Friday, June 24, 2016

25 Books That Changed America

I’ve visited used bookstores this past year at a rate I’ve never experienced.  Call it middle-aged nostalgia or just a logical progression for any bibliophile, but I’m drawn to these musty, old stores that fill wooden shelves with books from times gone by – both for our society and for books.  But I found a gem recently:  Books That Changed America:  25 Major Milestones in the History of American Ideas by Robert B. Downs.

Not surprisingly, the first book presented is Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.  The book contains books that are famous, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Henry David Thoreau and Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, but it also features less read books, such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

The book’s publisher, Mentor, says on the very first page that there are books that have left their influence since the day they were published.  This volume examines 25 books the author asserts were vital in shaping the American Dream.  It states:

“Taking a brilliant cross-section of works in virtually every area of thought--political, economic, scientific, judicial, sociological, and literary -- Dr. Robert B. Downs, former president of the American Library Association and head of the University of Illinois Library, gives a superb explication of each of these fascinating works and charts their effects upon the complex fabric of our emerging and evolving nation.”

This book was released in 1970.  America had hundreds of years of history behind it, but it was a half-dozen years before the nation’s bicentennial celebration, four years before a president would resign in disgrace, 31 years before the biggest act of terrorism in history, and 20 years before the digital revolution swept up the country.  Would a book like this look any different now or would the list remain the same 36 years later?

So many books receive awards, win prizes, top best-seller lists or get labeled as being great by critics or lists put out by authorities, but a book highlighting the books that changed our nation is special too.  How do we judge which books influenced our history?  How can we say with certainty which books inspire the actions of those who do things that greatly impact the course of our country?  
Lastly, which books influence those who are influential? Wouldn’t such a list include all kinds of books by a wide swath of writers, from Plato and Aristotle to Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Dale Carnegie?

There have been numerous attempts to come up with a list of influential books and writers.  Downs even  sites various lists – A 1935 PW article named the 25 most influential books since 1885; a 1939 book named 134 influential books; a 1947 list – Grolier Club’s One Hundred Influential American Books Printed Before 1900; and a 1968 list by the U.S. Information Agency identified a list of 250 titles that were important to the U.S.  

Brown acknowledges that  in “an effort to single out those books of most marked influence, that a unanimous verdict is exceedingly difficult to achieve on any given work.  Inevitably, selection is highly personal and subjective.”  However, he reassures us that his list was fit for inclusion by any knowledgeable and impartial jury.”

Brown also notes this:  “The measurement of influence is a perplexing question.  A book which sells in the millions of copies may make little or no impact on popular thought or behavior, while another work, of limited circulation, may shake the world.”

Here are the 25 books identified as having the greatest impact on America:

1.      Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
2.      Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s History of the Expedition
3.      Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon
4.      William Beaumont’s Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion
5.      Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
6.      Horace Mann’s Annual Reports
7.      Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever
8.      Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government
9.      Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
10.  Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward
11.  Alfred T. Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783
12.  Lincoln Steffen’s The Shame of the Cities
13.  Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle
14.  Abraham Flexner’s Medical Education in the United States and Canada
15.  Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull-House
16.  Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management
17.  Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States
18.  Henry Louis Mencken’s Prejudices
19.  Benjamin N. Cardozo’s The Nature of the Judicial Process
20.  Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown
21.  W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South
22.  Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma
23.  John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society
24.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

The author concludes in his book’s introduction with this: “As one reviews these twenty-five power-laden books a query frequently comes to mind:  Did the times make the book, or vice versa, i.e., was a particular work influential chiefly because the time was ripe for it?  Would the book have been equally significant in another era, or could it even have been written at any other date?  The conclusion is inescapable that the times produced the book in nearly every instance.  In some other period, the work would not have been produced at all, or if it had appeared, would have attracted little attention.

“The secret of success of the chosen books is that the world was ready to receive them and in total they carried messages appealing to millions of people.  Sometimes the influence was beneficent, sometimes harmful.  Disregarding moral values, the twenty-five books demonstrate conclusively that books are dynamic and powerful instruments, tools, or weapons.”


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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