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How Books Shaped The American National Identity

Harriet Beecher Stowe's <em>Uncle Tom's Cabin</em> was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. This copy belonged to civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. This copy belonged to civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony.

Books can change the way we think and can continue to influence events long after they were written. The Library of Congress exhibit "Books That Shaped America" features 88 books — from Thomas Paine's Common Sense to Dr. Seuss' The Cat In The Hat — that have influenced national identity.

Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, was on the committee of historians, literary experts, curators, poets and scientists who chose the books included in the exhibit.

"We're looking for books, whether it's literature or social science or history, that ... encapsulated and reflected a moment of time in America that Americans understood and recognized in themselves," he tells NPR's Lynn Neary.

More than creating an ultimate, perfect list, Dimunation says, the goal was to spark conversations about the significance of literature.

Dimunation says there were no specific rules about genre or chronology, but there was one constraint in determining the length of the list. "Eighty-eight," he says, "was the number of books that, when we got down to it, were actually going to fit in our exhibition space."

He talks about some of his favorite books on the list and the changes they spurred. Ron Charles, deputy editor of the Washington Post book section, joins the conversation to discuss other books that might have made the list.

Interview Highlights

On Uncle Tom's Cabin

Dimunation: "To me the most obvious would be Uncle Tom's Cabin. ... It was a book that launched the career of the most important female writer in America in the 19th century, certainly the most successful.

"It was a topic on the floor of Congress. It changed the way that Americans talked about race, both at the time of the Civil War and after. It also spawned an industry that Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been quite unhappy with, with the Tom plays and the sort of avenue toward racist depiction.

"But now we go back again to the discussion of it as a piece of literature that actually raised the abolitionist argument to a national conversation."

A page from <em>A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible</em> from 1788. Hieroglyphic Bibles were used to help children remember Bible passages.<em> </em>
/ Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
A page from A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible from 1788. Hieroglyphic Bibles were used to help children remember Bible passages.

On religious books that made the list

Dimunation: "The Bible is represented only in an American fashion. Since we were limiting ourselves to American authors and American books, we lost many of the traditional important books in the history of civilization. But we included the Curious Hieroglyphick Bible because it's an American attempt to incorporate imagery in teaching children the Bible.

"The Book of Mormon was certainly discussed and I think is a very legitimate inclusion on the list. It just didn't make it in the final outcome."

On including The Joy Of Cooking

Dimunation: "It was sparked initially by the suggestion that we include Julia Child, and that ultimately unraveled into a conversation of which cookbook actually had impact in America. And that would certainly be Joy of Cooking, which takes previously rather sparse recipes and gives you a step-by-step instruction, including, I believe, an opening line that says something, 'when you cook, face the stove.' ... So it was the introduction of a sort of domestic, scientific approach to the kitchen."

On The Catcher In The Rye

Dimunation: "It engaged America in a conversation about the alienation and ennui of an entire generation and I think was one of the works that ushered in an understanding of the beat generation and alienated youth. So, in that sense of how we discuss these things, it's a book that captured a moment of time in its time, and it perhaps even made it understandable to people who were witnessing it and trying to determine what it meant. The fact that it spoke so clearly to a large generation of young people is also testimony to its impact."

On Goodnight Moon

Dimunation: "I would say that Goodnight Moon is there because it's probably the most widely read bedtime story in America, and probably, I would say, is one of the books that I refer to as a placeholder. You could fill in the blank with any number of other books that have that kind of popularity, but we chose it because of its instant recognition and the fact that it remains alive and in print for a very long period of time and goes through new editions and new revivals."

On books that didn't make the list

Charles: "What strikes me about this list is that it's the negative space around it that's so interesting. Most of the books on this list, yes, everyone nods and says, yes, those are important books. But then you immediately start to suggest other books. You just can't help but feel that your favorite books were left off. ...

"There was a time when everyone who went to school memorized poetry by [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, and he's not on this list. There was a time when everyone read [James Fenimore] Cooper's I think really boring novels and learned a lot about American myths. He's not on this list. He was a very foundational figure for American culture. ...

"Where is that deep vein of horror in American culture that stretches all the way from Poe up to Stephen King, and it's not represented here? ... Anne Rice and R.L. Stein. These people have sold hundreds of millions of copies. They influence the way we think, the way we fantasize, the way we are afraid. Even Stephenie Meyer's vampire novels have influenced the way millions of young girls have thought about their sexuality."

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