Books That Shaped America

A new exhibit – Books That Shaped America – opens today at the Library of Congress.  A good friend alerted me to this celebration of reading through Michael Dirda’s article in The Washington Post - Library of Congress Wonderfully Diverse List of Books That Shaped America.

Books date from 1751 with Benjamin Franklin’s “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” to “The Words of César Chávez” in 2002, and the list includes 88 titles – 27 published before 1900.

Some recognizable classics include:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”
  • Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”
  • Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”
  • Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
  • L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz”
  • Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”

Some that might not make a classics list were included too:

  • Irma Rombauer’s “Joy of Cooking”
  • Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
  • Benjamin Spock’s “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care”
  • Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat”

Among the modern entries:

  • Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”
  • Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

Read the complete list - here.  How many have you read?

Bill Bryson – a ’90s look at the lost continent

Do you know anyone from Iowa?  An American politician running for President claims her Midwest roots from Iowa; the farm state is known for its corn and one of the best writing schools in the country.  Bill Bryson’s first line in The Lost Continent -

“I come from Des Moines (Iowa). Somebody had to…”

sounds like the opening line of a novel, but The Lost Continent is the prolific writer’s first travel book, his wry view of America – published in 1990.

After ten years in England, Bryson returned to his roots in America, embarking on the cross-country road-trip that many young Americans have tried – some in a Volkswagen bus.  Bryson travels in two loops (Parts 1 and 2), stopping at name-dropping sites along the way.  He sweeps through Mark Twain’s Missouri, Faulkner’s Mississippi, Elvis’s Tupelo, Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee, F.D.R.’s Warm Springs, and Vanderbilt’s Biltmore, and up through colonial Williamsburg, mostly disappointed by what he finds.  Washington’s Mount Vernon was “everything Williamsburg should have been and was not.”  But, Maryland Eastern shore’s Chestertown was…

“…the model community…The sidewalks were paved with brick and lined with trees, and there was a well-tended park in the business district. The library was busy. The movie theater was still in business and not showing a “Death Wish” movie.  Everything about the place was tranquil and appealing. This was as nice a town as I had seen.  This was almost Amalgam.”

Bryson sprinkles his sight-seeing with childhood memories and evaluations of waitresses at the places he stops along the way.  After looping back to Des Moines for some of his mother’s sandwiches, he heads out again – West, through Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, the Grand Canyon, the National Parks, and back.  By this time, you may be feeling like the child in the backseat asking – “Are we there yet?”

The cover has a coffee-cup stain as part of the illustration – the detritus of the seasoned traveler.  Bryson has gone on to leave his mark in his written ramblings – most recently in At Home: A Short History of Private Life (watch the book trailer on You Tube here).

When reading The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, you might be tempted to skip around – go ahead; you will still get Bryson’s flavorful asides along with his views of how the American small town is being lost to progress. As I joined Bryson on his search for the perfect American town (Amalgam), I wondered what he would think of the changes in those places now – twenty years later.  A hotel room in New York’s Times Square for $100 might have been pricey in 1990, but sounds pretty cheap today.