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By the Book

What do Thomas Paines Common Sense, Mark Twains Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Maurice Sendaks Where the Wild Things Are have in common?

According to the Library of Congress, they are among the dozens of Books That Shaped America, the title of a new exhibit opening today.

The exhibit features rare editions of American classics from the Librarys collection. The books were selected for display because they made a lasting impression on the nation, said John Cole, director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.

The exhibition offers the chance to see rare editions of many of the books and other related materials from the Librarys extraordinary collections, Cole said. For example, we have Susan B. Anthonys copy of the biography of Harriet Tubman, who helped so many people escape slavery. ... Those who go through the exhibit will experience the richness of Americas literary heritage. These rare early works are not often available for public viewing.  

Cole said the collection on display is by no means a comprehensive list of Americas best literature but rather offers a snapshot of some of the countrys most noteworthy works, including an edition of Benjamin Franklins almanac from 1758 and an early edition of The Federalist, which includes essays on the ratification of the Constitution that have become some of the most widely regarded works on political thought.  

There was much discussion, even agony, in choosing, Cole said of the collection that will be on view through Sept. 29. America has produced so many great books in its relatively brief history that any list will draw criticism about those worthy titles that were not included, as well as those that were. 

The exhibit, Cole said, was limited by physical space. Visitors who disagree with some of the choices are welcome to suggest other titles to be added to the list. 

Other titles featured in the exhibit which was made through a collaborative effort by the Librarys curators and book experts include abolitionist Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Louisa May Alcotts Little Women, Upton Sinclairs The Jungle, E. B. Whites Charlottes Web and Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin, considered by many to be the single most influential novel ever written. On meeting Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, So youre the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!

We want to start a national conversation about great American books, Cole said. We hope this list encourages people to read some of the books we have chosen.

Librarian of Congress James Billington also stressed that the exhibit is meant to spark a discussion about the great books written throughout the countrys relatively short history, and he said he hopes that visitors and even those from afar offer their suggestions for other books that should be included. 

This list of Books That Shaped America is a starting point, Billington said in a news release. It is not a register of the best American books although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.

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