Friday, June 22, 2012

* * *
It's a list. About books. I imagine the Thing Throwers have opinions.
The Library of Congress, the world’s largest repository of knowledge and information, began a multiyear “Celebration of the Book” with an exhibition on “Books That Shaped America.”

“This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. 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.”
My initial reactions:
  • Why only one book after 1987?
  • Where is Dr. Atkins's diet book? Think of the influence that one diet book, originally published in the 1970s, had and still has about how America eats.
  • Where the [FLEETING EXPLETIVE] is Judy Blume?
If you feel venting in comments isn't satisfying your wrath at the GLARINGLY OBVIOUS omissions, the LoC has a survey.


  1. FWIW, on the post-1987 question, I'd consider the 9/11 Commission Report, Fast Food Nation, Waiting to Exhale, and, yeah, Moneyball.

  2. We get Irma (Joy of Cooking) but no Julia (Mastering the Art...)?

  3. They limit the list to books written by "Americans." Note they didn't say "American-born" or you'd have to lose Thomas Paine.

  4. There are probably business-related books of which I'm not aware that have done a lot to shape corporate culture in America in the last 25 years - where are they?

  5. Saray1:13 PM

    Julia is American, Simone and Louisette are not.  So...ALL of the authors of a work have to be American?  I mean, if her kitchen is good enough for the Smithsonian, then her book should be good enough for this list.

  6. Watts1:18 PM

    You should totally say exactly that to the LoC.

  7. A People's History of the United States
    Fun with Dick and Jane
    Johnathan Livingston Seagull
    The Godfather
    The Late, Great Planet Earth

    But most of all,
    All the President's Men

  8. <span>All the President's Men, for sure.   
    Fear of Flying  
    A Brief History of Time  
    And did I miss something/anything by Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson?  
    I'd replace Beloved with Song of Solomon for Morrison (but that would eliminate the "most-recent" book).  
    Perhaps this this splitting hairs, but something like A Streetcar Named Desire or The Iceman Cometh made an impact less as a book than as a performed work.  
    On the other hand, nice to see And The Band Played On, one of my favorite non-fiction books.</span>

  9. Peg of Tilling1:46 PM

    What no Elements of Style? No E. A. Poe? No Theory of the Leisure Class?

  10. gtv20001:48 PM

    <span>The Best and the Brightest  
    Rabbit, Run  
    Goodnight Moon?  Really?</span>

  11. mikeski2:02 PM

    Primary Colors
    The Firm
    There should be something by Stephen King on there.

  12. Yeah, "In Search of Excellence" and "Who Moved My Cheese?" are probably the big two management books that have an argument for the list.  And if you're going to include the McGuffey Primer, what about Fun With Dick and Jane?

  13. If it's really books that "made" America, then you really need to toss out the "American author" piece, and add (at least) Locke's Second Treatise and 1984.  And maybe Bridget Jones' Diary, too.  :)

  14. All The King's Men?
    The Emerging Republic Majority? 

  15. Anonymous2:17 PM

    Ah, so that's why no American Dilemma. Or Tocqueville. 

  16. isaac_spaceman2:32 PM

    <span>First of all, the Federalist -- are they talking about the Federalist Papers? Because (a) not a book, really (just like the 9/11 commission report is not a book) -- I think something should have been intended to be a book when it was written to make the list, otherwise it's cheating. It's like saying The Constitution of the United States of America is an important book because it shaped America and some people have copies with leather covers. And (b) why anonymous?  We know enough now to do some attribution.  Or is it that we just want to respect Madison, Hamilton, and Jay's privacy? 

    Second, if you're going to put books on there just because a lot of people read them (Goodnight Moon, which is an awful book that didn't change anybody's behavior; and Where the Wild Things Are, which obviously is awesome but it shaped America how?), then the implicit argument must be that the act of reading is itself a shaping activity. In which case you might as well put Harry Potter and Tuesdays with Morrie and The DaVinci Code on the list as well.  To be clear, I am not advocating adding these to this list.  I just don't see how "a whole lot of people read this" or even "a whole lot of people loved this" fits into the "shaped America" criterion.

    Third, I am positive we have had this discussion before, and I made my pitches for Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Antitrust Paradox.  The former seems like the most obvious possible omission. 

    Fourth, is the list only for American books that shaped America? Because, say, Democracy in America is a French book that shaped America, and The Communist Manifesto is a pamphlet (which qualifies as a book if the Federalist Papers qualify as a book) that shaped America the way that islands shape shipping routes, and Lady Chatterly's Lover is an English book that shaped America legally, culturally, and I suppose in-one's-pantsily.</span>

  17. isaac_spaceman2:33 PM

    1984?  Was that the one about the Apple commercial?

  18. Kelli Oliver George (cagey!)2:44 PM

    Laura Ingalls Wilder?  John Irving?

  19. The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States <span>was originally published in book form, so I'm not sure what disqualifies it. </span>

    You, 9-1-11: "<span>Nice (and, of course, not at all surprising) to see Jane Jacobs's </span>Death and Life of Great American Cities<span> on the list, but I would think that Frances Fitzgerald's </span>Cities on a Hill<span> is an essential and indispensable companion piece (and works very well with </span>And the Band Played On<span>, incidentally).  But I always say that, because it was one of my favorite books. </span><span>Any accurate list of "most influential" books has to include </span>The Antitrust Paradox<span>.   "</span>

  20. Watts3:57 PM

    EB White represent.

  21. Benner3:59 PM

    Very few religion books. Book of Mormon should count, as could works from the great awakening, Reinhold Neighbur, any number of folks. Relatedly, "Inherit the Wind."

  22. If plays count, then you need to include The Crucible and (I would argue) Angels in America (both volumes). 

  23. I was thinking about The Purpose-Driven Life in terms of recent selections, but, yeah, The Book of Mormon is certainly an American book which has helped shape millions of Americans.

  24. Melissa R.4:46 PM

    I vehemently disagree that any fad diet books should be listed, including but not limited to Dr. Atkins'.

  25. bill.4:54 PM

    I disagree.

  26. bill.4:57 PM

    here's a few I haven't seen mentioned:

    <span><span>The Practice of Management, Peter F. Drucker</span></span>
    <span><span>The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham</span></span>
    <span><span>The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Sloan Wilson</span></span>
    <span><span>Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann</span></span>
    <span><span>The Making of the President, Theodore H. White</span></span>
    <span><span>Roots, Alex Haley</span></span>
    Fear and Loathing on the campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thompson

  27. Watts5:18 PM

    Atkins is the one that stands out to me because something that's still kicking around 40 years later doesn't feel like a fad.

  28. Watts5:21 PM

    On the YA side of things, there's a small sliver of an age group that was deeply affected by "Go Ask Alice" - at least until we grew up and learned it was all propagandist horsesh*t.

    Also, whither Emily Post?

  29. Marsha5:23 PM

    To me, this isn't a list about books so much as about history. I feel completely unable to opine, because whil I read a lot, I have a third-graders understanding of American History and have no idea what influenced who when. So while this discussion is interesting to me, I have no idea who is right or wrong.

    And, to Watts' point about Judy Blume, you have to ask if you're shaping America or shaping Americans. Judy Blume had a profound impact on a lot of American women during a critically formative part of their lives. I'd be hard pressed to say what influence she had over the shaping of the country, unless you're going to argue that these are core texts of the feminist revolution. Which they aren't. But by that standard, Atkins most definitely DID shape America (no pun intended), though I'd say Herman Tarnower's Scarsdale Diet is probably more influential on American society, in that these books are part and parcel of the changes to Americans' way of eating and shopping for food, policies about food labeling, the increase in food consciousness and the prevalence of "health food" in general, etc. These are massive parts of the change in our society from the 1950s to today.

  30. Roots.  Um, yeah.  Kinda huge, hitting #1 even before the miniseries.

  31. Melissa R.6:08 PM

    Per Wiki:  "The Atkins Nutritional Approach gained widespread popularity in 2003 and 2004....
    On July 31, 2005, the Atkins Nutritional company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after the percentage of adults on the diet declined to two percent and sales of Atkins brand product fell steeply in the second half of 2004. The company continues to operate and the diet plan remains popular, although it has not regained its former popularity."

    I really didn't think people followed the atkins that much anymore....nowadays those people go Paleo.  And I suppose that'll eventually be replaced by something else in a few years.

  32. Joseph Finn6:29 PM

    A Brief History Of Time would be out due to Stephen Hawking being British.  

  33. I'd say that the 9/11 Report isn't in itself influential or shaping.  Obviously its subject is a defining event of our time, but not the publication in itself. 

    I agree that "a whole lot of people read/loved this" doesn't qualify.  There are books (and plays) that are wonderful snapshots of our world at a certain point, but they are reactive rather than revolutionary.  Books that in and of themselves shape the way we think as a people, for better or worse, tend to be about sex, diet, or etiquette.  Maybe religion or politics, after we've finished reading the others.

  34. bill.8:57 PM

    Elements of Style? Oh, you mean Correct Your Friends Like a Dick. Deferring to Geoffrey Pullum:

    The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

  35. I can't believe I have opinions about a diet book I've never read, but apparently I do. 

    To me, Atkins is the beginning of the low-carb thing - which leads to South Beach and, I would say, down the line, Paleo.

    I mean, watch any tv series (comedy or reality) from the last five years and I'd be shocked if you don't find a "carbs" joke.

  36. Good point about AmericaNs vs AmericA, Marsha.  Hadn't thought of it that way.

  37. If they're limiting to one per author, it's a rough choice between Elements of Style and Charlotte's Web. I would have gone the other way, but I understand thier choice.

  38. Roots! I don't know if I'm angrier at them for omitting it, or myself for not thinking of it. Good call, bill.

  39. No Naked Lunch? Dispatches? A Bright Shining Lie?

  40. Adding more after a day to think:
    O Pioneers!
    Last of the Mohicans
    Tales from a Wayside Inn
    Ball Four

    And yeah, I'm still annoyed that I didn't think of Roots.

  41. Anonymous10:31 PM


  42. Marnie1:35 AM

    I took a history class in college (at Penn) called Classic Texts in American Pop Culture and I tend to agree with Marsha that the Library of Congress list is more about the role the books played in history than literary value or even just a simple measure of popularity. For this class we read Benjamin Franklin's biography, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dr. Spock's, Baby and Child Care,  Dr. Seuss's, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish, The Joy of Sex, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (among others). So I think I understand where the list is coming from.  It's hard to think of other books which have had a comparable impact on American society (since many of the ones I listed were read by basically all of American society or impacted the fabric of our society). I'm sure there are others missing from the list, but from my own standpoint it's hard to compare the impact of Judy Blume to say that of Betty Friedan.  Blume certainly influenced my life (and that of my friends) but impact on our country as a whole is so incredibly hard to quantify.

  43. The 9/11 Report shut down the conspiracy theories conclusively and told amazing stories of courage on the planes and in the Towers. And think about how much it occupies the field in terms of telling the story of the Attacks.