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  • Writer's pictureEmily Duke Hargan

Summer Reading: 10 Books that Shaped America

If you didn't know this already, I am a list person. I like to make lists. Lists where I can check off the items as they are accomplished. I make lists for parties, grocery shopping, work projects, and topics to write. And yes, of course, I have many lists of books (to read and that I have read).

In the Hargan household, we are readers. Stacks and stacks of books are everywhere. We have bookcases but they're full. So, we stack books on the floor. We don't believe in Kindles. We need to have books. Books are real experiences. You can sit with them for a while and live with the characters longer. Sure, a movie is great entertainment but a book leaves a lasting impression.

Our nation has an extraordinary literary heritage—offering many different representations and perspectives on the American experience. Similarly are our own personal histories. Our experiences shape how we react to what we read, so if you were to ask any group of people what books were most influential in shaping America, I suspect you will get many different answers.

I've put together a list of books that I think are important to American life and to shaping America. I hope that these books offer you an opportunity to learn something new. As always, Bourbon and Politics loves to get feedback and recommendations. Feel free to offer us suggestions of additional worthy titles to add to lists in the future.

Written in support of ratifying the Constitution, these essays are considered Americas most significant contribution to political thought. The 85 essays were published in New York newspapers under the pseudonym "Publius" but it was well-known that they were penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. Perhaps the best known essay is Madison's No.10, which defends the form of republican government. Thomas Jefferson called The FederalistPapers “ the best commentary on the principles of government, which was ever written.

Great American writer, Ernest Hemingway, noted "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," thus demonstrating how profoundly Twain and his writing had not only on him but on all American literature. One must read this book for the pure enjoyment of realistic fiction without reading it through the lens of racial politics. It is a painful book and a quite humorous one. If you join the rebel boy on his journey, you will find that you too will do a little growing up.

Robert Frost is perhaps one of America's best-known poets. This anthology won Frost his first of four Pulitzer Prizes and contains two of his most famous poems "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "Fire and Ice". Frost's poetry reflects the life and landscape of New England, and while written in traditional verse, it is unique in that it is written in language as it is actually spoken. If you haven't read Frost in a while, I encourage you to get this copy of his poetry.

Dashiell Hammett is considered America's finest mystery writer of all time and The Maltese Falcon is the iconic detective novel. Set against the backdrop of San Francisco, Hammett introduces private detective Sam Spade. He's a physical character and jumps off the pages. He is the classic hard-boiled detective. If you like detective fiction and haven't yet read Hammett, you must meet Sam Spade.

In the nearly ninety years since Irma S. Rombauer self-published the first three thousand copies of Joy of Cooking in 1931, it has become the kitchen bible, with more than 20 million copies in print. Before the Joy of Cooking, American cookbooks were just short paragraphs with limited instructions and estimated ingredient amounts. Rombauer changed that by providing precise ingredient lists, directions, personal anecdotes and advice. One of her first instructions was to "stand facing the stove." If this cookbook is not in your kitchen, I highly recommend you order it. It has tried-and-true favorites like banana bread and chocolate chip cookies and new editions include vegan recipes and more modern favorites like Chicago deep dish pizza!

When Dale Carnegie published this book, he couldn't have envisioned that it would still be an international best seller with over 15 million copies sold. This book is all about relationships. You learn how to make people like you, win people over to your way of thinking, and change people without causing offense. Carnegie illustrates his points using anecdotes of historical figures, business leaders, and everyday people. I had to read this book in college and actually found it insightful. While it may seem silly, his advice really is practical for those entering the post-grad world— "be genuinely interested in other people" and "make people feel important" . Much of it is built on the fundamentals of social intelligence and having better social skills can improve your life.

Margaret Mitchell's sweeping Civil War-era epic is America's most popular romance novel of all time. It is the tale of Scarlet O'Hara, the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner and her story of passion and courage. This is required reading for all young girls growing up in the south, like me, and it was at one time my favorite book. Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and the book was made into a blockbuster movie in 1939 with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

Robert Penn Warren wrote the penultimate American political novel—a compelling story of personal and political corruption set in the 1930s in the south. The novel is narrated by Jack Burden, a political reporter who comes to work as the governor’s most trusted aide. The passage of Stark’s career is interwoven with Burden’s life story and philosophical reflections. As he says: “This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too. It is the story of a man who lived in the world, and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way.” This great novel is also a great tragedy of political corruption and southern drama. I long remembered this book after reading it in high school and while it is written in a bit of a disjointed style with an unreliable narrator, I would still place it on my top 10 most favorite books of all time.

A 300-word article in the New York Times about a murder led Truman Capote to travel with his childhood friend Harper Lee to Holcomb, Kansas, to research his nonfiction novel, which is considered one of the greatest true crime books ever written. Capote said the novel was an attempt to establish a serious new literary form, the “nonfiction novel,” a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless entirely factual. Seriously good and seriously creepy.

The Bonfire of the Vanities begins with a wrong turn in the Bronx, a turn that terrifies Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader. And in the next 700 pages, Tom Wolfe takes you on a ride through the "greatest city of the 20th century"—from Harlem, to Wall Street, to Park Avenue penthouses, to Bronx slums. Sherman McCoy is the hero of the story—or maybe not—and Wolfe takes us on this incredible supercharged journey through New York in the 1980s. You will not be able to put this book down.

How we think and see America is shaped in many different ways. For me, reading American literature has enhanced my experiences in this country. In fact, often there are times when I remember being somewhere or meeting someone, and I can relate it to a book I have read. I'd love to hear more from you about books you've read or are reading that have shaped how you see America.

Happy readying! Enjoy the weekend.

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"The Road to Serfdom". That's my recommendation.

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