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Douglas Brinkely and Carla Hayden, both seated, speak on stage, with an American flag in the background
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden interviews author Douglas Brinkley during a kickoff event of C-SPAN's "Books that Shaped America" series, September 7, 2023. Photo: Shawn Miller.

“Books That Shaped America” Series Starts

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Some of the most important works by Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston and Cesar Chavez will be the focus of a new television series being produced by C-SPAN and the Library.

The 10-part series — “Books That Shaped America” — starts on Sept. 18 and will examine 10 books by American authors published over a span of nearly 250 years and that are still influential today. It will be hosted by Peter Slen, the longtime executive producer of C-SPAN’s BookTV.

“The idea that C-SPAN, working with the Library of Congress, has is to just start talking about books that matter,” said Douglas Brinkley, the author and presidential historian, in an onstage conversation last week with Librarian Carla Hayden, “and these are 10 to get us going.”

The series arises from a 2012 Library exhibit, “Books that Shaped America.” That exhibition was assembled by Library curators and specialists with the final selections determined by a public survey. The dozens of books on the list were chosen for their sustained impact on the nation, not whether they were the “best” or “most well-loved,” and the exhibit provoked plenty of conversation.

Likewise, viewers of this televised version will be able to weigh in with their own thoughts. This guide from C-SPAN provides background on the books and when they will be featured.

This time around, the Library didn’t select the books but it is helping to feature those being discussed. The audience will see Library copies of first editions authored by Paine, Douglass, Hurston, Mark Twain and others. More context will be given by the Library’s copies of rare photos, maps and correspondence.

” ‘Books That Shaped America’ will shine a light on a diverse group of books and authors whose skill with the written word and powerful storytelling left a lasting impression on our nation,” said Hayden. LOC press release.

The show will proceed chronologically, with the first book published in 1776 and the final one in 2002.

Zora Neale Hurston in 1938. Photo: Carl Van Vechten. Prints and Photographs Division.

There are two books from the 18th century, both central to the foundation of the country: “Common Sense by Thomas Paine and “The Federalist by Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. The Library holds original copies of each.

The 19th century is represented by four works, three nonfiction and one novel. They are propelled by epic journeys of one sort or another as the nation fought over slavery and expanded relentlessly westward.

They are “History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark,” based on the journals kept by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as their crew of explorers set out to cross the western part of the continent after the Louisiana Purchase. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” was the astonishing literary debut of a man who would become the nation’s clearest moral voice against the evils of slavery and white supremacy. “The Common Law by Oliver Wendell Holmes is regarded as one of the great works of American law and legal reasoning.

The sole work of fiction from the century, often argued to be the great American novel, is “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Twain. The 1884 novel saw Twain put his good-hearted but socially outcast teen, who has faked his own death to escape his abusive father, in league with Jim, a Black man who has just escaped slavery, on a raft down the Mississippi River, both in search of freedom.

By the end of October, the show will move into the 20th century for three books, none of which address the world wars, Depression, civil rights movement, space race or any other of the major events of the century.

Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia” from 1918 is a beautifully written novel set in the frontier country of rural Nebraska, where orphaned young Jim Burden meets young Ántonia Shimerda. It’s a story of immigrant families on hardscrabble farms, the Great Plains rolling out before them. Jim and Ántonia’s friendship evolves over the years as the West and the Great Plains do, too.

“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” once nearly forgotten, is Zora Neale Hurston’s classic from the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a tale within a tale, as Janie Crawford, approaching middle age, returns to her Florida hometown and recounts her tumultuous life and relationships to a friend. It’s Janie’s story, but it’s really about the Black neighborhoods and towns of Florida in the early 20th century struggling to survive.

“Oftentimes novelists can get into the tone and tenor of your time and bring you into feel what it was like,” Brinkley said. “Some of the books on our list, particularly Zora Neale Hurston, is one that does that. It brings you there.”

The final book of the 20th century to make the list is something completely different — a set of economic and sociological essays by Milton and Rose Friedman. Published in 1980, “Free to Choose: A Personal Statement” is a treatment of the relative merits of free market economics. It spawned a 10-part series on public television, too.

Lastly, placing a foot into the current century, there is “The Words of Cesar Chavez,” a 2002 anthology of works and speeches by the famed labor leader, who founded the organization that gained fame as United Farm Workers. He was also recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Cesar Chavez, head and shoulders portrait, facing just to left of camera, wearing a dark sweater with a white collared shirt underneath.
Cesar Chavez in a 1979 interview. Photo: Marion S. Trikosko. Prints and Photographs Division.

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  1. Looking forward to this!

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