October 5, 2006


We're guest hosting the Love of Reading Online Bookfair today and will be posting quite a bit on books, as well as giving some away.

To get things rolling, we'll start with a list of ten books that every American should read. If you've got one you think should be here instead or a whole list, feel free to make your pitch and we'll give a book to anyone who can convince us.

(1) The Holy Bible: King James version / The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, Illustrated by Barry Moser

The book itself hardly needs our justification, but if you've never seen Mr. Moser's version you're in for a treat.

(2) Don Quijote (Miquel de Cervantes, translated by Burton Raffel)

Not only the first and greatest novel, but the model for much of the great art and most of the humor to follow. It's even the first post-modern novel, a delicious irony that sails right over post-modernist heads.

(3) Democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop)

It is a sufficient critique of America from the 30s through the 70s that it forgot what de Tocqueville had told us.

(4) The Federalist Papers (by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, & John Jay)

One of the ways in which Americans are fundamentally Jewish is that we are people of the book in politics, as well as religion, referring back always to our ur-texts, which include not just The Declaration and Constitution but these talmudic writings.

(5) The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith)

While even Smith understood that his economics were dependent on his prior moral theory, Moral Sentiments, and it's not at all clear that both aren't dependent on Judeo-Christianity, it's nevertheless the case that with this outline of capitalism/market economics the Anglo-American world had finished off the super-structure that would eventually be recognized as the End of History: parliamentarianism, capitalism, and protestantism.

(6) Reflections on the Revolution in France (Edmund Burke)

Of course, humans being such deuced ornery creatures, we'd no sooner gotten the architectonics of the End of History in place than the French veered off into the Enlightenment experiment that would end up murdering hundreds of millions. Burke explained, before the Rationalists even much gotten the killing started, exactly why they were wrong and, in the process, sketched the outlines of conservatism and liberalism that endure to this day.

(7) The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

The perfect adventure novel. It's turned more boys into lifelong readers than any other.

(8) The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)

No sub-creator ever did his work better.

(9) All the King's Men (Robert Penn Warren)

If it isn't the great American novel, it's at least in the conversation about which is.

(10) The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Robert A. Caro)

It's the non-fiction version of All the King's Men.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2006 11:28 PM

That's a tough list to beat...not in order of importance or gravitas

2. War and Peace
3. Foundation Series (Asimov)
4. Alexander Hamilton
5. Fountainhead
6. A New Kind of Science (Wolfram)
7. What's so Amazing About Grace (Yancey)
8. First Man in Rome (+ entire series)
9. The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Jaynes)
10. "I haven't written it yet"

Posted by: Bruno at October 5, 2006 12:28 AM

Euclid's Elements.

Plato's Republic.

St. Augustine's City of God.

Bulgakov's Master and Marguerita-- just because it's so cool.

Posted by: Pepys at October 5, 2006 1:25 AM

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: I love Tolkien, but I think this book is more essential for *Americans to read. And I don't think it is as universally assigned in HS English as it used to be.

The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor: Because we don't always recognize Grace, even when it slaps us in the face. O'Connor is also the funniest writer since Mark Twain.

Giants in the Earth by Ole Edvard Rolvaag: An engrossing novel of the immigrant experience on the Great Plains. Too many Americans are ignorant of how Flyover Land was settled and civilized.

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger: A Qijote for Americans.

Posted by: ted welter at October 5, 2006 7:19 AM

Ten is a very small number to encompass everything, fiction and non-fiction, written since the beginning of time. However, I'll second Bruno's #3 and #9 and add Willa Cather's "My Antonia." She makes it abundantly clear why our country is great.

I'm not crazy about LOTR. The movies were very entertaining, but the books are hard slogging. For fantasy, I'd go with CS Lewis.

Isaac Asimov is a given. I was privileged to hear him lecture just a year or two before he died. He was as witty and enthusiastic in his older years as he was brilliantly innovative in his early years. He never lost his New York accent either, so I felt better about never losing mine.

Posted by: erp at October 5, 2006 9:51 AM

Ditto Bruno's #7, What's So Amazing About Grace?. The best Christian apologetic in the past 40 years. Yancey's best book (IMHO), right up there with CS Lewis.

Posted by: Gideon at October 5, 2006 10:27 AM

Michael Sherra, The Killer Angels -- probably the best book I've ever read; certainly in the hunt for Great American Novel status
Bruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground -- not as good as some later works (Battle Cry of Freedom) at explaining the politics of the prewar period, but my God! Catton could write!
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin -- not so much for its inherent quality (which is actually quite good) as for its influence on American history
John M. DelVecchio, The 13th Valley -- certainly the best Vietnam book yet written
C.S. Lewis, the Narnia books
Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

Posted by: Mike Morley at October 5, 2006 10:47 AM

You really only need about 5--everything written after 1776 is redundant, though often worth hearing again.

Foundation is French.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 11:14 AM

Well, I've read all of those except for Wealth of Nations and Power Broker. I don't know about Foundation being French, but the Robot series would seem to fit well with the outlook of this website.

Posted by: Brandon at October 5, 2006 11:47 AM

the premise of Foudation is the capacity to shape History to fit your whim if you're smart enough. It's Marxism in space.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 11:51 AM

That's tough which to fit in the top ten. How about Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged?" The "U.S. Constitution" is a good primer for the "Federalist Papers". Another piece of fiction I'd throw in Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man." I can't think of anything else.


Posted by: Cecil Holmes at October 5, 2006 12:55 PM

Much as I revere Killer Angels and The Right Stuff, they're a tad parochial. I think Wolfe actually comes closest with the under-rated Man in Full.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 1:01 PM

The Constitution and Declaration should certainly be read in conjunction with the Federalists (and Anti-Federalists).

We outgrow Rand.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 1:02 PM

In fairness to every person who has been left with a bad taste in their mouth, and guilt in their heart from certain religious groups.
"The Mystic Christ" by Ethan Walker should be on this list. With peace of mind so hard to find and the idea of "Love thy neighbor" being a foreign thought to so many these days, this book is like medicine. It changed my life, and wiped away years of discomfort caused by well meaning "Christians"

Posted by: Rhonda at October 5, 2006 1:38 PM

It's barely worth the match needed to burn it.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 1:44 PM

Cool -

I came in to recommend Wolfe's A Man in Full or maybe even Hooking Up to see that it has already been suggested. Also wanted to add Cather's Oh Pioneers to see that erp already suggested My Antonia, which is similar but takes a more personal approach to the subject of how the West was won.
Such similar tastes.

I'd also add Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield.

Posted by: Shelton at October 5, 2006 2:23 PM

Richard Wright's Black Boy is a more worthy candidate than even Invisible Man.

And I'm surpirsed not to see Whitaker Chambers somewhere on the list.

Posted by: AC at October 5, 2006 2:55 PM

I thought more about this. How about something by Dostoyevsky. I know he's heavy reading, but does touch many bases. "The Possessed" or The Brothers Karsmazov" might fit the bill.


Posted by: Cecil Holmes at October 5, 2006 3:07 PM

You could get away with Chambers's anti-Communism by now, but not with his being a reformed gay.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 3:22 PM

"It's barely worth the match needed to burn it"

Thank you for proving my point oj....

Posted by: Rhonda at October 5, 2006 4:42 PM

Thanks for the laugh. Gaia go with you.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 5:14 PM

Needs more Sienkiewicz.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at October 5, 2006 6:59 PM


Think of all the horrors and the joys one could wrap into this great line from My Antonia: "This is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."

Posted by: Matt Murphy at October 5, 2006 7:11 PM


The Foundation Series truly impressed Paul Krugman when he was a kid: He has said that economics is the closest thing we have to psychohistory. I sure hope not.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at October 5, 2006 7:32 PM

Matt, I read that book many more years ago than you are alive, and although I can't remember any particular quote or even tell the story with any accuracy, I can still feel the emotion I felt when I read it and how pleased I felt to be part of its kegacy. I'm not surprised that you like it too. You and other youngsters like you are our future. Don't blow it.

Posted by: erp at October 5, 2006 9:43 PM


See, that's what modernity has done to us--I can't even tell whether you're kidding or whether Krugman has said he admired the books.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 9:47 PM

As I think about it, perhaps the best Civil War book would be William Safire's Freedom?

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 9:49 PM


I'm not kidding.

(Although the postmodernists would interpret that last remark: I am kidding.)

Posted by: Matt Murphy at October 6, 2006 12:50 AM


Oy, this is really painful after all the nice stuff you said about me, but I didn't particularly enjoy the book when I read it in high school (I'm from Nebraska, so naturally it was required reading). But I had been in a play of My Antonia a few years earlier -- it was the first play ever performed for that novel -- and I never forgot that stunning line.

I sometimes think I should read it again. I might have a greater appreciation of it now that I'm a few years older.

O, Pioneers! is quite good, incidentally. The way it ends is sad but also astonishing.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at October 6, 2006 12:58 AM


You and other youngsters like you are our future. Don't blow it.

Oops. Well, nice try, Matt. Next! :-)

Posted by: Peter B at October 6, 2006 6:40 AM

I'd let Special Providence, by Walter Russel Mead, squeak through. Though the 4 categories of american thought are broud, they did provide a nice framework with which to gauge the past and present.

Posted by: Todd at October 6, 2006 6:43 AM

I'd let Special Providence, by Walter Russel Mead, squeak through. Though the 4 categories of american thought are broud, they did provide a nice framework with which to gauge the past and present.

Posted by: Todd at October 6, 2006 6:43 AM


But you only need to read the original essay--which we included in our book....

Posted by: oj at October 6, 2006 7:57 AM

Sorry I misunderstood you Matt. I didn't mean to say something un-nice though.

Posted by: erp at October 6, 2006 10:09 AM