The Books that Shaped America

Monday, June 25, 2012

kid, books, bookshelf (flickr: Ozyman)

It’s the ultimate summer reading list. The Library of Congress has announced its list of the 88 ‘Books That Shaped America.’ From Benjamin Franklin’s "Experiments and Observations on Electricity" to the late Ray Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451" and from the "Scarlet Letter" to "The Cat in the Hat," the chronological list is diverse.

The Library of Congress claims that the list isn’t intended to be a “best of”. Instead, it's an eclectic mix of books that have contributed to the American conversation over the years. The exhibition of the 88 titles opens today.

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of "Don’t Know Much About History" and the forthcoming "Don’t Know Much About American Presidents."

"These are books that influenced us as a nation," Davis says. "These are books that in a sense, got into the language. They're books that shaped who we are, or reflected where we are — books of consequence." 

Kicking off the list is "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain's classic novel. Thomas Paine's stirring pamphlet "Common Sense" takes its place alongside E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web," a mainstay in the arsenals of middle school English teachers across the country. Farther down lie "The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. DuBois, "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak. It's an eclectic list of books that often only have nothing more in common than their American roots. 

"My number one miss is 'Hiroshima', by John Hersey," Davis says. Hersey's book is a collection of stories that he collected from survivors of the atomic bomb that was dropped by American forces on the Japanese city on August 5, 1945. Davis calls it "the most important book about the most important event in the 20th century." 

The author also makes cases for "Profiles in Courage" by John F. Kennedy, "Plymouth Plantation" by William Bradford, and "The Life of Washington" by Mason Weems. Weems' 1800 biography was the first to include the "cherry tree" anecdote, one of the most famous tales of a founding father. 


Kenneth C. Davis

Produced by:

Robert Balint and Paul R. Smith

Comments [23]

pamela mccoll from Vancouver

What happened to the most famous poem in the English language - A Visit From Saint Nicholas - or commonly known as Twas The Night Before Christmas written in 1822 and published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinal Newspaper - maybe written by Clement C. Moore or Henry Livingston but American for sure.

Oct. 17 2012 10:57 PM
nancy hladik

The books by Thornton W. Burgess should be added to the list. In addition to his numerous animal / conservation books (most still in print), he produced a six-day a week column -- numbering 15,000, I believe -- that ran for many years in numerous newspapers, including the New York Herald Tribune. Highly respected by Hornaday and others; Thornton Burgess was considered a conservationist far ahead of his time.

Aug. 24 2012 12:16 AM
Joe from Claremont, CA

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy did not my the list. Not great prose, but must be in the top 20 of most influential.

Jun. 26 2012 03:52 PM
Ed from Larchmont

There are really three questions: the most influential book, the most American book, the greatest book.

Jun. 26 2012 11:32 AM
Ariadne from NYC

As much as Stephen King is often dismissed as a hack writer, his short stories are King at his best, and his novella "The Body" (from which the film "Stand by Me" was faithfully adapted) is hands-down my favorite piece of writing of all time. It's a rather wistful but dark rumination on youth and mortality, and how what one is born into often defines one's life, and the difficult road of rising above it is not always certain nor guaranteed. Chris Chambers is an amazing, fascinating character and hero in that regard. The off-hand passage about going to look for a 20-year-old, long-forgotten blueberry bucket cast away deep in the woods is something I can read over and over.

Jun. 26 2012 09:10 AM

Ed, I prefer The Sound and the Fury—or even Andersonville—as an example of the great American novel.

Jun. 25 2012 07:26 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Oops- American writers - it seems to me that 'Leaves of Grass' is the most American work of literature, but I would call 'Moby Dick' the greatest, unless you consider 'The Waste Land' American.

Jun. 25 2012 07:15 PM

Let's hope that the following book becomes influential in the United States pretty soon, before this country permanently goes down the drain:

Jun. 25 2012 03:53 PM
Burroughs Lamar from Harlem

"The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin is on the list of the American Canon writers was cited by Harold Bloom, professor Emeritus at Yale school of English literary studies. This book is the definitive and seminal treatise on race; it is a polemic juggernaut.

Jun. 25 2012 03:48 PM
ZC Lexow from NYC


Jun. 25 2012 03:46 PM
Freddy Jenkins

"Another Country" by James Baldwin & "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy

Jun. 25 2012 03:20 PM
Preston MacDougall from Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" was formative for a country with a strong individualist streak. Sadly, the effects are showing signs of dissipation.

Jun. 25 2012 11:15 AM
gustavo matamoros from Miami

Two books helped shape my idea of North America: Critical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller and Silence by John Cage. To me — an immigrant from Venezuela — these books define the North American traditions of innovation and experimentation as a way of life and gave me courage to lead a life of inquiry through the arts.

Jun. 25 2012 10:14 AM
Steven from NJ

"The Jungle" by Thornton Wilder, which certainly influenced the murky world of food safety...

Jun. 25 2012 09:45 AM
Arthur from west tisbury, ma

"Our Town"...Thornton wilder

Jun. 25 2012 09:38 AM
Henry Crawford from Lubbock, Texas

Cosmos by Carl Sagan, because it took the mystery out of science and particularly astronomy and made the theories, discoveries and history of science accessible to the American public at large.

Jun. 25 2012 09:16 AM

Just checked the list on the LOC's website. Some of the bigger oversights: O'Henry's "Gift of the Magi", O'Brien's The Things They Carried, The Pentagon Papers, John Dewey's The Public & Its Problems, Bernard Malamud's "The Natural", Philip Roth's novels, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep

Jun. 25 2012 08:58 AM

My ears perked up this morning when I heard you mention Laura Ingalls Wilder this morning. My daughter just started reading the series, prompting me to write about how these books shaped my understanding of the power of words and memory. Here are my thoughts:

Jun. 25 2012 08:08 AM
Eleanor scarcela from Ocean County, New Jersey

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stow, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and The Feminist Mystic by Betty Friedan all came to mind almost immediately. Then I noticed they were all written by women. That amazed me because I thought my classically educated brain would have spit out books authored by academically or politically enthroned men!

Jun. 25 2012 07:20 AM

The guy is a retard. No, Hiroshima wasn't the most important event.

Jun. 25 2012 06:44 AM
Edward from Maplewood

Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales defined the strong, silent, independent male character that plays out forever in the likes of John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Client Eastwood

Jun. 25 2012 06:44 AM
anna from new york

I am happy to see the most influential book on the list - the one which has shaped several generations Americans and which was translated into countless languages usually under title "How to Use Friends and Manipulate other People" (Dale Carnegie's "charming" "masterpiece"). It is this book which together with the Bible is brought immediately to any new "market" in the world. The former Soviet Union, for example, was flooded immediately after changes with countless editions of this "tool."

Jun. 25 2012 06:39 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Looking at the US before the Civil War, the book that shaped people's thinking was the Bible. Almost more so than in any other nation.

Jun. 25 2012 06:05 AM

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