Virginia Republican Party Chair John Whitbeck joins us in studio, and we get an update on Congress and D.C.'s "Death with Dignity" bill from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Creating a comprehensive list of influential books is no easy task, even for the staff of the Library of Congress. But the 88 “Books That Shaped America” on display through the end of this month aren’t meant to be a definitive, static collection. Instead, the goal is to spark discussion and suggestions from readers near and far. We consider the titles that made the cut, and some that didn’t.
- Mark Dimunation Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
- Ron Charles Fiction editor and weekly critic, Washington Post Book World
Audio Slideshow: A Spin Through The “Books That Shaped America” Exhibit
The Library of Congress exhibit “Books That Shaped America” features 88 books, from history and cookbooks to novels and plays. John Cole, director of the Center for the Book, describes how the library chose the collection and shares insight into why “Our Town,” “Charlotte’s Web” and Emily Dickinson’s book of poetry made the cut.
List Of Books That Shaped America
In alphabetical order, the Library of Congress’ list of 88 books that shaped America:
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (1884)
“Alcoholics Anonymous” by anonymous (1939)
“American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons (1796)
“The American Woman’s Home” by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
“And the Band Played On” by Randy Shilts (1987)
“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand (1957)
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1987)
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown (1970)
“The Call of the Wild” by Jack London (1903)
“The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss (1957)
“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger (1951)
“Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White (1952)
“Common Sense” by Thomas Paine (1776)
“The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” by Benjamin Spock (1946)
“Cosmos” by Carl Sagan (1980)
“A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible” by anonymous (1788)
“The Double Helix” by James D. Watson (1968)
“The Education of Henry Adams” by Henry Adams (1907)
“Experiments and Observations on Electricity” by Benjamin Franklin (1751)
“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury (1953)
“Family Limitation” by Margaret Sanger (1914)
“The Federalist” by anonymous/ thought to be Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787)
“The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan (1963)
“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin (1963)
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
“Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
“Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown (1947)
“A Grammatical Institute of the English Language” by Noah Webster (1783)
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck (1939)
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
“Harriet, the Moses of Her People” by Sarah H. Bradford (1901)
“The History of Standard Oil” by Ida Tarbell (1904)
“History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark” by Meriwether Lewis (1814)
“How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis (1890)
“How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie (1936)
“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg (1956)
“The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill (1946)
“Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures” by Federal Writers’ Project (1937)
“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (1966)
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison (1952)
“Joy of Cooking” by Irma Rombauer (1931)
“The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair (1906)
“Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman (1855)
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving (1820)
“Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy” by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
“Mark, the Match Boy” by Horatio Alger Jr. (1869)
“McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Primer” by William Holmes McGuffey (1836)
“Moby-Dick; or The Whale” by Herman Melville (1851)
“The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass (1845)
“Native Son” by Richard Wright (1940)
“New England Primer” by anonymous (1803)
“New Hampshire” by Robert Frost (1923)
“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac (1957)
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (1971)
“Our Town: A Play” by Thornton Wilder (1938)
“Peter Parley’s Universal History” by Samuel Goodrich (1837)
“Poems” by Emily Dickinson (1890)
“Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth” by Benjamin Franklin (1758)
“Pragmatism” by William James (1907)
“The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D.” by Benjamin Franklin (1793)
“The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane (1895)
“Red Harvest” by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
“Riders of the Purple Sage” by Zane Grey (1912)
“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
“Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” by Alfred C. Kinsey (1948)
“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson (1962)
“The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
“The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
“The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner (1929)
“Spring and All” by William Carlos Williams (1923)
“Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert E. Heinlein (1961)
“A Street in Bronzeville” by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945)
“A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams (1947)
“A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America” by Christopher Colles (1789)
“Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960)
“A Treasury of American Folklore” by Benjamin A. Botkin (1944)
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith (1943)
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
“Unsafe at Any Speed” by Ralph Nader (1965)
“Walden; or Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes (1925)
“Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak (1963)
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum (1900)
“The Words of Cesar Chavez” by Cesar Chavez (2002)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWalk into a local library or bookstore and odds are good you won't see L. Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz" shelved next to Noah Webster's "A Grammatical Institute of the English Language" or "The Joy of Cooking" alongside a collection of Langston Hughes's poetry. But at the Library of Congress, those books and 84 others by American authors are displayed together for one reason, the influence they have had on the country.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to walk us through the titles that did and did not make the cut is Mark Dimunation. He is the chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. He served on the committee that selected the 88 books for the Library of Congress' current "Books That Shaped America" exhibit. Mark Dimunation, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARK DIMUNATIONThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Ron Charles. He's a book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post Book World. Ron, good to see you again.
MR. RON CHARLESIt's good to see you again.
NNAMDIMark, choosing a list of books that shaped America is, well, an ambitious undertaking even for the Library of Congress. What inspired this exhibit?
DIMUNATIONWe were launching a three year program at the Library to celebrate the book. And we wanted to do something that launched immediately a conversation amongst Americans regarding books. And we thought what better way than to put a list of books in front of them that they can react to. So because the National Book Festival is opening on the 22nd and 23rd of September we'd thought we would start by looking at books that influenced America in a particular way.
DIMUNATIONI have to say we started off with a title that says The Books That Shaped America and, as people have heard me say, we quickly dropped the article and left it a little bit more open, a little bit more fluid.
NNAMDIBooks That Shaped America, 88 of them. What's the significance of 88? I don't get it. I tried all kinds of numerological combinations and couldn't figure anything out.
DIMUNATIONOne could almost say exhaustion, but that's not the reason. We didn't follow a pattern. We didn't follow a formula. We did have some space restrictions and we did fill the cases in the exhibition. We were trying to avoid, I think, a standardized 100 or 50 that would seem as if it's frozen and static. We really were trying to get people to react to the books that we had up and start a conversation amongst themselves and also with the Library, since we give them the opportunity to react to the exhibit.
NNAMDIChoosing and then whittling down a list could not have been easy. What was the process of selecting and then paring down the selections like?
DIMUNATIONYeah, there was an immediate grouping of books that seemed rather obvious. That was the easy part. Then came the personal favorites. Then came the heated discussions about which novel was going to represent the first half of the 20th century. And it became complicated. We were trying to also make sure that we balanced this with social science and economics and politics, literature, theater, poetry. We tried to be representative of all aspects of American population.
DIMUNATIONIt got to be complicated. We did arrive, finally, at a list. Although, all of us went home with extras that didn't get on the list.
NNAMDIHow many members were on the committee?
DIMUNATIONA working group of about four or five of us and then we reached out to other curatorial staff who are experts in areas of law and science.
NNAMDIGlad you didn't say 88. Have you been to the Library of Congress to check out the "Books That Shaped America" exhibit? Tell us what you think. Call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Charles, as someone outside of this process looking in, I'm curious, what stood out for you when you first looked at the list?
CHARLESYou just can't resist a list. You know, you've got to look at a list. And the first thing you notice, of course, is everything that's been excluded from the list because these sort of things are so provocatively futile. But it's a really engaging collection, I thought. But then even if you have a very good feeling about the Library, as I do, you immediately start to feel critical. You know, why didn't they include this? Why didn't they include that? What are they doing with that book? That shouldn't be there. It's really irresistible.
NNAMDIPeople might say, well, where's the Bible or the Leviathan or "Harry Potter," but those books were left off for one very good reason. They're not written by Americans.
DIMUNATIONThat's correct. And that's, I would say, probably the greatest misconception and reaction to the exhibition, is the question of where is the King James Bible. But in this round of the three year celebration we were looking for American books.
NNAMDIAnd that's one of the things, Ron, you feel they really need to explain to people who come looking there, that they should be looking for books by American authors because otherwise you'll bring in all kinds of stuff.
CHARLESThat was the comment I heard most from people when I visited was, you know, they were naming books by British authors or the Bible came up again and again. And I think some sort of detail in the title might have warned them off from that.
NNAMDIWell, I'd like to hear both of your responses to this, a lot of the initial reaction to the list is personal, even emotional. I know my own. First is always personable, where are the books I like?
NNAMDIHow hard is it to differentiate between what's popular, people's favorites and what endures and influences? First you, Mark.
DIMUNATIONWell, that is in fact the crux of the conversation that we had as curators at the table. We weren't necessarily looking for the best books, nor were we looking for favorites. We were really looking for books that had influence and impact on American culture in any number of ways. In fact, they could be books that were much detested, as long as they had an ongoing influence in some aspect of culture. There were other instances where we were choosing a book to stand in for many because it would be impossible to add everyone's favorites.
DIMUNATIONYou will notice immediately when we have a conversation about this, by the time someone is finished they have named 8, 9, 10 books, without reducing my list by 8, 9, 10 books. So at some point you really do have to draw the line. We stopped that in a way by encouraging people to give us suggestions. And we will repeat this list, hopefully, with another batch.
NNAMDIHow do you make that distinction, Ron Charles, between what's a favorite and what's lasting and influential?
CHARLESWhen I looked at the list what I saw was two different criteria, at least. One was literary history and one was history, which are kind of lightening and lightening bug, you know, as Mark Twain said -- who made the list, I was glad to see. A lot of those books seemed to me to be very influential in our literary history and some of them seemed very influential in our history in ways that made an odd, incongruous collection, which is fun.
DIMUNATIONYeah, I think actually that is the difficulty when you include literature and poetry and theater against something that obviously affected legislation or caused a change in the way in which automobiles are made.
CHARLESOr a cookbook.
DIMUNATIONOr a cookbook, for that matter. But I think one could say that there are ways in which Americans are represented in literature that actually influences our own self conception.
NNAMDIMark Dimunation, he is the chief of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. He served on the committee that selected the 88 books for the Library of Congress' current "Books That Shaped America" exhibit. He joins us in studio to discuss the books that shaped that America with Ron Charles, book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post Book World.
NNAMDIWhich books by American authors do you think have shaped this country most profoundly? Call us with your suggestions, 800-433-8850 or send them to us by tweet @kojoshow here is Peter in Washington, D.C. Peter, you're on the air. Gentleman, put on your headphones so you can hear Peter. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETERYes. Thank you. I just want to thank you for your emphasis on influence of writers as opposed to the riches of writers. I think that many times we underestimate how much writers affect society by their influence. And we tend to put writers on some kind of hierarchy based on how much money they get for their books. My book "Sidewalk Faces" is now available in the D.C. library.
NNAMDIOh, very good, very good move, Peter.
PETERAnd even though I didn't make much money I -- having it available…
NNAMDIKnocked that one out of the park.
NNAMDIYes, go ahead, please, Peter.
PETER…is very, you know, is just a great honor to me. And hopefully I can influence people that way.
NNAMDIGood. You know we were talking earlier about visitors being encouraged to give feedback on the books. I didn't expect the kind of feedback that you would get from Peter on this. But, Peter, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us -- not necessarily to flack your own book, but to tell us what you think about the exhibit at 800-433-8850. Visitors are encouraged to give feedback on the books that meant the most to them personally.
NNAMDIAnd they are also encouraged to suggest additional titles for the list on the Library of Congress website. What has been the reaction from the visitors so far, Mark?
DIMUNATIONWe've received nearly 9,000 responses to the survey that people can take by going online to loc.gov/bookfest. And out of that I have the current top 10 which bunches at the top with "Atlas Shrugged," coming in as number one. "To Kill a Mockingbird" number two. And then followed by "Common Sense," "Huck Finn," "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "The Federalist," "The Jungle," "Grapes of Wrath," "Silent Spring," and "Alcoholics Anonymous" makes the top 10. These are the books that people responding to the survey designate as the books most important in terms of their influence in America, which is quite different from their own personal choices, which is a much more varied and elaborate piece of tapestry.
DIMUNATIONAs you go through it -- some of which are quite clever, some of which are quite astounding. As I was saying earlier to someone, some are quite confused in terms of Tolstoy not being an American. But we've had children's books that are quite dear to people. We've had references to "Elements of Style," which I think is a very smart -- Strunk and White -- is a very smart inclusion. But we've had "A Wrinkle in Time," "Johnny Tremain," there have been children's books. There have been references to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "Babbitt," "Main Street," "Empire of Dreams."
DIMUNATIONThere have been a lot of suggestions that have been very good. Some are very personal, others are really taking to spirit the nature of the list, books that had impact.
NNAMDIAnd it is my understanding that since E. R. Burroughs's "Tarzan of the Apes" is included some people have said it's a great reading list. Others say, wait a minute. Tarzan shaped America? You got that response also.
DIMUNATIONIt's not an uncommon response. But there are books that are here because they have such influence in culture. It may be that the fact, you know, this is a matter of not judging the story of Tarzan as much as it is looking at the pervasive image of Tarzan. You could do that probably with several other characters, but this is a book that has not gone out of production since its publication, that has spawned a variety of media approaches to it that's entered into our culture of vocabulary in a way that is pervasive.
NNAMDIRon, you noticed that when you visited the exhibit it was crowded and people were doing a lot of pointing and laughing.
CHARLESYeah, I was delighted by the crowd. People were real -- one man pointed to "Beloved" and said, hum, I don't know him.
NNAMDIToni wasn't like Toni. He doesn't know Toni. Toni Morrison, of course.
CHARLESWell, that's not fair. Everyone there seemed very smart and very interested and really charmed by it. That's what got me. And it was such an all ages, such an inclusive list, as far as, you know, taking the whole family along. The kids were charmed to see books they had read. Older people were charmed to see books they'd read years ago for the first time.
NNAMDIHere's Robert in Ocean City, Md. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTHey, Kojo. How you guys doing today?
NNAMDIWe're doing well.
ROBERTI love your show. I just wanted to say that. I just had a quick question. Because I haven't been able to see the exhibit yet -- I'm planning on getting over there -- is it purely American authors or is it authors that were later naturalized to be American citizens and maybe it was something they wrote before they were American? It's just a little tidbit I was just wondering about.
DIMUNATIONWe were trying for American books, but that point's well taken. I mean the fact that Ayn Rand is on the list, not American born. There are a couple of others who are also naturalized immigrants. But by and large, they're seen as American books by American authors. I think I'm safe in saying that everything that's on the list was written while they were in America.
CHARLESSome preceded the creation of the United States, but they're still Americans.
DIMUNATIONYes, thank you.
NNAMDIRobert, and if you go to our website kojoshow.org you can see there a list of the books in the exhibit. You can also see an audio slideshow of the exhibit. And the audio is from our producer Tayla Berney's interview with John Colt, director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. So even before you go there you can get a glimpse of what it looks like. Robert, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. If you have called stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you have not the number's 800-433-8850. What books or authors have influenced you most profoundly on a personal level? You might want to see if they're included in this collection. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing the exhibit at the Library of Congress of books that shaped American with Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the library. He served on the committee that selected the 88 books for the Library of Congress's Books That Shaped America Exhibit. He joins us in studio with Ron Charles. He's a book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post Book World. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIRon, the National Book Festival is right around the corner. As someone who's reading constant tales of woe from the publishing industry, do you think that this event and exhibits like it have helped the Library of Congress to reach out and to encourage readers?
CHARLESThe National Book Festival is a shot in the arm for me all year long. When I go there and see -- I think we may get 200,000 people -- is September 22nd and 23rd on the National Mall. It's all free. We've got 125 authors. It is just a tremendous crowd. The talks are great. They're well timed so if it's boring, you know, it's over before you know it. And if it's great you wish they had more. It's a perfect design for a day like this. Please do come out.
NNAMDIAnd you get to see so many authors, if even only for a relatively short period of time. As you pointed out, you never get bored.
CHARLESNo. And every single one of them is willing to sign your book.
NNAMDILooking at this list, Mark, a few themes start to emerge. Did you set out with those themes in mind or did they naturally come together as you started making selections?
DIMUNATIONI think they were accidental. We didn't start with any kind of formula. We weren't overly conscientious about making sure that we were moving decade by decade. We weren't counting various kinds of authors against each other. We started with influence and we tried to keep a focus on that. I will say in retrospect in looking at the list and talking with many people, there are a couple of aspects of this list that I would probably, in the future for the next round, emphasize more heavily. One would be probably religious writings in America. Not necessarily sacred text, but religious ones.
NNAMDIYeah, I was looking for "Elmer Gantry."
DIMUNATIONWell, yeah -- yeah. "Elmer Gantry" is another matter. That's, you know, why "Elmer Gantry" is opposed to the 14 other novels from that period.
DIMUNATIONBut we -- not so much, but I think we accidentally came up with certain themes. And, as has been pointed out, the role of the novel in America runs very strong. The role of certain kinds of documentary monographs that affect legislation or affect daily life are present, whether it be about race or the environment or safety or education or poverty. I think there's a fairly strong emphasis on that kind of material.
NNAMDIThe only religious text included is "A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible" that was written in 1788. Ron, faith has played a big role in this nation's founding. The list includes just one religious text. Do you think there should've been more?
CHARLESI agree with Mark. That was the major emission in this list. When you think about the influence of religion 100 years, 200 years before the country's even founded. Where's Ralph Waldo Emerson for instance? The lapsed Unitarian Minister who shaped so much of the way we think about faith and politics and political faith, self reliance, the American scholar nature. Or "The Book of Mormon" of course. I mean, here's a book that has shaped one of the 50 states. No other book did that. "Snowy Day" didn't do that. Can it really have been excluded when these other books were included?
CHARLESAnd also I'm wondering where all the sort of -- all those sermons. They were the first best sellers in America, these collected sermons 400 years ago. Where are those books? And then where is the New Age Movement represented in this list?
NNAMDIAny other -- any genres that you think may have been excluded also?
CHARLESHorror. I mean, we've got Edgar Allan Poe, you know, the inventor of the detective story, I think. All those great horror classics giving rise to Anne Rice and our vampire obsession and Stephen King and everybody else that followed, and he's not on the list.
DIMUNATIONI would own up to Poe actually. I would own up to Poe.
NNAMDILet's see what our listeners have to say about this. Here is Ellen in Bethesda, Md. Ellen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELLENI wanted to put in a good word for Tarzan, since you have been...
DIMUNATIONIs this Jane?
NNAMDIYou're on to us, Ellen.
ELLENI'm a 70-year-old grandmother. I started reading Burroughs when I was eight. I think I read everything the man wrote and it put me -- and I went from him to "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" and "Beowulf" and, you know, you name it. I like adventure stories. They're fun. And girls' books at that time were "Deadly Dolls." I hope Nancy Drew is not on the list.
DIMUNATIONNo, she's not, although she was heavily recommended.
NNAMDIRon Charles. I think Ron Charles can inform you, Ellen, that the next Tarzan Tome will be written by...
CHARLESA woman. Yeah, the Burroughs Estate has commissioned a woman for the first time to write the next official Tarzan book...
CHARLES...coming out from Tor, I think.
ELLENMaybe we will get Jane's perspective.
NNAMDIEllen, thank you so much for your call.
ELLENOh, I have a question.
ELLENIs Ambrose Bierce on?
DIMUNATIONNo, Ambrose Bierce did not make the list.
ELLENOkay, the next cut. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIBut you can see the list at our website, kojoshow.org,before you even go to the exhibit yourself. And I think after you see the list, you'll want to go to the exhibit, Ellen. Thank you very much for your call. Here now is Jim in Annapolis, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMThank you very much. I had a question if the list -- which I confess I have not looked at since I just found out about the exhibit in the last half hour with you all -- does the list include any books written by Americans but that do not have America as their subject? In other words, is there world history by Americans or novels that take place outside America but written by Americans that were considered influential enough to be on the list?
DIMUNATIONThere are a few certainly. I mean, I suppose "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is certainly -- can be looked at that way. There is an early approach to world history with "Peter Parley's Universal History." I would -- that's an interesting question, not one that we considered that way. But by and large I think the topics are Americans writing about America. That's interesting.
NNAMDIJim, thank you very much for your call. Works about our collective moments of change that either helped to bring about reform or works that chronicled the reaction to cultural change are featured prominently on this list. Did you identify the movements first or the books first?
DIMUNATIONWe started with a hit list of books that -- ones that got nods around the table. That got to be dangerous after a while because I think it led sometimes to enthusiasm about the list where we weren't necessarily laying groundwork for other kinds of topics. And then we had to start cutting and pasting. You're already experiencing that as we talk about this, right.
DIMUNATIONAnd so you see the interest and also the difficulty of doing this. But we were trying to be as inclusive around kinds of writing as possible and also being aware of materials that spoke to different generations as well.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What criteria do you think we should use to measure the effect of literary works? 800-433-8850. Or you might just want to share what books or authors have influenced you most profoundly on a personal level. You can go to our website to do that also at kojoshow.org. Here is Chris in Washington, D.C. Chris, your turn.
NNAMDIHi, Chris. You're on the air.
CHRISHi. I heard you guys were talking about the 88 books that changed America. And I had just seen "Invisible Man" this weekend at the Studio.
NNAMDIOkay. The Studio Theater?
CHRISYeah, and I thought I'd call in and just say it was a really awesome -- it was a cool production in a really interesting way, having read the book, to also see the play and interact with it in a different way.
CHARLESAnd the book is...
CHRISAnd that there had been no other staging or adaptations of the novel, the first...
NNAMDIYeah, I've never seen it anyplace else. You found that the Studio interpretation of it did justice to the book?
CHRISYeah, you know, some things are not there but that's expected. But the -- kind of that breathing life into all of those characters that just live on the page, it was an extraordinary production.
NNAMDIOh good. So you're glad to see that "Invisible Man" is on the list.
CHRISYeah, totally. And I guess if anyone is interested they should totally go see it. It was great.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you mentioned that because, as I was talking about earlier, a lot of these books on the list have to do with significant movements or events. The shaping of the nation is represented on this list with several tones. But one founding father makes the list three times. Is Ben Franklin the author who shaped the country most profoundly?
CHARLESWell, he certainly, I think, earns his place both as a humorist, also as probably writing the strongest and most important autobiography in America, and as an early scientist. We have to remember that Ben Franklin in his age was the most famous American in the world. And much of what Franklin said and wrote was a lure and a draw to the rest of America.
NNAMDIThank you for you call, Chris. We move now to Sybil in Annapolis, Md. Sybil, your turn.
SYBILHi there. I wanted to ask, I haven't seen the list yet but I was curious about poetry. What poetry was chosen for the list and if there were clear choices or any sort of controversy concerning what poets might've been chosen.
DIMUNATIONThere wasn't controversy other than the fact that you can only fit so many of anything on the list. Yeah, we do have a good number of poets, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks...
CHARLES...Whitman and Dickinson are on the list.
SYBILOh good. Those were the two I was going to ask about actually, Whitman and Dickinson, yeah.
SYBILGreat. Okay, thanks.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. How well is science represented among the titles?
DIMUNATIONScience I think was a little more difficult for the committee as a whole. We were looking for books that had a dramatic impact on culture in terms of perception of science. I think when you start getting into the territory of the 50 books in science that most had an impact it's a very different kind of list, although I think it's a balance game. We did try to and I think that's why actually Franklin shows up early on. There is a work on "The Double Helix." There is "Cosmos" which may seem popularized to people but is massively published and extraordinarily popular. And probably had more to do with bringing science to a reading audience than almost any other book.
CHARLESOne of Franklin's books you have on the list is about his experiments with electricity?
NNAMDIHere now is Barbara in Arlington, Va. Barbara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARBARAThank you. And it's a pleasure to meet these good gentlemen, these good (unintelligible) Library of Congress. I'm a huge fan. I'm just wondering, given the influence of race in America and the whole national conversation we're still having about reparations, race and reconciliation, and black/white relations in general, I wanted to hear more about literature like that, books like "The Fire Next Time" and "Manchild in the Promised Land."
NNAMDIGlad you should mention that, Barbara because, Ron Charles, lists of literary greats are often criticized for being full of all white men. But you note that this list actually does a good job when it comes to diversity.
CHARLESIt does, and I'm sure that was by design, wasn't it? You were trying to reflect the diversity of the nation.
DIMUNATIONWe were being mock-ish about it, but we were trying to be sensitive.
CHARLESRight. Yeah, I thought they did a good job with that. What I didn't notice though -- and lists always do this of course -- is this a list of very nice books. These are books that make us feel really good about ourselves. And that does not accurately reflect the books that have influenced us. Back in the early 20th century, late 19th century there a lot of very influential books that are really ugly, racist tracks.
CHARLESFortunately those have been forgotten and many of their views have been forgotten too but those books did influence. And I think it would've been nice if it included some of those really ugly books to remind us of what had shaped us.
BARBARAUh-huh. The other comment I had...
NNAMDI"The Fire Next Time" is included by the way, Barbara.
BARBARAOh, good 'cause Baldwin is so important. And I just wanted to give a cautionary notice well for greater cross cultural sensitivity we shouldn't refer to them as American authors and American literature. It's really U.S. 'Cause if we're referring to the Americas that would include all of Latin, Central, North and South America. We...
NNAMDIA sensitivity I encounter whenever I travel to South America, as a matter of fact.
BARBARARight, right. And these are U.S. authors and U.S. literature. I wonder, did Thomas Paine make the list, "Common Sense?"
DIMUNATIONYes, he did.
BARBARAYeah, okay. Good.
DIMUNATIONI'm sure he felt that way as well.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. The number's 800-433-8850. We're discussing The Books That Shaped America exhibit at the Library of Congress. We're talking about 88 books with Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the library, that served on the committee that selected the 88 books, and Ron Charles, book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post Book World. And so many of you who'd like to offer your own suggestions. Jeff in Fairfax, Va. Hi, Jeff.
JEFFOh yeah. Is "The Caine Mutiny" on that list?
DIMUNATIONNo, it's not.
JEFFOh my gosh, okay. My vote would be for "The Caine Mutiny." And I think Herman Wouk's a genius and it's also the second best adaptation from a book to a film next to "To Kill a Mockingbird." And then I'm off the air. You guys have a good day, all right?
NNAMDIWell, you should understand that they're also seeking suggestions from people just like you, Jeff, offering opinions. Because what the Librarian of Congress James Billington said is that what we're trying to get here is a national conversation. And it looks like they've been off to a good start. Mark, beyond literature and nonfiction biographies or guides there are a number of books on this list that tell us how to do things around our homes. How did you decide which books about domestic life, so to speak, to include?
DIMUNATIONWe were looking for popular titles that were influential. that's why we , in fact, chose the -- Harriet Beecher Stowe, by the way, shows up twice with "Uncle Tom..."
NNAMDIOh yeah, that's interesting.
DIMUNATIONRight -- "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and then...
NNAMDI"Uncle Tom's Cabin" was the obvious one.
NNAMDIBut the other one wasn't that obvious. Please tell our listeners about it.
DIMUNATIONRight. "The American Woman's Home" which is really one of the first books to combine a whole notion of domesticity with science and sanitation and order and regulation and aptitude and giving women a certain kind of position in life, and coming out in 1869 and becoming immensely popular.
NNAMDIWritten by Harriet Beecher Stowe with her sister, Catharine Beecher.
DIMUNATIONRight, that's correct. I think probably the most difficult choice was whether we went with Julia Child or "Joy of Cooking." And all my friends have questioned me about this. But as I like to point out, "Joy of Cooking" was the most popular of the attempts to codify American cooking into a regulated scientific measured process that would allow people to cook. As I often point out, the opening line of the recipe says, you cook by first facing the stove.
DIMUNATIONIt is basic but it goes on to 18 million copies and has never gone out of print since it was published in 1831 -- 1931, sorry. So it's the pervasiveness of "Joy of Cooking" and the fact that it's a certain level of home that it enters into I think that made us choose that.
NNAMDIAnd, Ron, the title of Dr. Spock's 1946 book "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" is also included here. You thought it was good to see these kinds of titles.
CHARLESYeah, I think it reminds us that this is not a collection of books that shaped college professors. It's a collection of books that shaped our country and, you know, regular people. And to that end, I would've liked to see more Pulp actually. I mean, these are the books people actually read. We happen to be the country with the world's most popular living author, Danielle Steele -- what 450 million, maybe 500 million copies. She's not on the list. It's impossible to ignore her influence. And romance in general, I think, should've been represented better on this list.
NNAMDINot to mention the people who like to cook with their backs to the stove.
NNAMDIHere's Alan in Alexandria, Va. Alan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALANHi, Kojo, can you hear me okay?
ALANOkay. First of all, thank you for the show. It's a great show. It's inspiring. Two books that changed my life, one I read in 9th grade when I was -- well that means about 14, 15 years old -- (unintelligible) book. Just a fantastic book and I don't think this book is on the list. I'm looking at the list, I don't see that book there.
DIMUNATIONIt didn't make the list.
NNAMDIDidn't make the cut.
DIMUNATIONIt was discussed.
DIMUNATIONIt was discussed.
ALANOkay. That changed my life and I will never forget it, and it influenced how I live my life. So one, and then two, German author, and I read this as an adult (unintelligible) as an adult was "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse, which all but changed my life when I read it.
DIMUNATIONWell, of course, Hesse is not an American author so it wouldn't come to play in this list.
ALANYes, that's correct. So those are the two books that really influenced me. And, again, I appreciate you folks putting this show on and treasuring books. It just is a wonderful, wonderful activity for all of us.
NNAMDIAppreciate you sharing the books that influence you with us. We're going to take a short break. If you have already called stay on the line. If you haven't yet we still have a few lines open. Which books by American authors do you think have shaped this country most profoundly? What would you add to the list that may not already be there, 800-433-8850? You can see the list at our website kojoshow.org where you can also ask a question or make a comment. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. The exhibit at the Library of Congress is called Books That Shaped America. We're talking with Mark Dimunation. He is the Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the library who served on the committee that selected the 88 books that make up the exhibit. And we're also talking with Ron Charles, book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post Book World.
NNAMDIMark, beyond the care of our homes and the preparation of meals there are also some titles that aim to aid us through our lives on the list. Was the inclusion of self help titles at all controversial?
DIMUNATIONI think we made a real effort to try and capture that movement, a little of what Ron was referring to earlier in terms of the New Age Movement perhaps falling off the list. But it is a major genre in especially 20th century publishing in America, and certainly in terms of readership. Whether you're talking about something like "Alcoholics Anonymous," which I think at this point has 30 million copies published, or whether you go to...
NNAMDIDale Carnegie "How to Win Friends and Influence People."
DIMUNATION...Dale Carnegie. Absolutely. So I think we were trying to touch on those books that were well recognized, that had a major following as a way of representing those titles.
CHARLESAnd of course, the self help movement as we think of so modern stems right from Ben Franklin's autobiography, when he writes that he tried to achieve moral perfection by making up this list.
NNAMDIExactly. On now to Anita in Alexandria, Va. Anita, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANITAThank you very much. I was particularly interested in what children's books made it. I know that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "The Yearling" comes to mind for me as a book you saw regularly published in the '50s and '60s for school. And I'm just wondering what kind of American authors made it onto the list for children.
DIMUNATIONI smiled when you mentioned "The Yearling" because one of the things that we learned in this process was that books speak to generations. And "The Yearling" was proposed by one member of the committee and met with absolute silence by everybody else at the table. So this is an example of how books touch a certain group at a certain time. It didn't make the list however there are a number of children's books. "Charlotte's Web," "The Cat in the Hat," "Snowy Day," "Goodnight Moon," a couple of others.
ANITASo that's interesting 'cause I -- a lot of those I kind of think, well, those are kinda of late 20th century, "Cat in the Hat." I don't know "Snowy Day." I guess I'm not as up on children's literature. I recently read "The Yearling" to my 10-year-old son and he was enamored with it and he couldn't wait to be Jody and to live out in the woods. So it's just really interesting to hear 'cause I listen to that list, I'm like, well I still think that's somewhat generational too, like "Goodnight Moon." But I don't know if they're as enduring. And it's just kind of interesting.
ANITAWere there any that in general that are no longer published that we believe will now be republished because they've made the list or -- children's or otherwise?
DIMUNATIONHum. That's a very good question but nothing comes to mind in the sense that they have fallen off entirely. There are certain books that are coming out of social science that may not be as popular as we're indicating. I mean, for example, the Dale Carnegie book. But by and large the authors are relatively recognizable and their works are readily available. But that's an interesting question. Certainly the earlier than the 18th century books, Amelia Simmons cookbook from the 18th century is an important work but I doubt will be revived given -- because it was included in this exhibition.
NNAMDIAnita, thank you very much for your call. Ron.
CHARLES"A Snowy Day" was the first time I saw a black person in a book. I grew up in a very segregated part of St. Louis and that was a big deal to me. And I think for a lot of white suburban America that was the first time and it was a very positive experience.
DIMUNATIONAnd that's exactly the reason why that's included of all the children's literature, is that it's a first in that sense.
NNAMDIMore on children's literature -- Anita, thank you for your call -- we move on to David in Alexandria, Va. David, your turn.
DAVIDWell, I think my question was already answered. "Charlotte's Web" is what I wanted to have hyped and I'm so glad it's on there. But thank you for having me on. I'm a big listener, Kojo. My question had to do with regards to popularity of the book. Did you gauge that with regards to a print run? And how do you compare that to the impact that a book has or a body of knowledge containment that a book has in the culture? Do you measure recurrences of a turn in lexis nexus or like how do you -- did you even go the route of quantifying print runs versus impact at all?
DIMUNATIONPrint runs were not -- we did not start by putting down a list of the most published books in America, which would be a very different list. But we did use -- as you've already heard me use on this program we did use print runs when it spoke to the pervasiveness of a book when we were discussing its impact, whether it be "Joy of Cooking" or "Alcoholics Anonymous" or any number of books that may make people pause until you remind them of how enormous their publication history is.
DIMUNATIONBut we -- that's a very -- you got to the crux of the conversation, which is how do you gauge impact on popular culture versus popularity. And I think that's a very delicate kind of choice that we have to make.
NNAMDIGoing back to his choice of "Charlotte's Web" were the children's selections anymore emotionally charged than any of the other selections you made?
DIMUNATIONWell, "Johnny Tremain" didn't make the list and that was my -- no. I think, you know, in this regard I think as curators and librarians at the Library of Congress we're able to set aside our own childhoods in order to look at the impact of a particular book. Although, you know...
CHARLESThen you're the only ones.
DIMUNATIONBut everyone -- I mean, I mentioned "The Yearling" and certainly that didn't make it. But there were strong discussions about that. I think it's actually the 19th century ones that were harder, you know, "Little Women," "Huckleberry Finn," you know, Horatio Alger stories. Those were the harder ones I think to nail down.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, David. We got an email from Margo in Chevy Chase who says, "It's a wonderful exhibit and it's great fun to go through it and see how many books you've read on the list. I took my 16-year-old daughter and she took pride in seeing not only how many books she recognized but how many she had already read. Of course we both walked away pledging to read more." Ron, what does this say about the state of reading fiction in America that a number of the fiction selections are books American students are made to read in school?
CHARLESI don't know if that's true or not. I don't know, as you get across the country, what children are reading. I was a high school teacher for years but I'm not -- I was at a private school -- I'm not sure what public schools are reading in general. I don't know how much the cannon has broken down and now we don't have a collection of ten books we've all read anymore.
DIMUNATIONI would say that this doesn't represent current reading lists in that regard. It may represent more like my generation of reading in high school, but --
CHARLESThe cannon was much firmer back...
DIMUNATIONYeah, but this reaction on the part of a parent and a child is really the intention of the exhibit, and is consistently happening in that exhibition. The most satisfying part of this exhibition is to stand in that room and listen to the conversations of people recognizing books, talking about them to their children, about how important they were to them when they were growing up and actually watching young readers acknowledging that there're books that they've seen and read. And oftentimes people walk away with a list of books to read. And you couldn't ask for a better result of this exhibition.
NNAMDIOn to Ryan in Washington, D.C. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi, Kojo. I was just wondering about -- specifically about "The Catcher in the Rye" by Salinger, whether it was on the list because it seemed to be like a relative timeless story that was pretty much applicable even today, even though it was written, you know, whatever it was, 60, 70 years ago.
DIMUNATIONYes, it is on the list although interestingly the conversation around "Catcher in the Rye" takes the opposite tact, which is, is it a book that still speaks to a younger generation. But it certainly was viewed as having a great impact.
RYANI have one more question whether some of these other authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, like Hemmingway, since they were ex-patriots, were those -- were any of the books they had written overseas considered on this list also?
DIMUNATIONHum. Well, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" I believe...
CHARLESI think he was abroad for that.
DIMUNATION...yeah, I think was actually written abroad. I think we, in that sense, would let them off the hook by being quintessential American authors.
CHARLESHenry James didn't make it, though.
DIMUNATIONNo, Henry James did not.
CHARLESOnce he went to England he was off the list.
DIMUNATIONAnd we didn't forgive T. S. Eliot either.
NNAMDIDiane in Riverdale, Md. says, "The omission that jumps out at me is 'Death of a Salesman' and to a lesser degree, 'The Crucible.' No Arthur Miller?"
CHARLESIt's funny. I was just grilling Mark about that in the lobby.
DIMUNATIONNo wonder he seems tired of hearing the question.
DIMUNATIONIf the list had been longer, it certainly would've been there.
NNAMDIMark, we won't ask you to pick a favorite, but was there one title that you would've gone to the mat for and insisted it be included if you had gotten significant pushback from other committee members on it?
DIMUNATIONHum. There are a couple. "Howl"...
DIMUNATION...yeah, Allen Ginsberg.
DIMUNATIONYes. I would've fought for that. Although, I would've been happy with "Tropic of Cancer."
CHARLESThat shaped America?
NNAMDIOh yeah, yeah, yeah.
DIMUNATIONFreedom of speech.
NNAMDIYeah, "Tropic of Cancer," Henry Miller, yeah.
CHARLESYou could use...
DIMUNATIONYou could use -- yeah, see this is the problem with the list, you could use any number of books, but...
CHARLESYou did say Ulysses did that earlier.
DIMUNATIONBut James Joyce is not...
CHARLESI know, I realize he's not American, but it's the legal history.
NNAMDI"Howl" was the voice of a movement in a lot of ways, was it not?
DIMUNATIONAnd also representative of an entire B generation culture...
NNAMDICulture -- subculture.
DIMUNATIONI think "In Cold Blood" I would've argued for. I did argue for "Alcoholics Anonymous" as one of the books I thought needed to be on the list. And other were equally persuasive, but I think we -- that wasn't -- well, hum, I think there were certainly books that people walked away without having them on the list. I think "Book of Mormon" was one that came and went and came and went and certainly in retrospect, I think we probably would reconsider.
NNAMDIHere's Byron in Clinton, Md. Byron, your turn.
BYRONYes, I was just wondering if any science fiction books made the list. I work in engineering and I know a lot of people were inspired by people like Asimov or Ben Bova or other writers. That I just feel like American science fiction is so definitive of kind of like that post war or leading up to the war era that one of those books probably should've made it.
NNAMDIByron, if there was a science fiction that you would -- science fiction writer you would expect to be on the list, who would it be?
NNAMDIWell, Ray Bradbury's there.
DIMUNATIONThe Ray -- "Fahrenheit 451" is on. Also "Stranger in a Strange Land" is on. But I think that's it for science fiction. I wouldn't disagree with what you're saying but that's what made the list.
BYRONOkay. Well, I was curious and I think science fiction deserved a place there.
NNAMDIThank you very much and it did have a place on the list. Eric in Washington, D.C. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICKojo, I love your show. I love the selection of discussions. I have a slight criticism very quickly. I don't think the gentlemen on the show actually accurately measured the influence of film on the same book after it came out. Take the example "Tarzan" for instance. The minute Tarzan goes up on the big screen and you measure the sales of the book after big screen -- or "To Kill a Mockingbird," the same influence, and I don't think they actually distinguished what film did for the same book once it actually came out.
ERICMore Americans recognized Tarzan's cry, you know, the one I can't repeat on the radio and, of course, wouldn't be able to read it in the book. Or "To Kill a Mockingbird" and several others. I'm mighty, mighty concerned that you left out "Lolita," Nabokov perhaps because he wasn't American then. I'm not quite sure.
DIMUNATIONAnd it's so dirty.
ERICWell, I'd love to hear more if you guys actually measured what film does for popularity or the opposite of a book.
NNAMDII guess Carol Burnett would've not had that Tarzan yell had she not seen the film.
DIMUNATIONActually, we took into serious consideration the fact that a book could spawn representations in other media. So, in fact, that was a selling point for a book rising on the list was the fact that it was pervasive enough in American culture that it could be represented in numerous ways. Lolita has come up oftentimes as a recommendation and I certainly wouldn't argue against it.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Mark Dimunation is the Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. Mark, thank you for joining us.
DIMUNATIONThank you very much.
NNAMDIRon Charles is a book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post Book World. Ron, thank you for joining us.
CHARLESIt was a pleasure.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. The engineer today Timmy Olmstead. Natalie Yuralivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website kojoshow.org. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Lifelong Washingtonian and community advocate Theresa Howe Jones passed away last week at the age of 84. She leaves a legacy of meaningful work in the Anacostia neighborhood and in D.C. as a whole.
A new study explains the effects of rising sea levels in coastal regions, including Maryland's Eastern Shore, and parts of Virginia. What are cities in our region doing to combat these events?
The dining staples you'd expect to find on the street or in diners are becoming more and more upscale in the District of Columbia. What does that signal about the city to its longtime residents?