Library of Congress's picks

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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 lifetime. 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’s 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.

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