I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I recently visited an exhibit at the Library of Congress called “Books that Shaped America.” I thought it would be interesting to clarify what it means for a book to “shape America.” Here’s an excerpt from the Library of Congress website:
The titles featured [in the exhibit] have had a profound effect on American life, but they are by no means the only influential ones. And they are certainly not a list of the “best” American books, because that…is a matter of strong and diverse opinion. Curators and experts from throughout the Library of Congress contributed their choices, but there was much debate—even agony—in having to remove worthy titles from a much larger list in order to accommodate the physical constraints of this exhibition space.
Some of the titles on display have been the source of great controversy, even derision, yet they nevertheless shaped Americans’ views of their world and often the world’s view of the United States.
What strikes me about this explanation is the last sentence. These books shaped not only American’s views of the country, but also how the world viewed and continues to view the United States. Amazing, isn’t it? To think that an author could tell a story (say, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin) but in the process educate the world about American life (at the time)? It’s common knowledge to Americans and many others that U.S. history bears ugly stains called “racism” and “slavery,” but had Stowe not written that book would the rest of the world really understand how bad it was? Perhaps we would’ve understood it some, but without Stowe’s novel I doubt we would understand it so clearly, so personally. Her novel is no longer just a story, it’s an interpretive lens for understanding America’s past. It’s a truth-teller.
If ever you need proof of the power of story, particularly the power of fiction, look no further. Stowe’s novel shaped how the world understands America, and how Americans understand themselves. I assume that some of you reading this are writers – can you imagine writing a story with such longevity and gravitas? Do you think Stowe knew what she was doing at the time? I doubt it.
I took home a pamphlet from the exhibit. Inside it lists 8 recommended books if you want to learn more about books that shaped America. I’ve read none of these yet, but I plan to read at least one or two. Here they are:
- The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century, edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf
- Books that Changed America, by Robert B. Downs
- Books that Changed the South, by Robert B. Downs
- The New Lifetime Reading Plan, 4th ed., by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major
- Twenty-Five Books that Shaped America, by Thomas C. Foster
- The Book That Shaped My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists, edited by Diane Osen
- Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America, by Jay Parini
- Books that Made the Difference: What People Told Us, by Gordon Sabine and Patricia Sabine