By the Book

Posted June 22, 2012 at 2:19pm

What do Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” have in common?

According to the Library of Congress, they are among the dozens of “Books That Shaped America,” the title of a new exhibit opening today.

The exhibit features rare editions of American classics from the Library’s collection. The books were selected for display because they “made a lasting impression on the nation,” said John Cole, director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.

“The exhibition offers the chance to see rare editions of many of the books and other related materials from the Library’s extraordinary collections,” Cole said. “For example, we have Susan B. Anthony’s copy of the biography of Harriet Tubman, who helped so many people escape slavery. … Those who go through the exhibit will experience the richness of America’s literary heritage. These rare early works are not often available for public viewing.”  

Cole said the collection on display is by no means a comprehensive list of America’s best literature but rather offers a snapshot of some of the country’s most noteworthy works, including an edition of Benjamin Franklin’s almanac from 1758 and an early edition of “The Federalist,” which includes essays on the ratification of the Constitution that have become some of the most widely regarded works on political thought.  

“There was much discussion, even agony, in choosing,” Cole said of the collection that will be on view through Sept. 29. “America has produced so many great books in its relatively brief history that any list will draw criticism about those worthy titles that were not included, as well as those that were.” 

The exhibit, Cole said, was limited by physical space. Visitors who disagree with some of the choices are welcome to suggest other titles to be added to the list. 

Other titles featured in the exhibit — which was made through a collaborative effort by the Library’s curators and book experts — include abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, ” Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” considered by many to be the single most influential novel ever written. On meeting Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

“We want to start a national conversation about great American books,” Cole said. “We hope this list encourages people to read some of the books we have chosen.”

Librarian of Congress James Billington also stressed that the exhibit is meant to spark a discussion about the great books written throughout the country’s relatively short history, and he said he hopes that visitors and even those from afar offer their suggestions for other books that should be included. 

“This list of ‘Books That Shaped America’ is a starting point,” Billington said in a news release. “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 that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”