Books That Changed America


From Huck Finn to The Feminine Mystique. Author and critic Jay Parini on the books that changed America.

The basement of the Newark Public Library. (AP)

The basement of the Newark Public Library. (AP)

In the age of video games, cell phone texting, and the instant message, the idea that books shape a nation may seem like a stretch.

But look back across American history, and at nearly every key moment of definition, of transition, there stands a book that nails the change.

Novelist, critic, and poet Jay Parini has sifted out of his list a baker’s dozen of books that shaped the nation’s very understanding of itself. “Huck Finn” is in there. So is “Walden.” Lewis and Clark’s journals. “The Souls of Black Folk.” “The Feminine Mystique.” “On the Road.”

This hour in an archive edition of On Point: Thirteen books that changed America.

-Tom Ashbrook


Jay Parini, poet, novelist, critic, and biographer. He’s a professor of English and creative writing at Middlebury College in Vermont and has written biographies of Frost, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. His new book is “Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America.”


Read excerpts from “Promised Land,” including the chapter on William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” at

Here are the thirteen books that made Parini’s list:

– Of Plymouth Plantation (1620-47), by William Bradford
– The Federalist Papers (1787-88)
– The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793)
– The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1803-06)
– Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau
– Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe
– Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), by Mark Twain
– The Souls of Black Folk (1903), by W.E.B. DuBois
– The Promised Land (1912), by Mary Antin
– How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), by Dale Carnegie
– The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946), by Benjamin Spock
– On the Road (1957), by Jack Kerouac
– The Feminine Mystique (1963), by Betty Friedan

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