An American Reading List

When I graduated from college, I had the distinct impression that I hadn't read enough, that I didn't know enough.  This was partly my fault.  I hadn't always done the reading.  But I also had the impression that I hadn't been assigned much of the good stuff.  I was 23, supposedly well read, a History major (I wasn't reading trade textbooks), yet I would shy away from intellectual debates and conversations because I was short on facts and perspective.  Frankly, I was a bit miffed and annoyed that I knew so little after 5 years in college (and I gather that the problem is only worse for recent graduates).  So I set out to read the important books that I had missed.

I found some must-read list in the New York Times.  Picking the books I hadn't read, I tried the likes of Updike, Nin, Tolstoy.  Most of the listed books were barely readable.  I picked up a few Austens to cleanse my pallet.  I gave up on the NYT when I got to Tropic of Cancer, a case study into how to make even sex tedious.  Thus began my education about the New York Times not living up to its cultivated reputation.  I started out on my own.  In the mid-90's, the web was still young, so my venture was challenging, at least as compared to today.

Hopeful that this blog will attract the young, I offer the list I wish I had then, when I had more idle hours to read.  (I still have a few of these to read.) I haven't provided context because that is almost half the education you can receive from this list.  Research Rip Van Winkle and Washington Irving and find out why I included that book.   Some selections are taught in high school or college.  Most were popular when published, though not all critically acclaimed.  The authors are not all American.

This is simply a broad selection of books you should read in order to hold your own in, and understand the foundations of, American intellectual life.  If you like any of these, a bit of research will lead you to similar works.  These books and a good book on logic and another on statistics, neither of which is taught much anymore, should get you started on your own quest.  Also, I highly recommend getting a good survey book on art history. Updating this post after my Tom Wolfe piece, I can recommend Glittering Images and Sexual Personae, both by Camille Paglia.

I chose some of these books for their historical significance, Common Sense; others for the ideas they express, The Road to Serfdom; others for the author or genre they illustrate, Stephen King's Eyes of the Dragon (one of his suspense stories, not horror); and still others, more modern books, for their pop culture significance, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  With the exception of CS Lewis, who wrote both stories and philosophy, I list only one example of a given author, usually their most popular work or my favorite (this is my list).   I am sure I have forgotten books; I will add them as I remember. Suggestions are always welcome.



Common Sense  (American Classics Series)
  Common Sense (American Classics Series) by Thomas Paine


The Federalist Papers
  The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton



John Adams
  John Adams by David McCullough

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle
  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself (The Bedford Series in History and Culture)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself (The Bedford Series in History and Culture) by David W. Blight

Uncle Tom's Cabin (Thrift Edition)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (Thrift Edition) by Harriet Beecher Stowe


Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain, Mark//Mark Twain Library)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain, Mark//Mark Twain Library) by Mark Twain
Little Women (Signet Classics)
Little Women (Signet Classics) by Louisa May Alcott

The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)
Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics) by Herman Melville

The Sound and the Fury (Norton Critical Editions)
The Sound and the Fury (Norton Critical Editions) by William Faulkner
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Walden (Concord Library)
Walden (Concord Library) by Henry David Thoreau

The Age of Innocence (Barnes & Noble Classics)
The Age of Innocence (Barnes & Noble Classics) by Edith Wharton

Main Street (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) (B&N Classics)
 Main Street (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) (B&N Classics) by Sinclair Lewis
The Sun Also Rises
 The Sun Also Rises by Ernest. Hemingway

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) by Harper Lee

The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Portrait of a Lady (Penguin Classics)
The Portrait of a Lady (Penguin Classics) by Henry James

On the Road (Penguin Classics)
 On the Road (Penguin Classics) by Jack Kerouac

The Naked and the Dead: 50th Anniversary Edition
The Naked and the Dead: 50th Anniversary Edition by Norman Mailer

Catch-22
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Rabbit, Run
Rabbit, Run by John Updike



The Sirens of Titan: A Novel
The Sirens of Titan: A Novel by Kurt Vonnegut

The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Mere Christianity
  Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

The Wisdom of Father Brown
 The Wisdom of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression
The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes

Atlas Shrugged
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

The Foundation Trilogy
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey
 Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey by David Horowitz

The Eyes of the Dragon
 The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

The Bonfire of the Vanities
 The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Peyton Place
 Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays
Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays by Camille Paglia
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The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series)
The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series) by Jane Jacobs

Lolita
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


The Feminine Mystique
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan





The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny
The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny by Victor Davis Hanson


The Making of the Atomic Bomb
The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

Outliers: The Story Of Success
 Outliers: The Story Of Success by Malcolm Gladwell


The Virginian, 100th Anniversary Edition
The Virginian, 100th Anniversary Edition by Owen Wister


The Maltese Falcon
 The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett


How To Win Friends and Influence People
How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

The Good Earth (Enriched Classics)
The Good Earth (Enriched Classics) by Peter Conn

The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition
The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition by J. R. R. Tolkien



Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach



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