“Books That Shaped America” Exhibition is Now on View at the Library of Congress

Celebration of the Book logo
In conjunction with its “Celebration of the Book” program, the Library of Congress (LOC) recently opened an exhibition that highlights some of the most influential books ever published in the United States. The exhibition is titled “Books That Shaped America” and it will be on view in the LOC’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, DC, through September 29, 2012. What, you’re not planning to take a trip to DC this summer? That’s OK, because the exhibition can also be viewed online at the Library of Congress website. Even better, when viewing it online, you can participate in a survey that not only allows you to weigh in on the LOC’s selections, but also gives you the opportunity to recommend a title that you think should have been included in the exhibition.

The 88 titles that make up the exhibition span the history of America from the Colonial era up through the first years of the 21st century. The earliest title is Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, which, ironically, was not published in America but rather in London in 1751 under the auspices of the Royal Society. This publication marked the first time that an American had been recognized for his contribution to the world’s intellectual and scientific community and for that reason was deemed worthy of inclusion. The most recent title is The Words of Caesar Chavez, which was published in 2002. Consisting of letters and speeches from the famous Mexican-American labor leader, this book serves as an important contribution to the nation’s ever evolving discussion on matters relating to cultural heritage and economic justice.

In between the books of Ben Franklin and Caesar Chavez are a variety of other works, both fiction and nonfiction, representing an array of creative voices that have appeared on the American scene. Many of the titles are well known and would probably be included on any list of influential American books: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Scarlet Letter (1850), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Red Badge of Courage (1895), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), The Great Gatsby (1925), How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), The Feminine Mystique (1963), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), And The Band Played On (1987).

Others are not so familiar, but still touch on themes that have engaged the America psyche for over two hundred years. A Survey of Roads of the United States of America (1789) was written by civil engineer, Christopher Colles, and is considered to be the first travel guide of the U.S. Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery (1796) is significant not only for being one of the first cookbooks published in America, but also for popularizing the idea of substituting native American ingredients in the making of traditional European dishes. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) is thought to be the book that served as an inspiration for all subsequent literary treatments of the American West. Margaret Sanger created a controversy that reverberates to the present day by publishing a pamphlet, Family Limitations (1914) that encouraged women to practice birth control. Physician and poet William Carlos Williams helped to revolutionize poetry with Spring and All (1923) by eschewing formal structure for vivid, seemingly unrelated, images expressed in free verse. The Snowy Day (1962), by Ezra Jack Keats, was the first full-color children’s picture book that had an African-American as the main character. The Double Helix (1968) was James D. Watson’s first-hand account of the discovery of DNA, and the forthright candor in which the story is told changed forever the way society viewed scientific research and innovation.

So, take a look at the exhibition, fill out the accompanying survey, and then check some of the titles out at the Birmingham Public Library. If you don’t find a title on the library’s catalog, then ask a library staff member if it is possible to get the book through Interlibrary Loan.

Jim Murray
Government Documents Department
Central Library