LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. Books can change the way we think. They can influence events long after they have been written. The Library of Congress believes they have the power to spark conversations about who we are as a nation.
The library is hoping to inspire many such discussions with its current exhibit: Books that Shaped America. The list includes book by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, which forged our original identity; books like Sinclair Lewis' "The Jungle" or Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," which made us see things with new eyes; books like Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," which is still playing a role in our nation's politics.
You can find a link to the Library of Congress' full list of 88 books that shaped America on our website, npr.org. And we want to hear from you. What book gave you a new insight into some aspect of American life? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. Later in the program, what Olympians do when their competitive days are over.
But first Mark Dimunation is chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. And he was on the committee that chose the list of books that were included in this exhibit, and he joins us now in Studio 3A. So good to have you with us.
MARK DIMUNATION: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
NEARY: So tell me how this - what's the idea behind this exhibit? How did this idea come about of drawing up this list of 88 books that you feel helped shape the nation?
DIMUNATION: We were trying to create a response or an opportunity for American to respond to encourage them to think about books, to think about reading and to think about the impact of literature and social science and writing over time and our lives. It's part of a three-year arc that we've set up at the library to encourage reading and talking about books.
This one happens to coincide with the book festival that's coming up on September 22 and 23. So this is our launch of opening up that conversation.
NEARY: You know, I have absolutely no idea how many books have been published since the founding of our nation, but how in the world did you narrow it down to 88? And how did you come up with that number, 88?
DIMUNATION: That's the magical question, 88. Eighty-eight was the number of books that, when we got down to it, were actually going to fit in our exhibition space.
NEARY: Ah, OK.
DIMUNATION: Or at least so it seemed. As we were talking about earlier, it was take a list of 50 and find 38 more books that apply. We just got to a point where we thought we had come up with a list that was representative, that accomplished what we wanted to do in terms of selecting books that had impact and then reached a point where additional books were really just iterations of something that we had on the list already.
NEARY: But there wasn't - there was a committee. So give me a sense of what the committee discussions were like. Were they lively? Were they...
DIMUNATION: Of course they were because everyone's passionate about books, which is what we're discovering with the exhibit, as well, is that everyone has a passion for a certain title. We started with our core lists that we submitted. We merged those. We came up with a sort of list that we all agreed upon. And then the rest of the time was spent debating and weighing certain kinds of submissions.
The guidelines were that we were dealing with American books, that we weren't doing a list of best books or favorite books, we were really looking at books that had impact in some way, whether in their time or later. And that started a conversation.
But everyone had something to add. There were two historians and a literature person, and a number of other curators were consulted along the way, the poetry people, the science people. So we made sure we had balance. But the conversations were built around why a particular book best represents a moment in time or the certain kind of impact about how we represent ourselves or how we changed our lives. It's an interesting conversation.
NEARY: Yeah, when you talked about books that shaped America, what was the criteria? What were you thinking about?
DIMUNATION: We're looking for books, whether it's literature or social science or history, that either encapsulated and reflected a moment of time in America that Americans understood and recognized in themselves. Others were books that were particularly difficult for Americans to grapple with the ideas, but now that we look back, we realize that it changed the course and our attitudes about gender and race and sex.
Or we were looking for books that, in retrospect, looked at America as it really was, how it reflected the experience, a diverse experience of a diverse population. It's a variety of things. We're really looking for impact, sort of the rings from the pebble in the pond. That's what we were looking for.
NEARY: Well, let me remind listeners that if they want to see the full list of 88 books, they can go to our website, npr.org. But I'd like you to give me a couple of examples, maybe, of - talk about some books that really sort of represented what those - the criteria that you just outlined there.
DIMUNATION: Sure, to me the most obvious would be "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It's a book that actually goes - comes and goes in terms of contemporary scholarship, it's had good moments and bad moments in its reception. It was a book that launched the career of the most important female writer in American 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 towards 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.
NEARY: You know, one thing that I have to say that I was surprised by was that I wasn't surprised by the list particularly, that, you know, that these are books that I certainly think I grew up with, or my generation, and I'm not going to exactly say what that generation is, but that I certainly grew up reading these books, and these were the kinds of books that maybe were assigned in school as I was growing up.
So I was wondering if there was anything generational that went on as you were discussing these books.
DIMUNATION: Well, there were certainly books that left - that would get suggested that left the rest of the group completely silent. I think "The Yearling" was one of them, or somebody talked about the importance of "The Yearling," and the rest of the group remained very quiet. So there are books that come and go.
I suppose you could argue that Holden Caulfield is probably not a role model for a contemporary generation.
NEARY: Yeah, why would you pick "Catcher in the Rye" for instance? How did that shape America?
DIMUNATION: Well, it actually, 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.
NEARY: We're talking about books that shaped America, and we'd like to hear from our listeners about books that gave you an insight into a particular aspect of America. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call now. We're going to go to Jane(ph), and she is calling from California. Hi, Jane.
NEARY: Hi, go ahead.
JANE: You know, I don't know really what's on the list, but, you know, I thought we have a lot of people in this country that base their life on, you know, good, solid, Judeo-Christian values, and I wondered if the Bible was one of the books that was chosen. And also, speaking religiously, I know that the Mormon pioneers had a great effect on this nation in settling the Western United States, several states were basically settled by the Mormon pioneers. Do we have the Book of Mormon on your list? I don't know, it just occurred to me.
NEARY: Excellent question. I think the Bible...
DIMUNATION: The Bible is...
NEARY: The Bible is there, but the Book of Mormon, I would say...
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 Hieroglyphic 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.
NEARY: Now something that I found interesting, too, of course there are just, you know, classic novels like "The Great Gatsby," I mentioned a number - "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair, "The Call of the Wild" by Jack London. But you also have "The Joy of Cooking" by Irma Rombauer, and I think there's a couple of other cooking books. But certainly I got a kick out of seeing "The Joy of Cooking" on the list.
DIMUNATION: Yes, and 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.
DIMUNATION: So really, it really was...
NEARY: Which some of us really needed to be told.
DIMUNATION: So it was the introduction of a sort of domestic, scientific approach to the kitchen. The Amelia Simmons is the first indigenous American cookbook and is important because it introduces and saves for us the appetites of a generation, including the first recipe for pumpkin pie.
NEARY: Wow, I didn't know that. What cookbook was that, tell me again?
DIMUNATION: That's the Amelia Simmons.
NEARY: OK, I'll have to remember that. And of course Julia Child, she was introducing French cooking, so - although certainly that has shaped American food tastes, I would say.
DIMUNATION: Yes, it has. I mean, and certainly - and that's the nature of this list and why at a certain point we just stop because we can continue to add books, and that's really what we want people to do. We want to have this conversation and are encouraging people to let us know what books they would add to this list as part of that dialogue. We will next year attempt to incorporate them into another presentation.
NEARY: Well, we have some emails here from people, and interestingly from - some of them - Brandy(ph) in South Carolina suggests "To Kill A Mockingbird" she says has to be on the list as it's a beloved book of many Southerners like myself who read it as a child and knew that racism of my parents was just wrong. And it is on the list.
DIMUNATION: Yes, it is.
NEARY: Another one on the list is "Catch-22," this one from Jerry(ph) in Alaska. I hope Joseph Keller's "Catch-22" is on the list. This is the book all the guys like me read in college.
DIMUNATION: And it's there.
NEARY: And it's there, it's on the list. But how about "I Married a Communist"? This is from Jessica(ph) in Portland, Oregon. "I Married a Communist" was an alternative reality in which the freedoms of free speech, religious communality and political action were constrained. It made this Gen-Xer more aware of the political downside of certain historical figures, for example Lindbergh, but more importantly of the red scare. That one's not on the list.
DIMUNATION: No, it's not.
NEARY: All right, well, we're going to be talking about more that are and are not on the list, and you are welcome to join this discussion about books that shaped America in a moment. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web," "The Words of Caser Chavez," "The Boston Women's Health Book Collective," "Our Bodies, Ourselves." We're talking about some of the books that shaped America.
The exhibit running at the Library of Congress through September - there are 88 books in all, and you can find a link to the full list at npr.org - and I'm very embarrassed, I misspoke earlier. "The Jungle," of course, was written by Upton Sinclair.
What book gave you a new insight into some aspect of American life? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. And our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guest is Mark Dimunation, he serves as part of the small committee that formed the Library of Congress list, and he's chief of Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the library.
And since the Library of Congress wants to get people talking about books, we thought we'd help get that conversation going by inviting one of our favorite book lovers to join us today. Ron Charles is the deputy editor of the Washington Post's book section. Good to have you with us, Ron.
RON CHARLES: Hi, thanks.
NEARY: So what do you think of this list? Does it work for you?
CHARLES: It's a very provocative idea.
CHARLES: Lists are like traffic accidents, aren't they? You just can't stop - I mean, you have to stop and look, you know, and you have to rush in because you feel like you can help.
CHARLES: But 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.
NEARY: Well, what do you think is missing?
CHARLES: Religion is missing, and that's an enormous hole.
NEARY: Which one of our listeners...
CHARLES: I think she's right on. I mean, here we have a book, The Book of Mormon, that is responsible for one of our 50 states. You know, "Goodnight Moon" cannot claim that. Religion influenced this country very dramatically right from the start. The first bestsellers were collections of sermons, you've got Thomas Shephard(ph), people we don't even know anymore. Cotton Mather wrote 450 books. Where are all these religious thinkers, and why aren't they on here?
Or Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell or the whole New Age movement of the last century, with Richard Bach and "A Course in Miracles" and Marion Williamson. These books had tremendous influence on our culture, and they are nowhere on this list.
NEARY: Well, was that deliberate?
DIMUNATION: No, I don't think so. I don't think we set out excluding religion. I think in the process - I think the contemporary examples would be ones that we would leave aside as perhaps influencing our own generation, but we'll leave that aside for consideration later on.
But I think, you know, "Magnalia Christi Americana" is a very good example of a book that could easily - Cotton Mather's book - that could arrive on the list. And as I said earlier, I think The Book of Mormon would also be a good one.
There is some reality that the list, at a certain point, you do get into what are you removing in order to add, and it can cause very curious conversations, along the line of dumping "Goodnight Moon" in order add The Book of Mormon. It just creates...
DIMUNATION: It creates a conversation that...
NEARY: But let's talk about "Goodnight Moon" because I was interested to see "Goodnight Moon." "Cat in the Hat" is on there too, I think, right?
DIMUNATION: Yes, it is.
NEARY: And "Cat in the Hat," "Cat in the Hat" really made sense to me because I've done some reporting on that, and I know that it sort of influenced the way we teach kids how to read. It sort of changed the way we teach kids how to read. What about "Cat in the Hat"? I mean what about "Goodnight Moon," which of course is a wonderful, wonderful book, but how did that shape us?
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.
NEARY: Yeah. What's missing for you, Ron? You said everybody's going to have a book that's missing, right?
CHARLES: My favorite would be Emerson's essays. I mean he laid down so many really foundational principles for us, from self-reliance to the over-soul. All the transcendentalists reflected his ideals. He taught Henry David Thoreau, who is on your list, of course. Why isn't he on the list?
DIMUNATION: I think it's just a matter, again, of we having Whitman and Thoreau already, and Emerson, we wouldn't have argued against it, it's just one of these matters of the list gets crowded quickly.
CHARLES: You probably wouldn't have argued against any book, right? It was just a matter of limiting it.
DIMUNATION: Well, that's really it. In the process of shaping this, until you're actually given the assignment...
DIMUNATION: It seems really easy.
CHARLES: I know, I know.
NEARY: You know, I'm going to tell you something interesting that's happening here. Emails are coming in, and most of them, I would say, are books that are on the list. So I'm going to just real quickly go through. From Marcia in Mission, Louisiana, "Black Like Me." This book changed my understanding of black people's struggle in this country and the world. And that is on the list, right? Is that on the list?
DIMUNATION: "Fire Next Time" is on the list.
NEARY: "Fire Next Time" is on the list. "Huckleberry Finn," "Moby Dick" and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."
DIMUNATION: Yes, all three.
NEARY: All three are on the list. OK, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
NEARY: That's on the list. OK, there you go. "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan. I read it when I was 17. It explains science in a way I could understand and strengthened my confidence and my ability to search for more answers. That led me to pursue a degree in chemistry.
DIMUNATION: I'm glad to hear that. Yes, it's on the list.
NEARY: On the list. "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
NEARY: And that's another one I wondered about, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," which is a lovely book, obviously, but again shaped - how does that shape who we are?
DIMUNATION: I think it's an example of a generational book that probably is not read as much now but at the time really addressed the experience of otherness, the experience of urban life. There's difficulties that are addressed in this book that gripped a conversation in America for a while. And I think it's one of those books that had currency for a certain period of time and now has faded to a certain degree but was persuasively argued onto the list.
NEARY: Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Sue, and she's calling from Salem, Virginia. Hi, Sue.
NEARY: Go ahead.
SUE: Well, I'm 68 years old, and I was reared in a household with two brothers, and there was no differentiation between us. We could all do anything we wanted to in terms of - you know, we all cooked, we all worked in the shop, all that stuff. But I read, at the age of 13, Kerouac's "On the Road," and that was my story.
SUE: I mean, I was there. I was in the car. I was going out. I was experiencing it until there was a place when - and I can't remember the exact place in the story, but they were on a flatbed truck heading out across the desert, and somebody had to pee. So he hung onto a post sticking off the - sticking up on the truck, and at that point it was like I had - I was on that truck, but I slammed into a wall.
SUE: It was not - it was not my story. And I realized - and it was more than just relief.
NEARY: All right then, well, thanks for your call. I'm not sure where that story was going to end right there, but it is - that book is - "On the Road" is...
DIMUNATION: As much as it is her story, it's on the list, yes, it is.
NEARY: So another one that was on the list. Ron, I was going to ask you: Is there - apart from things that you think are missing in a general sense, is there - do you have a book in particular that you would really like to have seen? I mean, you're a fiction guy.
CHARLES: Oh, as far as a novel goes? No, I was very satisfied. It was when I looked back that I thought there were holes. There was a time when everyone who went to school memorized poetry by Longfellow, and he's not on this list. There was a time when everyone read 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.
And I'm curious about where he is.
DIMUNATION: He's in 89, 90 and 91.
NEARY: Well, it is really interesting to have that kind of number limitation, that you really just have to...
DIMUNATION: It just, it happened. But I mean, yes, they're difficult to argue against these suggestions. I mean, there are others even that, you know, some of us put forward on the committee that I think would be strong additions. I think "Main Street" is something that should be on the list. Some people have suggested that "Lolita" be on the list.
We've had, you know, Dreiser's "American Tragedy." There's Dos Passos's "USA." There are many, many - but you see already I've listed five from a certain generation of writers, in addition to if we were to go back to the 19th century.
And so at some point you have to just make the gesture that the transcendentalists are represented, the Romantic novelists of the 19th century are represented, and you start that conversation. But it doesn't mean that if we were to do the next 88, we wouldn't be doing them.
CHARLES: Well, 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?
DIMUNATION: I would agree. I think Poe is lacking.
CHARLES: And 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.
NEARY: Here's an interesting question from John in San Antonio, Texas: I really enjoyed the list both for what is on it and for its variety. I recognize a lot of books that had been banned at one time or another. Is there an account of how many of the books that shaped America were banned at one point or another in their history? Did you look into that at all?
DIMUNATION: That's a really interesting point. I mean, I know of books that were - I mean, "Howl" is certainly a great example of a book that actually went through a trial to appear. But I haven't gone back to look at how many are represented here. It wasn't a deliberate attempt to find books that were provocative at a certain point, although I suppose if you think about it, perhaps the books that have risen to a certain level of impact are books that sparked controversy when they were released.
NEARY: All right. We're going to take another call. We're going to go to Jim, and he's calling from Sacramento, California. Jim? Have I got you there, Jim?
NEARY: OK. Go ahead.
JIM: Yeah. My book was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig.
NEARY: How did that sort of shape your - how do you feel that book sort of gave you a new insight into America or...
JIM: Well, I was raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy for many years. And when I went in the military at the age of 19, I went - was in Turkey at the time, serving my country. And I read that book, and it totally opened my consciousness up to the possibilities of what's around there, and it really changed my life. I'm still a Christian, but what it did to me has just really opened my mind.
NEARY: Is that on the list?
DIMUNATION: No, it's not, and it was discussed. But what I like about this list is what we just heard from this gentleman, which is this list provokes this kind of conversation. And the fact that people will step forward and talk about a book, which is the point of this for the library...
DIMUNATION: ...talk about a book that's fundamentally altered their life brings Americans into this conversation about reading and the impact of books on our culture and our time.
DIMUNATION: So that's a very moving testimonial to that book.
NEARY: Thanks so much for calling, Jim.
NEARY: One of our emails also suggested "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen, which I don't think is on the list. And that book just came out a couple of years ago. And I'm wondering...
CHARLES: I would go with "The Corrections." I thought it was more foundational. I thought it was more revelatory. I thought it was more experimental. I thought it was a better book.
NEARY: Yeah. But I was wondering how many contemporary books - or did you - was there a cutoff point in terms of time or...
DIMUNATION: There was no cutoff point. There was no attempt to be even and consistent over chronology. There wasn't even an attempt to be giving percentages to certain kinds of books. It just kind of flowed naturally. I think there's a natural reservation on the part of us who are historians and also, I think, literature people, that the contemporary - our contemporary culture is almost too hard to judge, in a way, as to whether it has impact on American culture beyond the immediacy of the release...
NEARY: Like how long is it going to last, how long...
CHARLES: It's like trying to cut your own hair. You just shouldn't do it.
NEARY: And that was Ron Charles, deputy editor of The Washington Post book section. And we're also talking with Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division in the Library of Congress. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
All right. And we have from Anne(ph) in Cincinnati - this is an interesting question: Which authors on your list represent the recent immigrant experiences and reshaping of American identity? Do you have Gish Jen, Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, or others on your list?
DIMUNATION: No. There is an effort - there was an effort, I would say, on the part of the committee to make sure that we were representing the diversity of American experience. And I wouldn't argue with any of the authors, really, that are put forward. Other than that we were looking for impact across a larger population.
And so there are books, in fact - those books that have crossed into more popular reading would certainly be candidates for it. There's an attempt to do that. I don't think we were trying to be overly deliberate about it. We were looking for books that had impact regardless of their origin or viewpoint. But I think those are terrific recommendations.
The difficulty, of course, with looking at representing a list of groups is that there will always be a longer list of groups. And so we were trying to look for a larger cultural impact, but that's not to deny the impact of the books or the authors that were just listed.
NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Ben, calling from Chico, California. Hi, Ben.
BEN: Hi. Thanks for having the show. This is a very interesting topic. It seems like everybody is inevitably put on the defensive, so I'm going to throw my hat in the ring. What do you think of Ray Bradbury? He had a great influence on me personally, and I see how he sort of represents that, especially in the space stories like "Martian Chronicles," even though it's really short stories, it seems like it echoes to the prairie days, the expansionist aspect of American life.
DIMUNATION: Well, I don't feel defensive at all. He's on the list with "Fahrenheit 451."
NEARY: He's on the list with "Fahrenheit 451," but not with "The Martian Chronicles."
BEN: Well, yeah, that's the one. You have to pick the novel, don't you?
DIMUNATION: You know, again, this is a representation. I mean "451" also addresses a certain notion of America in a certain period of time and censorship and control. So we felt that that spoke to a larger issue, but also gets Bradbury on the list.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call. Let's see if we can get somebody else in here. Jean(ph) from St. Louis, Missouri. Hi, Jean.
JEAN: Hi. Love your show. Thanks for taking my call. The book I wanted to know is "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters" by Robert Lewis Taylor. It was written in 1958, won a Pulitzer Prize, and then it was made into a TV show that ran in the '63, '64 season. When I was a kid, I grew up watching TV. And because of the TV show, which was a lot of fun to watch, my family took the novel, great, big, fat hunk of novel on a summer vacation, and we would read books aloud.
And what I loved about that book - about a family that went from St. Louis, where I live, to California after the 1849 gold rush - was it presented the European westward expansion kind of in a compliment to the people who were already there. It didn't have that Manifest Destiny idea - we're discovering America - and incorporated the Native American cultures in a way that really made me think about that culture, which became a significant part of my own development and my own spiritual perspective later.
And as I was thinking of your - listening to your show, thinking about that story and my family reading it to one another as we were traveling, "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters," it presented westward expansion with kind of all players on an equal playing field, not good guys, bad guys. And it was a pretty arduous trek. We had a lot easier travels on those vacations than those folks did.
NEARY: Thanks for your call, Jean. That's an interesting perspective, and I don't think that's on the list, as I recall. It's not on the list. But, you know, I really love what Jean just said because what she's saying is it changed the way I think, and I think that's what we're talking about with a book in general. If it changes the way I might see something, then of course it's going to - and if that happens to a lot of people, then it starts shaping the culture in a different way.
CHARLES: And that's the big thrill when you're a teenager and you realize these private intimate thoughts that you were thinking and having with the book are the same ones are other people are having, and it's a wonderful feeling.
NEARY: Well, thanks to both of you for being with us.
DIMUNATION: Thank you very much.
CHARLES: Thank you.
NEARY: Ron Charles is the deputy editor of The Washington Post book section. Mark Dimunation is chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Books can change the way we think and can 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.
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.
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.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."