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Which Books Have Shaped Your America?

Identity, Culture, Understanding

For this year’s National Book Festival, the Library of Congress created an online exhibit of Books that Shaped America - books that reflect “America’s unique and extraordinary literary heritage.”

What books do you feel have shaped America, and American literature? These are just some of the many that stand out for us:

 

Charlotte’s Web
by E.B. White

According to Publishers Weekly, “Charlotte’s Web” is the best-selling paperback for children of all time. One reason may be that, although it was written for children, reading it is just as enjoyable for adults. The book is especially notable for the way it treats death as a natural and inevitable part of life in a way that is palatable for young people.

 

 

The Federalist
by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay?

Now considered to be the most significant American contribution to political thought, “The Federalist” essays supporting the ratification of the new Constitution first appeared in New York newspapers under the pseudonym “Publius.” Although it was widely known that the 85 essays were the work of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, the initial curious speculation about authorship of specific essays gradually developed into heated controversy. Hamilton left an authorship list with his lawyer before his fatal duel. In his copy, Madison identified the author of each essay with their initials. Thomas Jefferson penned a similar authorship list in his copy. None of these attributions exactly match, and the authorship of several essays is still being debated by scholars.

 

Our Bodies, Ourselves
by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective

In the early 1970s a dozen Boston feminists collaborated in this groundbreaking publication that presented accurate information on women’s health and sexuality based on their own experiences. Advocating improved doctor-patient communication and shared decision-making, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” explored ways for women to take charge of their own health issues and to work for political and cultural change that would ameliorate women’s lives.

 

Goodnight Moon
by Margaret Wise Brown

This bedtime story has been a favorite of young people for generations, beloved as much for its rhyming story as for its carefully detailed illustrations by Clement Hurd. Millions have read it (and had it read to them). “Goodnight Moon” has been referred to as the perfect bedtime book.

 

Double Helix
by James D. Watson

James D. Watson’s personal account of the discovery of DNA changed the way Americans regarded the genre of the scientific memoir and set a new standard for first-person accounts. Dealing with personalities, controversies and conflicts, the book also changed the way the public thought about how science and scientists work, showing that scientific enterprise can at times be a messy and cutthroat business.

 

Leaves of Grass
by Walt Whitman

Over almost 40 years Whitman produced multiple editions of “Leaves of Grass,” shaping the book into an ever-transforming kaleidoscope of poems. By his death in 1892, “Leaves” was a thick compendium that represented Whitman’s vision of America over nearly the entire last half of the 19th century. Among the collection’s best-known poems are “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Song of Myself,” and “O Captain! My Captain!,” a metaphorical tribute to the slain Abraham Lincoln.

 

Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert Heinlein

The first science fiction novel to become a bestseller, “Stranger in a Strange Land” is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars by Martians (his parents were on the first expedition to Mars and he was orphaned when the crew perished) who returns to Earth about 20 years later. Smith has psychic powers but complete ignorance of human mores. The book is considered a classic in its genre.

 

Native Son
By Richard Wright

Among the first widely successful novels by an African American, “Native Son” boldly described a racist society that was unfamiliar to most Americans. As literary critic Irving Howe said in his 1963 essay “Black Boys and Native Sons,” “The day ‘Native Son’ appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies.”

 

Alcoholics Anonymous

The famous 12-step program for stopping an addiction has sold more than 30 million copies. Millions of men and women worldwide have turned to the program co-founded by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith to recover from alcoholism. The “Big Book,” as it is known, spawned similar programs for other forms of addiction.

 

 

A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams

A landmark work, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “A Streetcar Named Desire” thrilled and shocked audiences with its melodramatic look at a clash of cultures. These cultures are embodied in the two main characters – Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle whose genteel pretensions thinly mask alcoholism and delusions of grandeur, and Stanley Kowalski, a representative of the industrial, urban working class. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the brutish and sensual Stanley in both the original stage production and the film adaptation has become an icon of American culture.

 

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