Most great book lists concentrate on works of the highest literary or scholarly merit. Think of the Harvard Classics, Harold Bloom’s “Western Canon,” the Modern Library’s selection of “the 100 best novels of the 20th century.” Here, the compilers imply, are our cultural masterpieces, the Mount Everests and K2s all literate people should scale in their lifetime. You haven’t read already Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” or James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”? Get cracking and break out the ropes, climbing shoes and pitons.
Happily, the Library of Congress’s latest exhibition, “The Books That Shaped America,” 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.
Running from Monday to Sept. 29 in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the exhibition — its titles chosen by the library’s staff members after considerable wrangling — puts on display what one might call the classics of upset and troublemaking. When first published, these books shocked people, made them angry, shook up their deepest beliefs. They shamed readers with accounts of racism, greed, corruption, Puritanism and provincial narrow-mindedness. Here are the impassioned works that made us look behind the curtain, into the bedroom and closet and boardroom, at what we were afraid of and at what we covered up. Just skimming through the titles of “The Books That Shaped America” 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.
If, however, there is any single, great American theme, it is self-transformation. So here are Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, that stirring guidebook to personal improvement, and Frederick Douglass’s account of his years of slavery and his escape from it, and Thoreau’s “Walden,” arguing the case for self-fulfillment no matter what the opinions of society. Here, too, is one of Horatio Alger Jr.’s rags-to-riches novels, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s great jungle bildungsroman “Tarzan of the Apes,” and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” in which the poor boy Jay Gatz dreams of all the glittering prizes, and even Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Jefferson spoke of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but he might just as well have said: Become who you truly are.
If identity is malleable, so, too, are the conditions of life and society. Americans are do-gooders, ready to stand and fight for what they believe is right or attack relentlessly that which is wrong, corrupt or unjust. The library’s list nearly starts with Thomas Paine’s call to arms, “Common Sense,” then includes W.E.B. Du Bois’s searing “The Souls of Black Folk”; Jacob Riis’s sickening account of urban poverty, “How The Other Half Lives”; Ida M. Tarbell’s classic “muckraking” “History of the Standard Oil Company”; Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which exposed the insanitary conditions in Chicago’s meat-packing industry; and, finally, in our own time, closes with both “And The Band Played On,” Randy Shilts’s groundbreaking account of the AIDS epidemic and “The Words of Cesar Chavez,” the inspiring leader of the United Farm Workers.
Some conservative thinkers might view the library list as distinctly multicultural, blatantly offering something for everyone. But if America is anything at all, it is multicultural. It’s also refreshing to see William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Allen Ginsberg representing 20th-century American poetry instead of those usual cosmopolitan modernists Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. But Walt Whitman is here, too, and Emily Dickinson, and all of them remind us that the recurrent theme of American literature is loneliness, that somehow amid all our plenty we remain hungry for connection with others. Little wonder that two of the most popular plays in the American theater are about such yearning: Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Any list yields surprises. If you were to pick the greatest five-year period in American literature, you would be hard-pressed to match 1850-55: Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” (1851), Melville’s “Moby-Dick” (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” (1854) and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” (1855). In the careful write-up of Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” there is no mention that the villains of this famous western are Mormons. Sexual politics is another major theme throughout our history, from Margaret Sanger on birth control to Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,”from Alfred Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
At the same time, the list doesn’t shy away from such bloated bestsellers as Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War romance “Gone With the Wind,” Ayn Rand’s melodrama-cum-economic tract “Atlas Shrugged” and Robert A. Heinlein’s weirdly libertarian “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Many people might not care for such pop titles, but they are books that others revere, argue about and reread. Happily, the list also includes quieter masterpieces such as Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon,” Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and Ezra Jack Keats’s “The Snowy Day.”
The Library of Congress boldly invites people to register their comments on the exhibition and its titles at its special Web site, www.loc.gov/bookfest. In my case, I was surprised that major works of historical and sociological scholarship didn’t make the cut: Where, for instance, are Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” and W.J. Cash’s “Mind of the South”? Shouldn’t the work of the pioneer-iconoclast H.L. Mencken be represented? And where is the great storyteller of our generation, Stephen King? At the same time, I might argue that “The Education of Henry Adams” is wildly overrated and unworthy of inclusion on the list, its second half being interminably boring. And while Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” was certainly popular, it somehow seems out of place here, being best known as a television series rather than a book.
No matter. This exhibition is meant to generate argument, surprise and controversy. And it will. But the Library of Congress also deserves kudos for having produced this exceptionally imaginative and convincing list of many, if certainly not all, “the books that shaped America.”
Dirda reviews each week in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/