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Ten Books That Shaped The American Character
Walden is here, of course; but so too is Fanny Farmer’s first cookbook
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
How to Win Friends and Influence People , by Dale Carnegie (1936). What do Americans want above all else from the books they read? They want self-improvement. Cast your eye over the best-seller lists and what you will find is book after book that offers the almost always false hope that if you just read it, you will be healthy, sexy, wealthy, and beloved. The first author to latch onto that longing in the American heart was Carnegie, who taught public speaking for the New York YMCA in the years before World War I. Eventually he went into the business of speech instruction on his own, over the years compiling enough strategies for profitable ingratiation to fill a book. This he did in How to Win Friends and Influence People , which swept the nation into a frenzy of selfimprovement from which it shows no signs of recovering. All the others stand forever in Dale Carnegie’s debt: Norman Vincent Peale, Leo Buscaglia, Helen Gurley Brown, Richard Simmons, Alex Comfort—had there been no Carnegie, they and all their vast tribe almost surely would be otherwise (and less lucratively) employed, and the nation, to its eternal sorrow, would be far less improved than now it is.
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care , by Benjamin Spock, M.D. (1946). Take it from Advertising Age : “The baby boomers appeared between 1945 and 1959. Today there are approximately 56.6 million 25- to 39-year-olds or 24.2% of the US. population.” And what do the members of this vast army of affluent, selfpreoccupied Americans have in common? Dr. Spock, the kindly fellow who raised them all. His book apeared when the first of them were one year old, and within a few years their mothers were turning to it for the advice that shaped a generation. The pejorative term for it, when the boomers were making such an unholy scene in the 1960s and 1970s, was “permissive”; more flattering, and perhaps more accurate, would be “liberating.” It was Dr. Spock who told us that Mother knows best—that the maternal instinct is often more sound than the physician’s counsel—and who then told Mother what to do when she didn’t know best. Because of Dr. Spock’s advice, an entire generation grew up unacquainted with the thwack of paddle against bottom, and firm in the conviction that it was just as important and worthwhile as its elders, if not more so. The consequences of this for the nation—and someday, one shudders to imagine, for the world—remain to reveal themselves, but when they do, one thing is certain: we will have Dr. Spock to thank for them.
On the list of also-rans: Peyton Place and The Catcher in the Rye .
So there they are: ten books that shaped America. My choices entirely, and I take full responsibility for them, just as I do for this list of also-rans:
The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington , by Mason Locke Weems (1800). The cherry tree, and all that.
The Clansman , by Thomas Dixon (1905). A pathfinding enterprise in viewing the Old South through moonbeams and magnolia; D. W. Griffith filmed it as The Birth of a Nation .
Main Street , by Sinclair Lewis (1920). An unsparing look at small-town piety, selfrighteousness, and hypocrisy that was a huge success.
Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage , by Emily Post (1922). The ultimate reference book on manners for the upwardly mobile middle class.
Babbitt , by Sinclair Lewis (1922). What Lewis did to small towns in Main Street , he did to provincial businessmen here.
The Man Nobody Knows , by Bruce Barton (1925). An exquisitely vulgar book, widely read in its time, in which Christ is revealed to have been an exceptionally successful advertising man.
The Grapes of Wrath , by John Steinbeck (1939). The plight of the Okies, as described in a book that helped mobilize public sympathy.
Hiroshima , by John Hersey (1946). The first important book about the human cost of nuclear war.
The Lonely Crowd , by David Riesman (1950). The study of social types that taught the middle class how to examine itself.