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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
The Catcher in the Rye , by J. D. Salinger (1951). Teenaged angst in a novel that is still an American rite of passage.
Peyton Place , by Grace Metalious (1956). The erotic life of the provinces; an early skirmish in the sexual revolution.
Catch-22 , by Joseph Heller (1961). War as black comedy in a novel that became a bible for its decade’s college students.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities , by Jane Jacobs (1961). The call to arms of the urban renaissance.
The New York Times Cook Book , by Craig Claiborne (1961). No more canned mushroom soup: the American obsession with better cooking begins.
The Feminine Mystique , by Betty Friedan (1963). Steinern, Millett, Brownmiller: they all started here.
Roots , by Alex Haley (1976). At last: black Americans discover their own history, and white Americans discover it as well.
It is significant, I think, that all but one of these also-rans were published after 1900, and nine of the sixteen after World War H. We know these books have affected us, but perhaps we are still too close to them to understand precisely how: is it Hiroshima or Catch-22 , for example, that has most influenced the attitudes of middle-class Americans toward warfare? It’s too early to tell. The ten I have chosen, by contrast, have some age on them and have demonstrated their staying power. I have no idea what sort of nation we would be had they never been published, but this is certain: we would not be what we are now.