13 Books That Changed America

For his latest book titled Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America, poet, novelist and literary critic Jay Parini seems to have given himself an impossible task. Like any list maker, Parini opens himself to criticism, especially when he decided to limit his list to a baker’s dozen. Here are the books that made the cut.


Of Plymouth Plantation (1620-1647) by William Bradford

The Federalist Papers (1787-1788) by Hamilton, Madison and Jay

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793)

The Journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1801-06)

Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) by Mark Twain

The Souls of Black Folks (1903) by W.E.B. Du Bois

The Promised Land (1912) by Mary Antin

How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) by Dale Carnegie

The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) by Dr. Benjamin Spock

On the Road (1957) by Jack Kerouac

The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan


Bob had his disagreements with the list, and you probably do too, so it will cheer you to know that Parini also includes an appendix at the end of Promised Land called “One Hundred More Books that Changed America.” Some of those titles are Joseph Smith Jr.’s The Book of Mormon (1830), The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906) and John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946). The “other 100” list also includes the 1902 Sears, Roebuck Catalog and Jane Fonda’s Workout Book (1981) but leaves off The Great Gatsby. Feel free to comment here with your own list or a book that you think Parini should have included. Hopefully this list will get you thinking about books, and reading them.


8 Replies to “13 Books That Changed America”

  1. I think I have an answer to Mitsou’s question concerning what are the where-abouts of the American character. But first I want to digress.

    America’s Nativism, its sometime fear of foreigners, is no more or less accentuated than the same kind of Nativism expressed in Western Europe. I remember first learning about the racial tensions coming to the surface in Britain back in the fifties because of the sudden influx of Caribbean peoples who, by right, belonged to the Commonwealth. It got violent. Today Germany and Europe’s Low Countries are having to deal with the problem of Turkish workers brought in to save on labor costs but who refuse to assimilate. France still marginalizes, keeps in suburban slums, its naturalized citizens, mostly of North African descent. Spain still refuses passports to its Romany (Gypsy) people. And Italians presently conduct a pogram against its Gypsies and other workers considered foreign. When it comes to Nativism, America is no better or worse than Western European countries who claim theirs is the birthplace of the Enlightenment.

    Now for Mitsou’s question. What defines the American character, what fleshes it out even, is just an idea. It is expressed in the Declaration of Independence. It is expressed in the Constitution. It is expressed in the Bill of Rights. And it is expressed, gets regularly revisited, through every amendment to the Constitution. It also gets expressed in practically every bit of American literature, art, and thinking. The American character is an idea imperfectly, all too humanly, expressed through time.

    Now I have a second book I would like Mr. Parini to consider for his revised list, another book of poetry. It is Herman Melville’s Civil War poetry, his "Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War."


  2. Mr. Noah Livingston above is being out of context in saying that the Bible is one of the most influential American books. It is not an exclusive “American” book and most religious Christians do not consider it “just a book” which can be reviewed objectively. Religious people may have observed it but many in this country were not and still are not very religious. As one of George Gallup statistics mentions: "Only half of U.S. adults know the title of even one Gospel. Most can’t name the Bible’s first book. The trend extends even to Evangelicals, only 44% of whose teens could identify a particular quote as coming from the Sermon on the Mount.” So the Bible may have been an influence in many Americans’ faith, but is not an American book which impacted the fundamental character of all Americans. I believe Mr. Parini used historical “American” authors to make his point.

  3. UNBELIEVABLE …that ANY thoughtful American that presumes to comment on literature that forged the nature and character of our great nation would fail to put the BIBLE at the TOP of ANY list!!! If ANYthing (book, media, event, etc) PROFOUNDLY influenced the American "experiment" NOTHING else could come close to what the Bible accomplished…and continues to accomplish. As I said… UNBELIEVABLE!!!!

  4. As an immigrant from a western European country I am still wondering what are the fundamental aspects of the American character: why is it that so many people here are anti-intellectual, scared of foreigners (even when most of their ancestors came from foreign lands) naïve and ignorant about the rest of the world, and so attracted to myths of their own making? To study this I started reading Harry Steele Commager’s The American Mind, and now shall buy Parini’s the Promised Land as a companion. I have read some of the titles he suggests and even if they show how they have impacted and formed his compatriots’ character, they don’t completely explain it to a puzzled European. I just found Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas which explains how the American Christmas was invented really by 19th century New York PR people, and it is enlightening about the origin of the American consumerism frenzy at Christmas time (it was an “invented tradition” never a religious one). I look forward to reading Mr. Parini’s book and thank Bob Edwards for this meaningful interview.

  5. Mr Parini’s idea is a fun idea, giving much to think about. Thoreau’s inclusion particularly makes sense, especially because, as some scholars maintain, he could be called the worlds’s first environmentalist. W.E. Dubois also makes perfect sense. I do, however, have two problems with his canonical baker’s dozen. First, the Lewis and Clark journals were not published in their entirety until 1904, all seven volumes. While it is a remarkable document, I question its influence on 19th C. America. Secondly, and more critically, the ommission of Whitmna’s "Leaves of Grass" is a serious oversight. Not only did it inform the American character, it expressed the American character at its most expansive.

  6. It was hard to listen to Mr. Parini’s discussion of the American view of the continent, considering what we did to the first nations peoples. Lewis and Clark were not exceptionally brave — no matter where they went there were already women there, raising babies. To the people that lived here, this was just home, and their front yard. Our attitude that this land was somehow "promised" to us led to a holocaust which we are only beginning to truly face and understand as the great black cloud that hangs over our entire history. Any self-righteousness or arrogance in the American character can be traced back to an attempt to treat our past as acceptable. Where are our memorials to the peoples we murdered?

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