The Library of Congress has a new exhibit, “Books That Shaped America,” and I was lucky enough to get a preview at a special reception on Monday night. The selection was fascinating. Yes, The Great Gatsby was there! There were a number of other, expected, literary giants—Moby-Dick, The Sound and the Fury, Invisible Man, The Catcher in the Rye, Leaves of Grass—but also some choices that are not quite so “literary” or so obvious: The Joy of Cooking, Dr. Spock’s baby book, a western novel by Zane Gray, the Alcoholics Anonymous book, The Cat in the Hat.
As the brochure explains, “The titles featured here 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, again, is a matter of strong and diverse opinions….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.”
While I don’t remember thinking, “Wow, that book shouldn’t be there,” I did think of several that might also be included: Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, perhaps. And though I don’t know much about the particulars, I would also include Tropic of Cancer or Lolita, given the court battle for publication in the US and the subsequent discussion/fight over pornography. Maybe Duncan Hines’s travel and dining guides. Frederick Jackson Turner, The End of the Frontier (which, I believe, was a lecture first, so maybe that’s why it was excluded). The Making of the President by Theodore White.
And just seeing the array of beautiful editions was breathtaking! It’s boggling to imagine what one could come across in the Library of Congress if we were allowed to simply poke around. I remember seeing that exact edition of The Wizard of Oz in the children’s room of my public library. And why was that hardcover Their Eyes Were Watching God about two-and-a-half inches thick when the paperback now is so tiny? And my god, Salinger must have hated the painting on that edition of The Catcher in the Rye—totally sentimental…Phoebe looked a lot like “Sally” in those early, grade school readers. Leaves of Grass was surprisingly ornate.
You can see the whole list here, but if you’re in the area, this exhibit is worth going out of your way to view. Free, air-conditioned, thought-provoking, and within walking distance of some interesting restaurants* for lunch afterwards…what could be better on a DC summer day?
*Top Chef contestant Spike’s We the Pizza or Good Stuff (burgers) for casual, and Sonoma wine bar for a place where you don’t have to stand in line.