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Sections: 1750 to 1800 | 1800 to 1850 | 1850 to 1900 | 1900 to 1950 | 1950 to 2000

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

Since his debut in 1951 as the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with adolescent alienation and angst. The influential story concerns three days after Holden has been expelled from prep school. Confused and disillusioned, he wanders New York City searching for truth and rails against the phoniness of the adult world. Holden is the first great American antihero, and his attitudes influenced the Beat Generation of the 1950s as well as the hippies of the 1960s. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most translated, taught, and reprinted books and has sold some 65 million copies.

J. D. Salinger (1919–2010). The Catcher in the Rye. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1951. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (074.00.00)

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Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is told by an unnamed narrator who views himself as someone many in society do not see much less pay attention to. Ellison addresses what it means to be an African American in a world hostile to the rights of a minority, on the cusp of the emerging civil rights movement that was to change society irrevocably.

Ralph Ellison (1914–1994). Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952. Herman Finkelstein Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (075.00.00)

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E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952)

According to Publishers Weekly, Charlotte’s Web is the best-selling paperback for children of all time. One reason may be that, although it was written for children, reading it is just as enjoyable for adults. This story of a clever and compassionate spider and her scheme to save the life of Wilber the pig is especially notable for the way it treats death as a natural and inevitable part of life in a way that is palatable for young people.

E. B. White (1899–1985). Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper, 1952. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (076.00.00)

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Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury’s disturbing vision of a future United States in which books are outlawed and burned. Even though interpretations of the novel have primarily focused on the historical role of book burning as a means of censorship, Bradbury has said that the novel is about how television reduces knowledge to factoids and destroys interest in reading. The book inspired a 1966 film by Francois Truffaut and a subsequent BBC symphony. Its name comes from the minimum temperature at which paper catches fire by spontaneous combustion.

Ray Bradbury (1920–2012). Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books, 1953. General Collections, Library of Congress (078.00.00)

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Allen Ginsberg, Howl (1956)

Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” (first published as the title poem of a collection) established him as an important poet and the voice of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. Because of the boldness of the poem’s language and subject matter, it became the subject of an obscenity trial in San Francisco in which it was exonerated after witnesses testified to its redeeming social value. Ginsberg’s work had great influence on later generations of poets and on the youth culture of the 1960s (Ginsburg is credited with coining the phrase “flower power.”).

Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997). Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket Bookshop, 1956. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (079.00.00)

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Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957)

Although mainstream critics reacted poorly to Atlas Shrugged it was a popular success. Set in what novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand called “the day after tomorrow,” the book depicts a United States caught up in a crisis caused by a corrupt establishment of government regulators and business interests. The book’s negative view of government and its support of unimpeded capitalism as the highest moral objective have influenced libertarians and those who advocate less government.

Ayn Rand (1905–1982). Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957. General Collections, Library of Congress (080.00.00)

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

Theodore Seuss Geisel was removed as editor of the campus humor magazine while a student at Dartmouth College after too much reveling with fellow students. In spite of this prohibition-era setback to his writing career, he continued to contribute to the magazine pseudonymously, signing his work “Seuss.” This is the first known use of his pseudonym, which became famous in children’s literature when it evolved into “Dr. Seuss.” His introduction to animation and illustration came during World War II, when he worked on military training films and developed a character named Private Snafu. The Cat in the Hat is considered the defining book of his career. More than 200 million Dr. Seuss books have been sold around the world.

Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss, 1904–1991). The Cat in the Hat. New York: Random House, 1957. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (081.00.00)

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Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)

The defining novel of the 1950s “Beat Generation” (which Kerouac named), On the Road is a semiautobiographical tale of a bohemian cross-country adventure, narrated by character Sal Paradise. Kerouac’s odyssey has influenced artists such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Hunter S. Thompson and films such as Easy Rider. On the Road has achieved a mythic status in part because it portrays the restless energy and desire for freedom that makes people take off to see the world.

Jack Kerouac (1922–1969). On the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1957. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (082.00.00)

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Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

This 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner was an immediate critical and financial success for its author, with more than 30 million copies in print to date. Harper Lee created one of the most enduring and heroic characters in all of American literature in Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer who defended a wrongly accused black man. The book’s importance was recognized by the 1961 Washington Post reviewer: “A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere eighteen ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Harper Lee (b. 1926). To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1960. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (083.00.00)

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Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Joseph’s Heller’s Catch-22, an irreverent World War II novel and a satiric treatment of military bureaucracy, has had such a penetrating effect that its title has become synonymous with “no-win situation.” Heller’s novel is a black comedy, filled with orders from above that made no sense and a main character, Yossarian, who just wants to stay alive. He pleads insanity, but is caught in the famous catch: “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.” Although the novel won no awards upon its release, it soon became a cult classic, especially among the Vietnam War generation, for its biting indictment of war.

Joseph Heller (1888–1957). Catch-22. London: Jonathan Cape, 1962. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (084.00.00)

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

The first science fiction novel to become a bestseller, Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars by Martians (his parents were on the first expedition to Mars and he was orphaned when the crew perished) who then returns to Earth about twenty years later. Smith has psychic powers but complete ignorance of human mores. The book has become a cult classic.

Robert E. Heinlein (1907–1988). Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Putman, 1961. General Collections, Library of Congress (085.00.00)

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Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day (1962)

Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day was the first full-color picture book with an African American as the main character. The book changed the field of children’s literature forever, and Keats was recognized by winning the 1963 Caldecott Medal (the most prestigious American award for children’s books) for his landmark effort.

Ezra Jack Keats (1916–1983). The Snowy Day. New York: Viking, 1962. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (086.00.00)

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Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

A marine biologist and writer, Rachel Carson is considered a founder of the contemporary environmental protection movement. She drew attention to the adverse effects of pesticides, especially the use of DDT, in her book Silent Spring, a 1963 National Book Association Nonfiction Finalist. At a time when technological solutions were the norm, she pointed out that man-made poisons introduced into natural systems can harm not only nature, but also humans. Her book met with great success and because of heightened public awareness, DDT and other pesticides were banned.

Rachel Carson (1907–1964). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (092.00.00)

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Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

“It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood—the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of All Wild Things—that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have,” Maurice Sendak said in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech on June 30, 1964. Sendak called Max, the hero of Where the Wild Things Are, his “bravest and therefore my dearest creation.” Max, who is sent to his room with nothing to eat, sails to where the wild things are and becomes their king.

Maurice Sendak (1928–2012). Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (087.00.00)

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James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)

One of the most important books ever published on race relations, James Baldwin’s two-essay work comprises a letter written to his nephew on the role of race in U.S. history and a discussion of how religion and race influence each other. Baldwin’s angry prose is balanced by his overall belief that love and understanding can overcome strife.

James Baldwin (1924–1987). The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial, 1963. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (088.00.00)

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Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

By debunking the “feminine mystique” that middle-class women were happy and fulfilled as housewives and mothers, Betty Friedan inspired the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Friedan advocates that women need meaningful work and encourages them to avoid the trap of the “feminine mystique” by pursuing education and careers. By 2000 this touchstone of the women’s movement had sold three million copies and was translated into several languages.

Betty Friedan (1921–2006). The Feminine Mystique. New York: Laurel, 1984. General Collections, Library of Congress (089.00.00)

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

When The Autobiography of Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was published, the New York Times called it a “brilliant, painful, important book,” and it has become a classic American autobiography. Written in collaboration with Alex Haley (author of Roots), the book expressed for many African Americans what the mainstream civil rights movement did not: their anger and frustration with the intractability of racial injustice. In 1998, Time magazine listed The Autobiography of Malcolm X as one of ten “required reading” nonfiction books.

Malcolm X (1925–1965) and Alex Haley (1921–1992). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. General Collections, Library of Congress (090.00.00)

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Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed (1965)

Ralph Nader’s book was a landmark in the field of auto safety and made him a household name as a leader in consumer activism. It detailed how automakers resisted putting safety features, such as seat belts, in their cars and resulted in the federal government’s taking a lead role in the area of auto safety.

Ralph Nader (b. 1934). Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. New York: Grossman, 1965. General Collections, Library of Congress (091.00.00)

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Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966)

A 300-word article in the New York Times about a murder led Truman Capote to travel with his childhood friend Harper Lee to Holcomb, Kansas, to research his nonfiction novel, which is considered one of the greatest true crime books ever written. Capote said the novel was an attempt to establish a serious new literary form, the “nonfiction novel,” a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless entirely factual. The book was an instant success and was made into a film.

Truman Capote (1924–1984). In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. New York: Random House, 1966. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (093.00.00)

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James D. Watson, The Double Helix (1968)

James D. Watson’s personal account of the discovery of DNA changed the way Americans regarded the genre of the scientific memoir and set a new standard for first-person accounts. Dealing with personalities, controversies, and conflicts, the book also changed the way the public thought about how science and scientists work, showing that scientific enterprise can at times be a messy and cut-throat business.

James D. Watson (b. 1928). The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968. General Collections, Library of Congress (094.00.00)

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

Until librarian Dee Brown wrote his history of Native Americans in the West, few Americans knew the details of the unjust treatment of Indians. Brown scoured both well-known and little-known sources for his documentary on the massacres, broken promises, and other atrocities suffered by Indians. The book has never gone out of print and has sold more than 4 million copies.

Dee Brown (1908–2002). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1971. General Collections, Library of Congress (095.00.00)

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

In the early 1970s a dozen Boston feminists collaborated in this groundbreaking publication that presented accurate information on women’s health and sexuality based on their own experiences. Advocating improved doctor-patient communication and shared decision-making, Our Bodies, Ourselves explored ways for women to take charge of their own health issues and to work for political and cultural change that would ameliorate women’s lives. Readers’ responses played a critical role in the evolution of each of the nine revised editions and more than twenty foreign-language translations that continue to educate and empower a worldwide movement for improved women’s health.

Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By and For Women. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973. General Collections, Library of Congress (096.00.00)

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Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)

Carl Sagan’s classic, best-selling science book of all time accompanied his wildly popular television series Cosmos. In an accessible way, Sagan covered a broad range of scientific topics and made the history and excitement of science understandable and enjoyable for Americans and then for an international audience. The book offers a glimpse of Sagan’s personal vision of what it means to be human.

Carl Sagan (1934–1996). Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980. General Collections, Library of Congress (097.00.00)

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Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

Toni Morrison won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her post-Civil War novel based on the true story of an escaped slave and the tragic consequences when a posse comes to reclaim her. The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, and in 2006 The New York Times named Beloved “the best work of American fiction of the past twenty-five years.”

Toni Morrison (b. 1931). Beloved: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 1987. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (098.00.00)

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Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On (1987)

And the Band Played On is the story of how the AIDS epidemic spread and how the government’s initial indifference to the disease led to a new awareness of the urgency of devoting government resources to fighting the virus. Shilts’s investigation has been compared to other works that led to increased efforts toward public safety, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Randy Shilts (1951–1994). And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (099.00.00)

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César Chávez, The Words of César Chávez (2002)

César Chávez (1927–1993), founder of the United Farm Workers, was as impassioned as he was undeterred in his quest for better working conditions for farm workers. He was a natural communicator whose speeches and writings led to many improvements in wages and working conditions.

Richard Jenson and John C. Hammerback eds. The Words of César Chávez. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2002. General Collections, Library of Congress (101.00.00)

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Sections: 1750 to 1800 | 1800 to 1850 | 1850 to 1900 | 1900 to 1950 | 1950 to 2000