In conjunction with the Monday launch of an exhibition at the Library of Congress titled “Books That Shaped America” as part of its overarching Celebration of the Book, the Library of Congress is making public a list of 88 books by Americans that, it can be argued, shaped the nation over its lifetime.
It’s not being proposed as a definitive list, or a final list; and you are invited to comment on it, or propose alternate selections to it, at this survey link on the National Book Festival website. Variations on the list – different cuts at it — are likely in coming months and years.
There’s a lot to agree on in this list. When I sat down to ask myself what books I’d put on, I came up with a list of about 30; 26 of my choices are on the Library’s list, too. Books ranging from Paine’s “Common Sense” and Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” to Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” and Heller’s “Catch-22” – I think many of us would find common ground about books that made the ground rumble when they came out, and in some cases still move the seismometer dials.
But since we’re all being invited to name books we think ought to be on the list, but aren’t, here are a few of mine:
- Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” This book captured a sense many felt, in the mid-20th century, that individuals were being overwhelmed by “the machine.”
- The poetry of jazz-age poet
Edna St. Vincent Millay (whose papers are here in the Library of Congress). Millay explored love, lust and other topics not considered suitable for a ‘lady poet,’ and gained a huge following doing it. She also tackled controversial topics, such as the Sacco & Vanzetti trial.
- Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling.” In this artful, touching coming-of-age tale, harsh reality overtakes a childhood, but family love softens the blow. Rawlings didn’t just write for kids.
As for a book that shaped me, I’d have to pick James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” I read it when I was 13 or so. You probably know the pictures that illustrated this book — stark black-and-white shots of farm sharecroppers and their environment taken by the now-famed photographer Walker Evans. He and Agee were sent out as a team, on a magazine assignment, to record the lives of these folk during the Depression. Agee’s eye was sharp and his prose was poetic – and his net effect on the reader, emotionally, was like having the wind knocked out of you.