The Library of Congress — the world’s largest repository of knowledge and information — is beginning its multi-year “Celebration of the Book” with an exhibition, “Books That Shaped America.” The library released its picks of the most influential books last week, which included popular favorites and long-forgotten titles.
Curators and experts from throughout the Library of Congress contributed their choices for “Books That Shaped America,” but there was much debate in having to cut worthy titles from a much larger list in order to accommodate the physical restrictions of the exhibition space.
Some of the titles on display have been the source of great controversy, even derision, in U.S. history. Nevertheless, they shaped Americans’ views of their world and the world’s views of America. The list of 88 books begins with Benjamin Franklin’s “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” from 1751. It includes Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” novels “The Scarlet Letter,” ‘‘Moby-Dick,” ‘‘Little Women” and “The Great Gatsby,” and other famous titles like “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and “The Cat in the Hat.”
Librarian of Congress James Billington says the titles aren’t meant as “best” books. Instead, he says the library wants to spark a conversation about books that influenced the nation. “This list of ‘Books That Shaped America’ is a starting point,” explained Billington. “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. We hope people will view the list and then nominate other titles. Finally, we hope people will choose to read and discuss some of the books on this list, reflecting our nation’s unique and extraordinary literary heritage, which the Library of Congress makes available to the world.”
Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest, federal, cultural institution and has a long history of acknowledging the importance of books. The “Books That Shaped America” exhibition is part of a larger series of programs, symposia and other events that explore the important and varied ways that books influenced Americans. The library wants the public to comment on the books in this exhibition in a survey on the Library’s National Book Festival website (www.loc.gov/bookfest/) and to nominate other titles for subsequent additions to “Books That Shaped America.”
The “Books That Shaped America” exhibition will be on view at The Library of Congress through September 29 in the Southwest Gallery, located on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C., from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. This exhibition is made possible through the support of the National Book Festival Fund. On view in the exhibition are many rare editions from the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, as well as other related items chosen from various parts of the Library.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.