant approach to popular literature — by which I mean popular-in-its-day literature like Maria Susanna Cummins' The Lamplighter — which teach you more about the people and manners of ye olde tymes than do canonical works.

There are some interesting choices. Uncle Sam's bibliophiles held their noses and included Atlas Shrugged, though I think the idea that Ayn Rand's novel shaped America falls under the "if only" rubric. Peter Parley's Universal History sounds like one for the night table. 

There's a pronounced split between "shaping" and literary value. I can grok (cf. Number 73) including Unsafe at Any Speed if you're talking about influence on American law and culture, but Ralph Nader doesn't exactly set the bookstore on fire with his prose stylings. And Moby Dick seems like a reasonable choice for literary attainment, but how can it have shaped America when it was barely read for almost a half-century after its debut? 

If we are talking about shaping America, where's Leon Uris' Exodus, which ignited popular support for Israel while spending years on the bestseller list? Or if we're talking about reflecting America, I'd like to see some mortal favorites like Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything or Jerome Weidman's I Can Get It for You Wholesale, interesting, revelatory books that have sunk into obscurity but could use the help of a big institution to alert readers to their existence. 

It's not like there's a shortage of evangelists. The Library of Congress has a brief video in which officials talk about Important Books, but the real eye-opener is how many high-level employees the national library has. Next time you're wondering why we have no choice but to raise the debt ceiling, keep in mind that we're employing a Librarian of Congress; an associate Librarian, Library Services; a Law Librarian of Congress; a National Ambassador, Young Peoples Literature; a Project Manager, National Books Festival; a Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division; a Reference Librarian; and a Teacher-In-Residence. And the Poet Laureate hasn't even weighed in yet. 

Anyway, here's the full list: 

  • Experiments and Observations on Electricity Benjamin Franklin 1751
  • Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth Benjamin Franklin 1758
  • Common Sense Thomas Paine 1776
  • A Grammatical Institute of the English Language Noah Webster 1783
  • The Federalist anonymous 1787
  • A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible anonymous 1788
  • A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America Christopher Colles 1789
  • The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D. Benjamin Franklin 1793
  • American Cookery Amelia Simmons 1796
  • New England Primer anonymous 1803
  • History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark Meriwether Lewis 1814
  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Washington Irving 1820
  • McGuffey's Newly Revised Eclectic Primer William Holmes McGuffey 1836
  • Peter Parley's Universal History Samuel Goodrich 1837
  • The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass 1845
  • The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne 1850
  • Moby-Dick; or The Whale Herman Melville 1851
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852
  • Walden; or Life in the Woods Henry David Thoreau 1854
  • Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman 1855
  • Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy Louisa May Alcott 1868
  • The American Woman's Home Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe 1869
  • Mark, the Match Boy Horatio Alger Jr. 1869
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain 1884
  • How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis 1890
  • Poems Emily Dickinson 1890
  • The Red Badge of Courage Stephen Crane 1895
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz L. Frank Baum 1900
  • Harriet, the Moses of Her People Sarah H. Bradford 1901
  • The Call of the Wild Jack London 1903
  • The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. Du Bois 1903
  • The History of Standard Oil Ida Tarbell 1904
  • The Jungle Upton Sinclair 1906
  • The Education of Henry Adams Henry Adams 1907
  • Pragmatism William James 1907
  • Riders of the Purple Sage Zane Grey 1912
  • Family Limitation Margaret Sanger 1914
  • Tarzan of the Apes Edgar Rice Burroughs 1914
  • New Hampshire Robert Frost 1923
  • Spring and All William Carlos Williams 1923
  • The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald 1925
  • The Weary Blues Langston Hughes 1925
  • Red Harvest Dashiell Hammett 1929
  • The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner 1929
  • Joy of Cooking Irma Rombauer 1931
  • Gone With the Wind Margaret Mitchell 1936
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie 1936
  • Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures Federal Writers' Project 1937
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston 1937
  • Our Town: A Play Thornton Wilder 1938
  • Alcoholics Anonymous anonymous 1939
  • The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck 1939
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway 1940
  • Native Son Richard Wright 1940
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Betty Smith 1943
  • A Treasury of American Folklore Benjamin A. Botkin 1944
  • A Street in Bronzeville Gwendolyn Brooks 1945
  • The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care Benjamin Spock 1946
  • The Iceman Cometh Eugene O'Neill 1946
  • Goodnight Moon Margaret Wise Brown 1947
  • A Streetcar Named Desire Tennessee Williams 1947
  • Sexual Behavior in the Human Male Alfred C. Kinsey 1948
  • The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger 1951
  • Charlotte's Web E.B. White 1952
  • Invisible Man Ralph Ellison 1952
  • Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury 1953
  • Howl Allen Ginsberg 1956
  • Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand 1957
  • The Cat in the Hat Dr. Seuss 1957
  • On the Road Jack Kerouac 1957
  • To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee 1960
  • Catch-22 Joseph Heller 1961
  • Stranger in a Strange Land Robert E. Heinlein 1961
  • Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962
  • The Snowy Day Ezra Jack Keats 1962
  • The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan 1963
  • The Fire Next Time James Baldwin 1963
  • Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak 1963
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X Malcolm X and Alex Haley 1965
  • Unsafe at Any Speed Ralph Nader 1965
  • In Cold Blood Truman Capote 1966
  • The Double Helix James D. Watson 1968
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Dee Brown 1970
  • Our Bodies, Ourselves Boston Women's Health Book Collective 1971
  • Cosmos Carl Sagan 1980
  • And the Band Played On Randy Shilts 1987
  • Beloved Toni Morrison 1987
  • The Words of Cesar Chavez Cesar Chavez 2002

At least the Brady Bunch and makers of understated arthouse films still give Longfellow his due:

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  1. Hey!! do you a PhD in literature?

    Phuck off.

  2. “And Moby Dick seems like a reasonable choice for literary attainment, but how can it have shaped America when it was barely read for almost a half-century after its debut?”

    ‘Cause it’s assigned reading in Pub Schools nation-wide.

    1. Putting 3 generations of kids to sleep ain’t a bad attainment.

    2. It did provide the inspiration for two Star Trek movies!

    3. I got lucky; never read it in my school.

  3. “The History of Standard Oil Ida Tarbell 1904”

    Pretty sure this was shown to be propaganda.

    1. Silent Spring is on the list despite being 99% bullshit. I guess I have to forgive the list, though, as it is “books that shaped America” and not “books that aren’t bullshit”.

      1. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is the same way. Funny to me is he meant to put people off capitalism, instead put people off meat and started government inspections.

  4. Leaving out Longfellow and Poe is just bizarre, but there are a lot of interesting choices there. They should really have done an even hundred. Ulysses S. Grant’s personal memoirs belong in there, too, and “Life on the Mississippi.” It’s good to see three works by Benjamin Franklin.

    1. And none are his Autobiography, YAY!

      1. My bad, apparently they used the original titles of Autobiography

        I still hated it though.

    2. “Life on the Mississippi.” +1

  5. Come to think of it, it looks like they limited it to one book per author in most cases, so why three for Franklin?

  6. Come to think of it, it looks like they limited it to one book per author in most cases, so why three for Franklin?

  7. catcher in the rye, charlotte’s web, grapes of wrath all there.

    good list

    1. But WTF’s the deal with all the cookbooks?

      1. It’s a nod to future Twilight Zone episodes

  8. If Mittens gets elected look for The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi to knock Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures right out of one of the few token Americana slots.

    I would’ve opted for A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett. Written by Himself over Our Bodies, Ourselves myself.

    1. Why do you hate women?

      1. cooties

        On the other hand, Melville and Twain be damned, GWTW is the single greatest work in American literature.

    2. Really, if we’re talking about shaping America, it’s crazy-town that Joseph Smith’s convenient hallucinations aren’t on there.

  9. No “Sometimes a Great Notion”. EAST COAST BIAS!

  10. Why is there a British book on the list?

    1. The qualification is ‘shaped america’. Was it a requirement that the author be American?

      I once read that a dog-eared copy of Shakespeare was on every nightstand and saloon in the early years of this country’s existence. He was the like the Da Vinci Code author of his time.

      Could you argue that it ‘shaped America’? Hard to say.

  11. Ben Hur?

    Poor Lew Wallace. Still can’t get past Shiloh.

  12. Heinlein but no Asimov?

    1. Say it again. SAY IT AGAIN I DARE YOU!

      1. I still want to know who this Robert E. Heinlein is… I’m familiar with Robert A. Heinlein.

  13. Heinlein but no Asimov?

  14. The Federalist anonymous 1787

    That is wrong. It should either be credited to “Publius” (its not like none of the other 87 werent written under a pen name) or credited to Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.

    Either way, not anonymous.

  15. I was thinking about Roots, made quite a stir for a few years and launched a cottage industry in examining one’s past.

    1. And launched the mini-series, a fad that finally fadded out.

      1. they do have alex haley in the list, though

      2. That show put Jordi from Star Trek on the map. On the map! Shaped America? I’d say that’s a big yes.

  16. Family Limitation Margaret Sanger 1914


    I missed this one.

    Where’s the token gay title? I vote for Naked Lunch

    1. Did you miss And the Band Played On?

      1. And Whitman.

  17. 12 from the 1960s.

    Anyone want to guess the age of the voters?

    Im betting if done again in 100 years, most of those arent on there. Maybe 3 survive.

    1. The Double Helix, Catch-22, Unsafe at Any Speed, Silent Spring, The Feminine Mystique and To Kill a Mockingbird are all influential books (I was born in the late 70s, so it’s not generational bias), even if some may be crap. And that still leaves 6 from the 60s.

  18. No 50 Shades of Gray? For shame.

  19. Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer should be on that list.

  20. I guess they didn’t really claim these books shaped America in a good way.

  21. How exactly did The Double Helix “shape America”?

    1. It was so dry it caused a drought in twenty states. It’s one of only a handful of books I’ve never actually been able to get through due tidal waves of ennui.

  22. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald 1925

    This should be considered a black mark against America. For 30 blissful years, this glorified toilet paper was out of print and not a single fuck was given. A soap opera in print, based on people Fitzgerald knew, which only demonstrates that Fitzgerald nor his friends and associates were all that interesting a group of people.

    1. There’s a fine line between being a contrarian and being wrong.

      1. Though, after I see Baz Luhrmann’s adaption, I might come around to your side.

        1. If you want to see shallow rich people taking on slightly less rich but even shallower people, there are dozens of TV shows that would admirably suit your needs.

          A drama-queen bootlegger is desperate to bang a rich airhead. Death ensues.

          1. So, it ignited America’s interested the exploits of shallow, rich people. This eventually led to Dallas, and didn’t Welch and Gillespie just talk about how Dallas brought down Romanian communism?

            Check and mate!

            1. TV dramas owe more to their forebearers in radio than to the forgettable (and long forgotten) scribblings of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

      2. In this case, Anonymous Coward is absolutely correct. That book is one of the reasons why so few people read. They had it crammed down their throats (along with a bevy of other “classics”) them by well meaning but ignorant high school teachers and figured if all books sucked so hard then there isn’t much point to reading them.

        “Definition of a classic ? something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” – Mark Twain

        1. The Great Gatsby‘s legacy arose from its popularity among US servicemen in World War II.

          1. In any case, the spontaneous nature by which its readership arose, nearly 20 years after its publication, surely indicates that it “shaped” America in some way.

          2. So? Every generation has its embarrassing fads.

            1. That was in response to your 2:01 comment, but it works ok for your 2:04 comment as well.

              Parachute pants “shaped” America in some way, but you won’t see people holding them up as examples of high fashion.

              1. Parachute pants “shaped” America in some way, but you won’t see people holding them up as examples of high fashion.

                Riiight. Like you’re going to tell me that my closet full of Parachute pants is suddenly out of style. Just because you say it, doesn’t make it so.

              2. Your mention of parachute pants reminds me of this.

          3. After the Armed Services Editions, a subsidiary of the Council on Books in Wartime, a non-profit in full cooperation with the Office of War Information, gave away 150,000 copies of the book. Deprived of adequate spank material and prostitutes, a book about adultery and suicide is about as good as it was likely to get.

            1. Speaking of the Armed Services, where is S.L.A. Marshall’s Men Against Fire? Whether you’re pro-S.L.A.M. or anti-S.L.A.M., that book had a huge impact.

          4. The Great Gatsby’s legacy arose from its popularity among US servicemen in World War II.

            I am thinking some bureaucratic snafu.

            “yeah we need 100,000 books for our boys to read, here is the list”

            List gets lost.

  23. Whitman got on the list. I would hope for corrupting youth, but alas simply for being a famous poet or something.

    Native moments! when you come upon me?Ah you are here now!
    Give me now libidinous joys only!
    Give me the drench of my passions! Give me life coarse and rank!
    To-day, I go consort with nature’s darlings?to-night too;
    I am for those who believe in loose delights?I share the midnight orgies of young men;
    I dance with the dancers, and drink with the drinkers;
    The echoes ring with our indecent calls;
    I take for my love some prostitute?I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
    He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate?he shall be one condemn’d by others for deeds done;

    1. I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
      I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

      Whitman, Thoreau, and Spooner are why I became initally interested in libertarian philosophy.

  24. Why 88?

  25. Why 88?

  26. Why eighty-eight?

  27. Woohoo, Red Harvest made it.

    Although Hammett was a commie, Red Harvest is a great novel about political corruption and how one person, using trickery and a lot of violence, can clean it up.

  28. That’s a weird-ass list. Why Red Harvest out of Hammett’s works, because of its influence on Yojimbo? And everything after Silent Spring is from P.C. squaresville.

    Here’s ten I’d add:

    I The Jury
    The Godfather
    The Whole Earth Catalog
    The Silver Palate Cookbook
    The Anarchist’s Cookbook
    Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask
    The Monkey Wrench Gang
    I’m Ok You’re Ok

  29. No Book of Mormon? That shaped a whole state. Apparently it is brilliant English.

  30. A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America.


  31. Also how can there not be any Cormac McCarthy on the list? Blood Meridian: or the Evening Redness in the West is the single greatest work of American literature since The Sound and the Fury.

    1. Wow, the third Trek reference in this thread. What are we, nerds?

  32. These lists are more or less designed to rub you the wrong way, so I have two big beefs. One is the lack of early literature noted above. The other is the hesitant approach to popular literature ? by which I mean popular-in-its-day literature like Maria Susanna Cummins’ The Lamplighter ? which teach you more about the people and manners of ye olde tymes than do canonical works.

  33. A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America Christopher Colles 1789


    They had roads?!?!

    How the fuck did they have roads!!!

    1. King Richard III put them in I think. Some government somewhere, cause that’s the only way they’d exist.

    2. Because without government making a path from point A to point B no one would ever leave their homes. They’d just stare pointlessly out their front doors and starve to death.


    3. Sometimes they chopped down the trees but left tree stumps in place. I think the Wilderness Road was like that at first.

  34. On the Wealth of Nations anyone?

    1. Second

  35. Lists. Don’t talk to me about lists.

  36. You don’t think Atlas Shrugged shaped America? Try looking at the government characters, then at our government.

    1. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale, with two-dimensional Sorkin characters as the antagonists.

      They used it as a freaking aspriational self-help book.

      Like 1984 wasn’t supposed to be a damned How-To book.

      1. IT’S A COOKBOOK!11!!!1!one!!

  37. Is it safe to assume all the authors have to American to make the list ? I would say that many non American books are far more influential than the ones here.

    Karl Marx is the obvious one, and I am dead serious, the amount of university papers that cite Marx is a big number. Keynes, also obvious, check out all the US mainstream economists who follow him or simply mention his works. The Bible, whether you hate it or not, its influence is undeniable. Shakespeare, because depite being 500 years old, his stories are better than half the shit listed here.

  38. I discredit any list that doesn’t include the novelization of Armageddon.

  39. List is missing:

    Huxtable Wharfraff’s Guide to Monocles
    Idiot’s Guide to Sweatshops
    Who Needs Roadz Anyway?
    Gravity’s Rainbow

  40. How about Bambi: A life in the woods?
    A bizarro anthropomorphic fantasy that has inspired anti-hunting sentiment. Very likely PETA and it’s kin would not be what they are today without it.

    On the other hand, it was probably just a reflection of that mentality that was already developing.

  41. Gotta love those bought and paid for politicians.

  42. “Declaration of Independents”


    1. Whiterun Gaurd covered that one. It tops his list above…he just listed it by it’s subtitle.

  43. Surprisingly, a committee made a list and a gang is unhappy about it.

  44. The Words of Cesar Chavez Cesar Chavez 2002

    Really? Ceasar Chavez might have had some influence in the 60’s, but no one even knows about his 2002 book.

  45. No one read Cooper anyway. The books were way too long. America never had any frontier, or brave frontiersmen — it was just ungoverned wilderness and virtuous native peoples, until the federal government lifted them all up equally and made the west safe for civilization.


  46. No Henry Miller, no Charles Bukowski, no Vladamir Nabokov… they deserve to be on there if Melville does.

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