Last week the Library of Congress opened an exhibition of “Books That Shaped America” that will run through September 29. This display includes a varied mix of American books from children’s favorite Goodnight Moon to the more political The Federalist Papers and the ever-popular romance Gone With The Wind; and it is the first in a series of events and discussions surrounding the “Celebration of the Book.”
As the list is chronological, it’s hard to resist noting that the most influential decade is the 1960s — perhaps not a big surprise considering the cultural popcorn effect at the time — with more than 10 nation-shaping books. In contrast, no books from the 1990s made the list. Zip. Zero. Natta.
So, ladies and gentlemen, the 60s!
Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960)
Joseph Heller, “Catch-22” (1961)
Robert E. Heinlein, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961)
Ezra Jack Keats, “The Snowy Day” (1962)
Maurice Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963)
James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1963)
Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique” (1963)
Malcolm X and Alex Haley, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965)
Ralph Nader, “Unsafe at Any Speed” (1965)
Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring” (1962)
Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood” (1966)
James D. Watson, “The Double Helix” (1968)
The Library of Congress said in a press release that the list should reflect “books written by Americans that have influenced our lives.” Each of these books has forged its own way into literary history, so it seems irrelevant to say that this decade may have had an unfair advantage. But really, didn’t it? Combing through the list of possibilities, most Librarians of Congress likely voted on books that had changed and affected their own lives and the lives of those around them while they were growing up. Books that they encourage other Americans to read to have a better understanding of our nation’s past, and therefore, our present as well. The 60s was a decade fraught with social turmoil, and it’s only natural that a period of time that so shaped America as we know it today, would have produced books that reflect on those changes, and even spurred some of them into motion.
But to be honest, these books are of someone else’s generation. I understand that the list is a jumping off point, a spark for a national conversation about books. But there are no books from the 1990s. Not one! The only other decade without a book on the list was the 1760s.
Now I don’t profess to have a reading interest that covers the breadth of the Library of Congress staff. My list does not contain anything so grand as the discovery of DNA or the gospel of feminism. But these books, published in the 90s, did shape me.
Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Virgin Suicides” (1993) His first novel!
Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” (1990) Graduation gift, anyone? Such an American philosophy too!
Eric Carle, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (1994) Art plus children’s story = warm memories
Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions and Writing and Life” (1995) If you ever ask anyone for some recommendations on a writing book, this will be in the list
Of course, mine is a singular list over just one decade. The LoC is taking suggestions for subsequent lists. If you’d like to contribute, go to the National Book Festival website (http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/books-that-shaped-america/) to nominate more titles, or to comment on this first list.