In 2012, a group of curators and subject experts in the Library of Congress developed the institution's popular exhibition, Books That Shaped America. The books chosen were not intended to be a list of the “best” books published in the United States. Rather, the group chose eighty-eight core books by American authors that had, for a wide variety of reasons, a profound effect on American life.
Acknowledged classics such as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Richard Wright's Native Son, made the list, as did lesser known works like Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Indisputable fiction masterpieces such as William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Toni Morrison's Beloved were intermingled with important nonfiction works, such as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Knowing that opinions can be as varied as the number of people you ask, we urged the public to name “other books that shaped America” and to tell us which of the eighty-eight core books on our list were most important to them. That survey forms the basis of this exhibition, America Reads.
Thousands of readers responded with their choices. The Top 40 vote-getters for “other books that shaped America” are on display, along with the public's top choices from our original eighty-eight selections. This new list does not necessarily represent the best in American letters, nor does it speak to the diversity of our nation and the books it produces, but it shows what people still read.
Number one on the Top 40 list of America Reads is Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, a book that has as many fans as it does detractors. Roots, Alex Haley's novel that sparked legions to delve into their own genealogy, was the sixth choice. John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Milton Friedman, and Rand occupy ten of the forty titles, with each author having two books on the list.
In other words, the list is anything but definitive or all-encompassing. But as with the original exhibition, America Reads is meant to jump-start new conversations about the most influential books written and read in America and their impact on our lives.