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The books that have shaped American life: How many have you read?

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The books that have shaped American life: How many have you read?

Books from Library of Congress’ ‘America Reads.’

A new exhibit at the Library of Congress compiles 65 of the most influential books by American authors — books that have both formed and informed the public consciousness during the country’s history.

The list, put together with input from curators and the general public, ranges from children’s books (Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”) to founding documents (“The Federalist” papers). It touches on topics from feminism (Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”) to battling alcoholism (Alcoholic Anonymous’ foundational text, “The Big Book”).

It’s by no means comprehensive: This recent list is a random sampling from the public, which voted on and suggested books via the internet. There’s no other way to explain three books by Ayn Rand — or the fact that only two of the 65 books were written by authors who aren’t white.

The new list, the library notes, is not intended to be a definitive ruling on the best in literature, nor does it fully reflect “the diversity of our nation and the books it produces.”

Rather, the list was created to spark conversation: What books have contributed to American culture, and why?

Exhibition director Carroll Johnson said it’s easy to find examples of these books and their enduring cultural influence: “The Crucible” and “The Color Purple,” both of which are on the list, are also both still on Broadway, decades after being written. Many of the other titles appear on high school and college syllabi.

The oldest book on the list is Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” from 1776. The newest is Tim O’Brien’s autobiographical novel on the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried,” published in 1990.

The 1700s only contribute two titles to the list; the 1800s have 10 — and the 1900s have 43. Nothing from the current millennium made the cut.

Eighteen of the books on the list were written by women, the oldest of which is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” from 1852.

Numerous authors have two entries on the list, but the three-timers club is small: Only Ayn Rand and John Steinbeck pulled off hat tricks. Fiction wins the day: More than 40 of the 65 books are novels or plays. And there’s very little love for poetry: Only Walt Whitman’s collection “Leaves of Grass” — and Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” make an appearance.

Sci-fi and fantasy left their mark on America: More than 20 percent of the fiction titles toy with reality, from L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” to Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.”


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