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So — What Books Shaped You?

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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
    Laura Minnie Lee Tengle from "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"
    Walker Evans' portrait of Laura Minnie Lee Tengle from "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"

    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.

So – What books shaped you?


Comments (10)

  1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

  2. When I learned how to read and write at 40 years of age, which now i’m 64. My frist book was Moby Dick, then after that I read all of John Jakes books the whole series of them. Snce then I’m like that Robat in “Short Currect” movie were he keep saying ” Input”. I’m glade to share my story to anyone, that anyone can learn to read. Thank You, for this change.

  3. I loved reading John Jakes books when I was in high school, I must have read the complete series he wrote to celebrate the centennial. Now, I still enjoy reading Jakes books but I also read Beverly Lewis, Tom Clancy, and a couple others. Then too, I just like to read!

  4. 13 y.o., reading late, late into the night because I could not put down In Cold Blood by Capote. This book marked my transition from young adult to “adult”.

  5. This is almost a cliche, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” opened my eyes to social issues as well as great writing. Atticus Finch remains one of the most memorable and admirable characters in American fiction. I’ve now been an English teacher for nearly 40 years and have had the pleasure of teaching Harper Lee’s novel many times – it still resonates with high school students.

  6. I recently read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. I feel in love with this book. This novel captured the hope and heartache of many foreign hopefuls coming to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Upton does a fantastic job at illustrating the trials and tribulations a single man has to endure to combat the industrial machine (meat industry) in a booming Chicago. Rarely does one find a piece of literature that provides as thorough descriptions as this. Great Read!

  7. I read my first REAL book at age 6 – Tom Sawyer.
    The next one was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now, I didn’t necessarily understand all of them at that time, but I’ve reread both any number of times since. Now at nearly age 80, I can look back and see how those two inspired me with a love for reading I’ve never lost. I only wish I had the time to go back and reread all the hundreds (maybe thousands? who’s counting?) of good books that have passed through my hands.
    And some of the ones I haven’t had time for.
    Thank you.

  8. I read Black Like Me when I was in high school. I remember feeling Griffin’s fear as he entered the world of the black man.

  9. James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans”

  10. When I was in high school I read Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmerman Telegram and found it fascinating. In college another of her books was required reading – The Guns of August – which led me to The Proud Tower.

    To find someone who could write about history and make it as compelling and page-turning as many novels are for most people was truly a revelation. Furthermore, to find out that Kennedy was reading The Guns of August while the Cuban Missle Crisis was going on, only affirms her as a historian who not only tells us about what’s happened in the past, but gives us a path forward into the future.

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