Michael Dirda / Special to The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Most great book lists concentrate on works of the highest literary or scholarly merit. Think of the Harvard Classics, Harold Bloom’s “Western Canon,” the Modern Library’s selection of “the 100 best novels of the 20th century.” Here, the compilers imply, are our cultural masterpieces, the Mount Everests and K2s all literate people should scale in their lifetimes. You haven’t read already Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” or James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”? Get cracking and break out the ropes, climbing shoes and pitons.

Happily, the Library of Congress’ latest exhibition, “The Books That Shaped America,” ignores the familiar high-culture shibboleths and embraces cookbooks (Irma Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking”) and schoolbooks (McGuffey’s “Primer”), mysteries (Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest”) and science fiction (Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”), political tracts as well as poetry, both Dr. Seuss and Dr. Spock.

Running from Monday to Sept. 29 in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the exhibition — its titles chosen by the library’s staff members after considerable wrangling — puts on display what one might call the classics of upset and troublemaking. When first published, these books shocked people, made them angry, shook up their deepest beliefs. They shamed readers with accounts of racism, greed, corruption, Puritanism and provincial narrow-mindedness. Here are the impassioned works that made us look behind the curtain, into the bedroom and closet and boardroom, at what we were afraid of and at what we covered up. Just skimming through the titles of “The Books That Shaped America” underscores that in this country anything can be questioned, nothing is set in stone, everything can be changed. We are, after all, a nation founded on and grounded in revolution.

If, however, there is any single, great American theme, it is self-transformation. So here are Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, that stirring guidebook to personal improvement, and Frederick Douglass’ account of his years of slavery and his escape from it, and Thoreau’s “Walden,” arguing the case for self-fulfillment no matter what the opinions of society. Here, too, is one of Horatio Alger Jr.’s rags-to-riches novels, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ great jungle bildungsroman “Tarzan of the Apes,” and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” in which the poor boy Jay Gatz dreams of all the glittering prizes, and even Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

If identity is malleable, so, too, are the conditions of life and society. Americans are do-gooders, ready to stand and fight for what they believe is right or attack relentlessly that which is wrong, corrupt or unjust. The library’s list nearly starts with Thomas Paine’s call to arms, “Common Sense,” then includes W.E.B. Du Bois’ searing “The Souls of Black Folk”; Jacob Riis’ sickening account of urban poverty, “How The Other Half Lives”; Ida M. Tarbell’s classic “muckraking” “History of the Standard Oil Company”; Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which exposed the insanitary conditions in Chicago’s meat-packing industry; and, finally, in our own time, closes with both “And The Band Played On,” Randy Shilts’ groundbreaking account of the AIDS epidemic and “The Words of Cesar Chavez,” the inspiring leader of the United Farm Workers.

Some conservative thinkers might view the library list as distinctly multicultural, blatantly offering something for everyone. But if America is anything at all, it is multicultural. It’s also refreshing to see William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Allen Ginsberg representing 20th-century American poetry instead of those usual cosmopolitan modernists Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

At the same time, the list doesn’t shy away from such bloated best-sellers as Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War romance “Gone With the Wind,” Ayn Rand’s melodrama-cum-economic tract “Atlas Shrugged” and Robert A. Heinlein’s weirdly libertarian “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Many people might not care for such pop titles, but they are books that others revere, argue about and reread. Happily, the list also includes quieter masterpieces such as Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon,” Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day.”

The list

Benjamin Franklin, “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” (1751)

Benjamin Franklin, “Poor Richard Improved” (1758) and “The Way to Wealth”

Thomas Paine, “Common Sense” (1776)

Noah Webster, “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language” (1783)

“The Federalist” (1787)

“A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible” (1788)

Christopher Colles, “A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America” (1789)

Benjamin Franklin, “The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D.” (1793)

Amelia Simmons, “American Cookery” (1796)

“New England Primer” (1803)

Meriwether Lewis, “History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark” (1814)

Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820)

William Holmes McGuffey, “McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Primer” (1836)

Samuel Goodrich, “Peter Parley’s Universal History” (1837)

Frederick Douglass, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (1845)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850)

Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” (1851)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852)

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” (1854)

Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass” (1855)

Louisa May Alcott, “Little Women, or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy” (1868)

Horatio Alger Jr., “Mark, the Match Boy” (1869)

Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, “The American Woman’s Home” (1869)

Mark Twain, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884)

Emily Dickinson, “Poems” (1890)

Jacob Riis, “How the Other Half Lives” (1890)

Stephen Crane, “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895)

L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900)

Sarah H. Bradford, “Harriet, the Moses of Her People” (1901)

Ida Tarbell, “The History of Standard Oil” (1904)

Jack London, “The Call of the Wild” (1903)

W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903)

Upton Sinclair, “The Jungle” (1906)

Henry Adams, “The Education of Henry Adams” (1907)

William James, “Pragmatism” (1907)

Zane Grey, “Riders of the Purple Sage” (1912)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, “Tarzan of the Apes” (1914)

Margaret Sanger, “Family Limitation” (1914)

William Carlos Williams, “Spring and All” (1923)

Robert Frost, “New Hampshire” (1923)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby” (1925)

Langston Hughes, “The Weary Blues” (1925)

William Faulkner, “The Sound and the Fury” (1929)

Dashiell Hammett, “Red Harvest” (1929)

Irma Rombauer, “Joy of Cooking” (1931)

Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind” (1936)

Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936)

Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)

Federal Writers’ Project, “Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures” (1937)

Thornton Wilder, “Our Town: A Play” (1938)

“Alcoholics Anonymous” (1939)

John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939)

Ernest Hemingway, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940)

Richard Wright, “Native Son” (1940)

Betty Smith, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1943)

Benjamin A. Botkin, “A Treasury of American Folklore” (1944)

Gwendolyn Brooks, “A Street in Bronzeville” (1945)

Benjamin Spock, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” (1946)

Eugene O’Neill, “The Iceman Cometh” (1946)

Margaret Wise Brown, “Goodnight Moon” (1947)

Tennessee Williams, “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947)

Alfred C. Kinsey, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948)

J.D. Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951)

Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man” (1952)

E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web” (1952)

Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451” (1953)

Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” (1956)

Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” (1957)

Dr. Seuss, “The Cat in the Hat” (1957)

Jack Kerouac, “On the Road” (1957)

Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960)

Joseph Heller, “Catch-22” (1961)

Robert E. Heinlein, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961)

Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring” (1962)

Jack Ezra Keats, “The Snowy Day” (1962)

Maurice Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963)

James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1963)

Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique” (1963)

Malcolm X and Alex Haley, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965)

Ralph Nader, “Unsafe at Any Speed” (1965)

Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood” (1966)

James D. Watson, “The Double Helix” (1968)

Dee Brown, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (1970)

Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (1971)

Carl Sagan, “Cosmos” (1980)

Toni Morrison, “Beloved” (1987)

Randy Shilts, “And the Band Played On” (1987)

Cesar Chavez, “The Words of Cesar Chavez” (2002)

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