Washington, D.C.

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

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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: