Books America Can’t Live Without

On World Book Day in the UK (March 1, 2007), over 2000 Britons voted for the books they couldn’t live without.

I don’t remember any such research done for our own counterpart in America, Read Across America (March 2).

While this blog doesn’t generate enough traffic to consider the question resolved scientifically, I thought it would be interesting to find out what books America Can’t Live Without.

In the comments, leave your list (try to do at least five or ten books). Once I have a fair number of suggestions, I’ll put together a poll, and we’ll vote. I will post the results here. What do you say?

Update: Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. I wasn’t clear on several points. First, the books don’t have to be American; however, I was hoping that respondents would be. I don’t mean to discriminate, but what prompted me to wonder about this was a list of the top 100 Books the Nation [UK] Can’t Live Without that was published in conjunction with World Book Day. Also, I don’t mean the books “America” can’t live without — I mean the ones you can’t live without — you are America, all added up together, aren’t you? Think of it like this. Which book would you have to have, no matter what? Read this passage from Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Is there a book you’d shoot someone over if it meant saving that book from destruction? Maybe don’t answer that… just tell me what books you can’t live without:

“Picture a conveyor belt, a huge conveyor belt, and at the end of it a massive furnace. And on the conveyor belt are books. Every copy in the world of every book you’ve ever loved. All lined up. Jane Eyre, Villette, The Woman in White.”

Middlemarch,” I supplied.

“Thank you. Middlemarch. And imagine a lever with two labels, On and Off. At the moment the lever is off. And next to it is a human being, with his hand on the lever. About to turn it on. And you can stop it. You have a gun to your hand. All you have to do is pull the trigger. What do you do?”

“No, that’s silly.”

“He turns the lever to On. The conveyor belt has started.”

“But it’s too extreme, it’s hypothetical.”

“First of all, Shirley goes over the edge.”

“I don’t like games like this.”

“Now George Sand starts to go up in flames.”

I sighed and closed my eyes.

Wuthering Heights coming up. Going to let that burn, are you?”

I couldn’t help myself. I saw the books, saw their steady process to the mouth of the furnace, and flinched.

“Suit yourself. In it goes. Same for Jane Eyre?”

Jane Eyre. I was suddenly dry-mouthed.

“All you have to do is shoot. I won’t tell. No one ever need know.” She waited. “They’ve started to fall. Just the first few. But there are a lot of copies. You have a moment to make up your mind.”

I rubbed my thumb nervously against a rough edge of nail on my middle finger.

“They’re falling faster now.”

She did not remove her gaze from me.

“Half of them gone. Think, Margaret. All of Jane Eyre will soon have disappeared forever. Think.”

Miss Winter blinked.

“Two thirds gone. Just one person, Margaret. Just one tiny, insignificant little person.”

I blinked.

“Still time, but only just. Remember, this person burns books. Does he really deserve to live?”

Blink. Blink.

“Last chance.”

Blink. Blink. Blink.

Jane Eyre was no more.

Margaret!” Miss Winter’s face twisted in vexation as she spoke. (240-241)

[tags]World Book Day, Read Across America, literature, reading, books[/tags]

23 thoughts on “Books America Can’t Live Without”

  1. I'll get the ball rolling with my top five:

    1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    3. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

    4. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

    5. Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  2. Uh, I started one, and it got so long I'm sure wordpress won't accept it as a comment. So look for a pingback from my blog when I post it there.

    Good idea, by the way. Excellent.

  3. American authors only? Or not. I started with that.

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

    Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

  4. OKP, I am sorry I wasn't clear. Just give a list of books you can't live without, American authors or not. The idea came from a similar survey done of Britons. They were asked to name the books they can't live without. They chose mostly British books, but some were American and World literature. However, I just wondered how different our book lists would be from the Brits'. For instance, their number 1 was Pride and Prejudice, and as much as I love that book, I'd be very surprised if it were number 1 among Americans.

  5. So, is this books WE can't live without, or books we think America can't live without? I'll go with my personal list first, but I would be happy to attempt to foist my will on others! ;D

    5. Hary Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J. K. Rowling

    4. Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman

    3. The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie

    2. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich

    1. Anne of Green Gables through Anne's House of Dreams, by Lucy Montgomery… hey, if you can name the entire Hary Potter series, I can fudge too! ;D

    Honorable mentions (in no particular order): Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, by Robin Dunbar; Angels on Fire, by Nancy Collins; Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain; Eli, by Bill Myers; Half Magic, by Edward Eager; Matilda, by Roald Dahl; An Old-Fashioned Girl, by Louisa Alcott; and Christian Theology: An Introduction, by Alister McGrath.

    Oo. SO hard to narrow it down!

  6. (Hands rubbing together with glee)

    1. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

    2. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

    3. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

    4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J. K. Rowling

    5. Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson

    6. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

    7. The Fellowship of the Ring, by JRR Tolkien

    8. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

    9. The Code of the Woosters, by PG Wodehouse

    10. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

    11. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

    12. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

    13. The Once and Future King, by T. H. White.

    14. The Chosen, by Chaim Potok

    15. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

    16. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon

    17. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

    18. Mama Makes Up Her Mind, by Bailey White

    19. Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters

    20. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

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  8. Ah. Then I'll keep my Faulkner — I adore William Faulkner, and I've read the Sound and the Fury at least fifteen times — and ditch Crane and Cooper, both of whom I detest. I'll keep Melville, O'Conner, and Welty, drop Chopin (The Awakening is a classic, but I find it tiresome), Irving, and (ugh) Thoreau (I admit I just despise every word Thoreau ever wrote, and resented having to read it in high school, and I particularly detest that narcissistic, extended, belly-button contemplation, Walden). Twain I'll keep, thank you very much (and does anybody read O. Henry these days?) Cather, Buck, and London I can do without. Stowe as well (an important book, but not, to my mind, a great literary masterpiece). I love great stylists (that's why I love Faulkner), so I'll keep Hawthorne and Poe. I'll add some sci-fi: Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, Frank Herbert's Dune, but only Dune (Herbert was the ultimate one-hit wonder, like Alice Walker). Stranger in a Strange Land has been mentioned, but not Starship Troopers?

    And of course, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, and the collected letters of Thomas Jefferson. And the Bible, of course — Douay or KJV, only, please.

    Sci-fi I really despise? Dhalgren. What a sad, pompous attempt at writing that is. Though if I were stuck on an island, I might take a few copies in case I needed paper.

  9. Not in any particular order, and I probably have not even cited the full title correctly in every case:

    1) Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin;

    2) Huck Finn;

    3) Education of Henry Adams;

    4) Tom Jones (Fielding);

    5) An American Tradgedy, Dreiser.

  10. 1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

    2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

    3. Lord of the Flies

    4. Alice in Wonderland

    5. The Plague

    6. Lyrical Ballads

    7. Silas Marner

    8. Flannery O'Connor's short stories

    9. T.S. Eliot's poetry

    10.Brave New World

  11. My second set of ten—all nonfiction:

    11. The Collected Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson

    12. Man's Search for Meaning

    13. Man's Search for Himself

    14. The Three Stooges: An Illustrated History, From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons

    15. Walden

    16. Homo Viator

    17. Being and Nothingness (perhaps I'd read it this time)

    18. Otherwise Than Being: Or Beyond Essence (perhaps I'd understand it this time)

    19. Travels With Charley

    20. The Norton Anthology of Really Useful & Easy Survival Strategies

  12. 1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    2. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare

    3. Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare

    4. Othello by Shakespeare

    5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

    6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    7. "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

    8. "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    9. Dracula by Bram Stoker

    10. Beowulf

    11. Nibelungenlied

    12. Odyssey by Homer

    13. Basilisk Station by David Weber

    14. The Horatio Hornblower Series by CS Forester

    15. Complete Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle

    16. "Tell-Tale Heart", "Masque of the Red Death", "Fall of the House of Usher", "Cask of Amontillado", and "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe

    17. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

    18. Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

    19. Ruled Brittania by Harry Turtledove

    20. Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

    21. Robin Hood by Howard Pyle

    22. Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory

    23. Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

    24. Once and Future King by TH White

    25. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robt A. Heinlein

  13. Dracula, yes. But not Frankenstein? And speaking of, if I were restricted to one of Homer's works, I would take the Iliad over the Odyssey. I would probably also include Vergil's Aeneid ("I sing of arms and the man who first from the shores of Troy came destined an exile to Italy and the Lavinian beaches …") and Cicero (the problem there is what to include and what to leave out), Beowulf (I'd take it in the orginal Anglo-Saxon, but I'm a Germanicist and it loses the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry and much of the vivid imagery in translation), and Gilgamesh (in translation).

    Shakespeare? King Lear, Richard III, Henry V, Macbeth, and The Tempest (if I were limited to one Shakespeare play, it would be The Tempest).

    I would (and hold onto your seats) also take Toni Morrison's acceptance speech for the Nobel. It's a remarkable piece of prose.

  14. RightWingProf:

    I love your lists, here and at your site.

    I was trying — purely subjectively — to limit myself to a 25 book list.

    Personally, I prefer Dracula to Frankenstein, although merit is probably equal. [Same with the choice of Tom Sawyer over Huck Finn, although in the end I dropped it.]

    For Homer, while the Iliad is good, I believe the Odyssey has had more allusions taken from it, and is the better story.

    Gilgamesh, the Eddas, Virgil, Cicero, Erasmus, Bede, Herodotus, and others all come under the "what to include banner", and for Beowulf, if I got to stipulate I'd require the relatively recent Seamus Heaney translation with side-by-side original and translated texts.

    Shakespeare is another "what do you leave out" choice. If I had to choose one, it'd probably be Merchant, for broadness of theme, though I like Othello better, and know R+J would be the "classic" choice.

    Out of curiosity, on a purely personal level, rather than your "for posterity" lists, what would you have chosen?

  15. I'll likely be back.

    But for now:

    Curious George

    Mother Goose

    Aesop's Fables

    Rebecca- Du Maurier (sp?)

    Gods in Alabama- Joshylyn Jackson

    Serpentine-Thomas Thompson

    Bible-(New International Version)



    To Kill A Mockingbird

    Twain (all)

    Vonnegut (all)

    Caroline Knapp (all))


  16. Hey!! My favorites are certainly ones America couldn't live without.

    Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger

    Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell

    The Sound and The Fury William Faulkner

    Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail Louise Shivers

    The World According to Garp John Irving

    Walking Across Egypt Clyde Edgerton

    Tales Out of School Patrick Welsh (my high school English teacher!)

    Tess of the D'Urbervilles Thomas Hardy

    In Cold Blood Truman Capote

    For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway

  17. 1. Harry Potter and…(Books 1-6) JK Rowling

    2. Gone to Soldiers Marge Piercy

    3. Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte

    4. Emma Jane Austen

    5. Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

    6. The Riverside Shakespeare

    7. The Collected Works of William Stafford

    8. To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee

    9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Twain

    10. The Great Gatsby FS Fitzgerald

    Do I have to stop at ten???? Ahhh!!!!

  18. RWP: Absolutely on the Starship Troopers, but let's not forget Starman Jones or Tunnel in the Sky or (yikes!) The Puppet Masters. But Faulkner is NOT my cup of tea. And I am appalled I left out Shakespeare. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? And absolutely J. K. Rowling.

    I am also fond of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and N.T. Wright, but couldn't pick one book.

    In terms of pther poetry, how about e. e. cummings, Howard Nemerov, Jane Kenyon, Denise Levertov, Mona Van Duyn, and Yeats, but NO Allen Ginsburg.

  19. I too, like any decent book nerd, can't narrow down to just 10 books. So, here I will at least have a list of 10, book-related. (and, in no particular order)

    1. anything by Alice Hoffman

    2. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

    3. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

    4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

    5. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

    6. anything by Jane Austen

    7. Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

    8. Confessions Of An Ex-Girlfriend by Lynda Curnyn

    9. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

    10. anything by Vonnegut

  20. there are a lot of good books on this list,

    but if they don't have to be american, then everyone's forgetting one of the best!

    Peter Pan, by JM Barrie.

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