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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Critics assess The Library of Congress’s “Books That Shaped America” Exhibition

“Lists are like traffic accidents, aren't they? You just can't stop—I mean, you have to stop and look, you know, and you have to rush in because you feel like you can help.” So Ron Charles, deputy editor of The Washington Post’s book section, comments on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about “Books That Shaped America,” the new exhibition currently at The Library of Congress through September 29.

The exhibition features 88 titles, all by American authors, that “have had a profound effect on American life.” The show’s organizers—curators and experts from throughout the Library of Congress—consider it “a starting point—a way to spark a national conversation on books and their importance in Americans’ lives, and, indeed, in shaping our nation. . . . 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.”

Why 88? Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, explains on Talk of the Nation: “That's the magical question, 88. Eighty-eight was the number of books that, when we got down to it, were actually going to fit in our exhibition space.”

Dimunation considers Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe emblematic of the collection:
It changed the way that Americans talked about race, both at the time of the Civil War and after. It also spawned an industry that Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been quite unhappy with, with the Tom plays and the sort of avenue toward racist depiction.
The exhibit also includes rare items to supplement several of the books, such as a dimestore novel by Louisa May Alcott and a recent Cuban book art creation of Emily Dickinson's poetry.

Many reviewers commend the list’s diversity and how it reflects American ideals. Michael Dirda in The Washington Post applauds how it
ignores the familiar high-culture shibboleths and embraces cookbooks (Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking) and schoolbooks (McGuffey’s Primer), mysteries (Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest) and science fiction (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451), political tracts as well as poetry, both Dr. Seuss and Dr. Spock. . . . Just skimming through the titles . . . underscores that in this country anything can be questioned, nothing is set in stone, everything can be changed. We are, after all, a nation founded and grounded in revolution.
Only three authors have multiple entries: Benjamin Franklin has three titles; Harriet Beecher Stowe, two. And some familiar, canonical names are missing: Poe and Emerson, Pound and Eliot, Henry James and Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis. Pressed by Charles in their NPR interview to position James Fenimore Cooper, Dimunation puts him “in 89, 90, and 91.” For Charles it is the missing books that create a “negative space around it that's so interesting.” He finds, for instance, that the absence of religious books leaves “an enormous hole”:
[H]ere we have a book, The Book of Mormon, that is responsible for one of our 50 states. You know, Goodnight Moon cannot claim that. Religion influenced this country very dramatically right from the start. The first bestsellers were collections of sermons, you've got Thomas Shepard, people we don't even know anymore. Cotton Mather wrote 450 books. Where are all these religious thinkers, and why aren't they on here?
On NPR’s The Takeaway historian Kenneth C. Davis laments other omissions:
My number one miss is Hiroshima, by John Hersey, the most important book about the most important event in the twentieth century. It’s about the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city on August 5, 1945. Along those lines Profiles in Courage by John f. Kennedy, a book that got into the language and certainly added to the Kennedy mystique. Going back a little bit further in time Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, the first book of history about the American experience here in the United States. . . The Influence of Sea Power upon History by Alfred Mahan influenced not only Americans to build worldwide navies but was also a book that reached around the world and certainly influenced Teddy Roosevelt to build the great white fleet. And Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.
For Tim Cavanaugh, writing on Reason.com, the list suggests 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.” Cavanaugh closes his review with a video clip that offers dramatic testimony to the enduring power of one omitted author. The poker scene from the 2001 film In The Bedroom turns when one character’s recites a passage from Longfellow’s “My Lost Youth.”

 View the complete list of 88 titles. Join the discussion by taking a survey at The Library of Congress.

Previous Reader's Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA Titles: Here are a few of the 30 LOA titles on the list (and one that isn't): Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings; Jack London: Novels and Stories; Edgar Rice Burroughs: Tarzan of the Apes; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings

1 comment:

  1. One book was inexplicably left out: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. It is without doubt the most significant American autobiography of the 20th century, by a writer who had few peers. His cover article on Marian Anderson (Dec. 30, 1946) ranks among the very best American magazine articles, and he is considered the best of the many fine writers for that magazine during its history.

    Mmany people think only of Chambers for his reluctant testimony against Alger Hiss, the Russian spy. Yet Witness covers much more than just the testimony and trial. Chambers' childhood and adult life before 1948 are essential reading about America in that period of time.


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