A reading list and its hold on us

Published Aug. 11, 2012

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884

Alcoholics Anonymous, anonymous, 1939

American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, 1796

The American Woman's Home, Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1869

And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts, 1987

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, 1957

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley, 1965

Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown, 1970

The Call of the Wild, Jack London, 1903

The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss, 1957

Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951

Charlotte's Web, E.B. White, 1952

Common Sense, Thomas Paine, 1776

The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Benjamin Spock, 1946

Cosmos, Carl Sagan, 1980

A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible, anonymous, 1788

The Double Helix, James D. Watson, 1968

The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams, 1907

Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Benjamin Franklin, 1751

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953

Family Limitation, Margaret Sanger, 1914

The Federalist, anonymous, 1787

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, 1963

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936

Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown, 1947

A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1783

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

Harriet, the Moses of Her People, Sarah H. Bradford, 1901

The History of Standard Oil, Ida Tarbell, 1904

History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis, 1814

How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis, 1890

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie, 1936

Howl, Allen Ginsberg, 1956

The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O'Neill, 1946

Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures, Federal Writers' Project, 1937

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1966

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952

Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer, 1931

The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, 1906

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving, 1820

Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Louisa May Alcott, 1868

Mark, the Match Boy, Horatio Alger Jr., 1869

McGuffey's Newly Revised Eclectic Primer, William Holmes McGuffey, 1836

Moby-Dick; or The Whale, Herman Melville, 1851

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass, 1845

Native Son, Richard Wright, 1940

New England Primer, anonymous, 1803

New Hampshire, Robert Frost, 1923

On the Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957

Our Bodies, Ourselves, Boston Women's Health Book Collective, 1971

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Our Town: A Play, Thornton Wilder, 1938

Peter Parley's Universal History, Samuel Goodrich, 1837

Poems, Emily Dickinson, 1890

Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth, Benjamin Franklin, 1758

Pragmatism, William James, 1907

The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D., Benjamin Franklin, 1793

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895

Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett, 1929

Riders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey, 1912

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred C. Kinsey, 1948

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, 1962

The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats, 1962

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner, 1929

Spring and All, William Carlos Williams, 1923

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert E. Heinlein, 1961

A Street in Bronzeville, Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945

A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, 1947

A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America, Christopher Colles, 1789

Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1914

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, 1937

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960

A Treasury of American Folklore, Benjamin A. Botkin, 1944

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith, 1943

Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852

Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader, 1965

Walden; or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau, 1854

The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes, 1925

Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, 1963

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, 1900

The Words of Cesar Chavez, Cesar Chavez, 2002

The Library of Congress must be spoiling for a fight.

A current exhibition at the library in Washington, D.C., and online gathers "Books That Shaped America," 88 in all, published between 1751 and 2002. With books beloved and controversial, children's and adult books, fiction and nonfiction, widely familiar titles and some many readers will never have heard of, the list is a perfect starting point for a million literary arguments.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said just that in a press release: "This list of 'Books That Shaped America' is a starting point. It is not a register of the 'best' American books — although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not." Okay, we'll call it a conversation; we have enough arguments already. In that spirit of conversation, the library's website ( includes a survey that solicits readers' opinions and suggestions.

Influence is a difficult thing to measure, but the list, compiled by "curators and experts" at the Library of Congress and winnowed from a much longer list to create a reasonably sized physical exhibit, certainly consists of books that have made an impact — on our society, on our government, on our daily lives, on our imaginations.

But it's a good thing the list is described as a starting point, because as I read it the first thing that jumped out was who wasn't on it. Washington Irving, but no James Fenimore Cooper? Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, but no Edgar Allan Poe? Henry Thoreau and Rachel Carson, but no Edward Abbey or John Muir? Dashiell Hammett, but no Raymond Chandler? And, just to pick a few names in 20th century literary fiction, no Flannery O'Connor, Norman Mailer or John Updike?

I'll leave that for later conversation, though, because the books that made the list do create a broad and deep portrait of our nation. The list groups them in 50-year sections, beginning before the American Revolution with Benjamin Franklin's 1751 Experiments and Observations on Electricity. It was the first scientific report by an American (although at that point Ben was still a British subject) to gain international attention. Franklin makes the list two more times, with one of the first self-help books (Poor Richard Improved with The Way to Wealth) and the first important American autobiography, The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, L.L.D.

The only other writer with multiple slots on the list: Harriet Beecher Stowe, with Uncle Tom's Cabin, the bestselling novel of the 19th century, which was credited with laying the groundwork for the abolition of slavery; and The American Woman's Home, a domestic handbook written with her sister Catharine Beecher.

Aside from a few early entries such as Common Sense and The Federalist, few of the books are explicitly political. Many, though, deal either fictionally or factually with large issues in our history such as race (from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to Beloved) and sexual politics (Family Limitation and The Feminine Mystique).

In the list's first century and a half, most of the children's books are textbooks like McGuffey's Newly Revised Eclectic Primer and A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible. Children's fiction appears in 1868 with Little Women, followed by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (a book that bears only passing resemblance to the movie) in 1900. Then, between 1947 and 1963, there's a heyday of children's books: Goodnight Moon, Charlotte's Web, The Cat in the Hat, The Snowy Day and Where the Wild Things Are — and no more since. I'm guessing this has more to do with the selection committee including a lot of baby boomers, rather than any rise and fall in the influence of kids' books.

The most recent titles on the list, And the Band Played On and Beloved, were published in 1987. (The Words of Cesar Chavez was published in 2002, but it gathers speeches and other pieces from the 1960s to '80s by the labor and civil rights activist, who died in 1993.) That leaves plenty of books published in the last 25 years to be considered as the list grows.

Taken together, "Books That Shaped America" would form a dandy reading list for an American studies program — but it's a little daunting for a casual reader.

So which books to start with if you're interested in joining the conversation?

If you scanned the list as I did, you were mentally checking off how many books you have already read. For a lot of us, many of those check marks will go by classic works of 19th and 20th century American fiction such as The Scarlet Letter, The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird — and we will have read them in high school or college, and not since.

Whether you were bewitched, bored or baffled by them then, those novels will richly repay another reading — and many remain relevant. In a time of economic crisis and disparity, both the Dust Bowl saga of working people in The Grapes of Wrath and the tragic fable of wealth and its discontents in The Great Gatsby still ring true.

Moby-Dick is a marvelous epic about many things, but one of its major themes is our relationship with, and exploitation of, the natural world. I'm not saying that white whale prefigures global warming, but those unintended consequences can be killer.

As we struggle to make sense of shocking acts of violence at home and the place of our military in the wider world, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Catch-22 offer plenty of insight. Native Son and Invisible Man speak to the racism we grapple with still.

But I don't want to make them seem like homework all over again. The best reason to read, or re-read, these books is that they are brilliant, engaging works of literature.

And however many conversations it starts, "Books That Shaped America" embodies something fundamental and invaluable about our nation: It was founded on free expression and thrives on it still.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.