Books That Shaped America is one of the most intriguing online exhibits in the Library of Congress. The books listed here span 2½ centuries of American history.
These books 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. 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.
Here are some of the books listed for the time period 1950-2000:
E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952)
According to Publishers Weekly, Charlotte’s Web is the best-selling paperback for children of all time. The likely reason is that it is just as enjoyable for adults to read as children. This story line centers on a clever and compassionate spider and her scheme to save the life of Wilber the pig. It is especially notable for the way it treats death as a natural and inevitable part of life.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957)
Although mainstream critics reacted poorly to Atlas Shrugged it was a popular success. Set in what novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand called “the day after tomorrow,” the book depicts a United States caught up in a crisis caused by a corrupt establishment of government regulators and business interests. The book’s negative view of government and its support of unimpeded capitalism as the highest moral objective have influenced libertarians and those who advocate less government.
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)
By debunking the “feminine mystique” that middle-class women were happy and fulfilled as housewives and mothers, Betty Friedan inspired the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Friedan advocates that women need meaningful work and encourages them to avoid the trap of the feminine mystique by pursuing education and careers. By 2000 the Feminine Mystique had sold three million copies and was translated into several languages.
Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
When The Autobiography of Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was published, the New York Times called it a “brilliant, painful, important book,” and it has become a classic American autobiography. Written in collaboration with Alex Haley (author of Roots), the book expressed for many African Americans what the mainstream civil rights movement did not: their anger and frustration with the intractability of racial injustice. In 1998, Time magazine listed The Autobiography of Malcolm X as one of ten required reading nonfiction books.
What other books do you think are on this list? Find out at Books That Shaped America.