The Thirteen Novels Every American Should Read

Thirteen Novels Every American Should Read

In honor of its 50th anniversary, we recently reread Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was even more amazing than we remembered, and our first thought when finishing it was, “wow, we wish every American would read this.” We started thinking of other books, novels especially, that we thought every American should read, and quickly started compiling a list.  There are plenty of  literary-minded people here at Nashville Public Television, including the incomparable host of A Word on a Words for over three decades, John Seigenthaler. So we asked Seigenthaler and the staff , “If you could pick a novel that every American should read, what would it be?”  We asked them to go with obvious classics if they felt strong about them —  hence, the appearance of … Mockingbird, Catch 22 and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the notable absences of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath — but to also not be afraid to go left or right of center, and to not dismiss contemporary novels. What follows is a baker’s dozen of the answers we received, who chose them, and in some cases, why. Seigenthaler chose more than one, because, well, he’s John Seigenthaler and has read more books than all of us combined.

As most high school and college students have returned to class by now, and teachers and professors have handed out their reading lists, perhaps there’s still time to consider some of these.  Special thanks to the Nashville Public Library, where you can take out all of these books, for the majority of summaries and cover images. We hope you enjoy, and please, let us know what you think of our choices and which books you would choose.

1) Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (John Seigenthaler, journalist, writer, former administrative assistant to Robert F. Kennedy and host of NPT’s A Word on Words)

“The President of the United States nominates a questionable candidate for the position of Secretary of State that’s being vacated under suspicious circumstances. The Majority Leader is given the responsibility to ramrod the nomination through the Senate. A southern Senator has different ideas. A novel that reminds one of the contemporary times we live in, where democracy has lost its meaning. Power rules the roost, not the majority’s will and desires. An epic and classic tale of the legislative and executive branches of government colliding on different paths, both seeking what’s best for the country… and themselves. ” — From summary

2) All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Seigenthaler)

Set in the 1930s, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel traces the rise and fall of Willie Stark, who resembles the real-life Huey “Kingfish” Long of Louisiana. Stark begins his political career as an idealistic man of the people but soon becomes corrupted by success. Generally considered the finest novel ever written on American politics, “All the King’s Men” is a literary classic. — From publisher description at Google Books

3) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (Erin McInnis, production assistant)

This brilliant epic novel set in New York and Prague introduces us to two misfit young men who make it big by creating comic-book superheroes. Joe Kavalier, a young artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdiniesque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit America the comic book. Inspired by their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapists, The Monitor, and Luna Moth , inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. — From Nashville Public Library summary

“Super heroes have appeared in every culture throughout history in some form or another,” says McInnis. “The comic book, on the other hand, is an American creation and it is through this creation that our modern day super heroes began to take shape.  Super heroes exist as fictional counterparts to ourselves, as evidence of what we could be, or what we could accomplish if only we could fly, manipulate the weather, be invisible, move objects with our minds, or participate in any other number of fantastic abilities. They allow us to be someone else, someone who can change the world, bettering it in some small or big way. Chabon takes the driving force behind comic books, escapism, and successfully blurs the line between reality and fiction, managing to show us how the characters both participate in and perpetuate the myth while allowing us to come along for the ride.  Every American should read this book not only for the look into a unique part of our shared history, but because of what we share with Joe Kavalier, Sammy Clay and Rosa Saks: the desire to better ourselves and defeat the ugliness around us for those we love.”

4) As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (Beth Curley, president and CEO)

At the heart of this 1930 novel is the Bundren family’s bizarre journey to Jefferson to bury Addie, their wife and mother. Faulkner lets each family member–including Addie–and others along the way tell their private responses to Addie’s life. — from Nashville Public Library summary

“Faulkner is a really original voice; a pioneer of modern literature,” says Curley. “He has such a distinctive regional voice, but he writes about universal themes. In As I Lay Dying, he imagined this county, this small place, representative of mankind. His books can be challenging, but this is one of his most accessible.”

5) Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Justin Harvey, program manager)

At the heart of Catch-22 resides the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war. His efforts are perfectly understandable because as he furiously scrambles, thousands of people he hasn’t even met are trying to kill him. His problem is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he is committed to flying, he is trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he is sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved. Catch-22 is a microcosm of the twentieth-century world as it might look to some one dangerously sane — a masterpiece of our time. — from Nashville Public Library summary

“I read this book when I was in 9th grade at the time of the First Gulf War,” says Harvey. “I immediately recognized that the insanity of war captured in Heller’s classic was as relevant then as it was when it was first published in 1961. The novel’s genius exists in the way it skewers the absurdity of war and the inefficiencies of bureaucracy and paints this picture with beautiful prose, inspired dialogue, dark flashes of cruelty paired with slapstick hilarity and constant allusions to classical literature in form and character.  Many look on this as a book about war or about WWII in particular. It is actually a book about the human condition, as are most truly great novels.”

6) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (Kevin Crane, vice-president of programming and technology)

Shipwrecked and cast adrift, Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself on Lilliput, an island inhabited by little people, whose height makes their quarrels over fashion and fame seem ridiculous. His subsequent encounters – with the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the philosophical Houyhnhnms and brutish Yahoos – give Gulliver new, bitter insights into human behaviour. Swift’s savage satire views mankind in a distorted hall of mirrors as a diminished, magnified and finally bestial species, presenting us with an uncompromising reflection of ourselves. — From the Nashville Public Library summary

“I read it while I was taking time off from school, hitchhiking around the U.S.,” says Crane. “The experience of meeting new people and seeing parts of my country that I’d never seen before and at the same time reading Swift’s satire on the world of his time was magical. I ran into Lilliputians, Brobdignaggians, Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, just as Gulliver did, but was more fortunate in that the vast majority I met in my travels were just good, honest people. The Last HurrahIt was well worth taking time off from my education to get an education, and Jonathan Swift was a wonderful and witty travel companion.”

7) The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’ Connor (Seigenthaler)

O’Connor’s 1956 account of big-city politics, inspired by the career of longtime Boston Mayor James M. Curley, portrays its Irish-American political boss as a demagogue and a rogue who nonetheless deeply understands his constituents. The book was later made into a John Ford film staring Spencer Tracy. — from review

8)  Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory (Mark Stender, master control operator)

“I remember hearing the stories as a child….of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, of the Sword in the Stone, the Quest for the Holy Grail….all of which have roots in this amazing work,” says Stender. “Little did I know when I was young that these vividly described things were all born in the realm of imagination. American popular culture has been strongly influenced by Mallory’s words, spawning a whole new world in literature through such historical authors as Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and T.S. Eliot as well as modern Hollywood films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Fisher King.  A daunting tale of honor, courage, and wisdom….the true American dream.”

9) Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (Joe Pagetta, media relations manager)

A rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s. A radical young Irish monk struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. A 38-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth. Weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s allegory comes alive in the voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century”– a mysterious tightrope walker dancing between the Twin Towers. — From publisher description

“Modern America seems to be split down the middle into pre- and post- 9/11 ages,” says Pagetta. “Many novelists tried to capture the post- part – Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland among them, the latter a clear homage to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – but  I think McCann did it better than any. He reminds us that we’re all connected, and have the potential to touch one another’s lives.  But he also reminds us that life in America can be hard, extremely hard, and that every day people make decisions and take actions that change their lives and others permanently; that every day, there are people navigating this world and trying to make it a better place in the only way they know how. What moves me the most, is that each character, like the funambulist based on Phillipe Petit, steps out on to their own tightrope. Each move these characters make is a step on the tightrope, a bounce on the wire,  a dance with destiny. That is the risk they take, and that, I think, is what the tightrope walk that shadows everyone in the novel represents: the risks we all take, every day, to love, to live and to connect, and make art out of our lives.”

10) Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II (Seigenthaler)

An American general’s aide discovers that his boss intends a military takeover because he considers the President’s pacifism traitorous. – from Google Books summary

11) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Will Pedigo, producer/director)

Harper Lee’s classic novel of a lawyer in the deep south defending a black man charged with the rape of a white girl – One of the best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has earned many distinctions since its original publication in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize, has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than thirty million copies worldwide, and been made into an enormously popular movie. Most recently, librarians across the country gave the book the highest of honors by voting it the best novel of the twentieth century. — From Nashville Public Library summary

My dad used to read to my sister and me as children,” says Pedigo. “It started with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.  I was six, my sister eight. By the time he read us To Kill a Mockingbird two years later, we were old enough to ask questions about the new and troubling subjects tackled in the book, but we still were young enough to see ourselves in the experiences of Jem and Scout.  I remember struggling with which character I more identified with.  My sister, being older, would have more likely played the authoritative role of Jem.  Scout’s questions more resembled my own.  My dad became Atticus Finch, and his voice was an ever present part of the story as we learned about racism, poverty, failed humanity, prejudice and redemption for the first time. To Kill A Mockingbird pulls no punches, and Tom Robinson’s death was a powerful and sad message.

“The growth and coming of age for Jem and Scout resembled that of me and my sister. To Kill a Mockingbird was the last book my father read to us.  We moved on to become readers of our own.  Looking back my father has become more intentional about the value of reading.  Originally, it was simply something we did together.  Now, he argues it’s irresponsible for a parent not to read to their child.  He believes the act of reading, especially before a child can read for themselves, develops curiosity.  I agree.  I look forward to the time when I will read to my own children, especially To Kill A Mockingbird.

12) Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Seigenthaler)

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, it became an international blockbuster, selling more than 300,000 copies in the United States alone in its first year. Progressive for her time, Harriet Beecher Stowe was one of the earliest writers to offer a shockingly realistic depiction of slavery. Her stirring indictment and portrait of human dignity in the most inhumane circumstances enlightened hundreds of thousands by revealing the human costs of slavery, which had until then been cloaked and justified by the racist misperceptions of the time. Langston Hughes called it “a moral battle cry,” noting that “the love and warmth and humanity that went into its writing keep it alive a century later,” and Tolstoy described it as “flowing from love of God and man.” — From Nashville Public Library summary

13) The World According to Garp by John Irving (Daniel Tidwell, vice president of development and marketing)

This is the life and times of T. S. Garp, the bastard son of Jenny Fields–a feminist leader ahead of her times. This is the life and death of a famous mother and her almost-famous son; theirs is a world of sexual extremes–even of sexual assassinations. It is a novel rich with “lunacy and sorrow”; yet the dark, violent events of the story do not undermine a comedy both ribald and robust. In more than thirty languages, in more than forty countries–with more than ten million copies in print–this novel provides almost cheerful, even hilarious evidence of its famous last line: “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” — From the Nashville Public Library summary

The World According to Garp is a novel that every American should read because of its epic Dickensian scope and Irving’s ability in the novel to portray the tragic in a way that can make you burst out laughing,” says Tidwell. “In many ways the characters in the novel are absurd, yet you genuinely care about them.”

Share this post:


I’m 50 & I have read one of these 13 (I think) WAY back in school.
I sorta kinda recall us having a choice of 6 of these to read over the
summer and we were supposed to give a brief summary of what we
thought about the book we read. 34 years ago.


Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison?
Life and Death of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
Why as i lay dying over the sound and fury
anything by Gore Vidal

1984 & Brave New World both of which have predicted the future in so many ways. The wod Orwellian has become part of culture. The drug use and class battles in BNW as well as the use of technology to control our lives is something we live with daily.

Atlas Shrugged is indeed on one of my lists: Top Ten of ‘What Not To Read’. But not a bad list for Americans that are not natural born readers. It is rather American-centric. A list of 50 would still be too short and engender furious discussion of the books left off. Thanx

I agree I read it as a freshman and still remember it. funny how it has significance in the light of the recent talk of burning the Quaran. 451 taught me that all book burning is bad!

I agree with much of the list, but why exclude Of Mice and Men? Poverty in our country should be the social issue of our time, the civil right issue of modern America and although TKAM tackles it too, Steinbeck’s treatment of Americans on the fringe of society reminds us as a nation of our greatest moral duty.

This list needs more female authors. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Elizabeth Maddox Roberts. These women write American historical fiction in profoundly meaningful ways.

A good, but most disappointing selection. James Baldwin where are you, Richard Wright, were are you as well, on this list? F. Scott Momaday? Louisa May Alcott? Maybe the list mean to inspire our responses about those left off?

agree with AC, 13 aren’t enuf especially when it comes to a global view I’m American and we know nothing about most Asian et al books. And most of these books could have been on a list for my father and he’d be 85 if he was here. Or is this why the US is getting stagnant in its main stream creativity and Hollywood keeps remaking the same 5 movies. Just saying.

Not one author of color in this list – shows how much we as a nation have matured – racism is still alive and well in nurturing the minds of the populace…

@ Andrew: blanket statements about the absence of authors of “specific groups” are not beneficial nor are the exagerated excuses, similar to what you have provided, constructive to this discussion. Demanding a list to contain an author of color just because of the author’s skin tone is also an expression of racism, just as a demand for a female author just because of her gender is an expression sexism. Rather than decry the list as “racist”, why not offer suggestions of specific works, from authors of “groups” you believe should be represented, which should be included within a list of “must reads”. I would agree, as has been stated other posters here, that Ralph Ellison’s Invisable Man should be on any list of “classic Americana must reads”. Specific examples of missing works/authors is constructive to this discussion; sweeping generalizations such as your are not.

Andrew, keep in mind this was written by someone representing Nashville Public Television. As I mentioned the themes explored in this list are also distinctly masculine. Certainly you have the right to expect an author of color to be listed as he or she is as American as anyone else is but there are but Harper Lee and Harriet Beecher Stowe do write well on the topic of racism.

Uh, isn’t the idea of this list for us to suggest our own additions instead of criticizing it for not including books we think should be on it? Sheesh!

Agreed! I thought there were some really interesting choices on this list. Just read “Let the great world spin” — it was amazing. Garp is one of my favorite books.

only 2 women writers out of 13 books in 2010? i was shocked and deeply disappointed to read this list. what about flannery o’connor or toni morrison? it’s not about being politically correct, it’s about being fair. this list is blatantly sexist.

I find this list sorely lacking. It looks to me like it was written by an ol’ sixties journalist or librarian. I can say that as I am of the sixties generation. There are many more books that I could add. Even though is has “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”on the list,it is still a decidedly Southern list. Interesting focus on death and dying. How about “Tuesday’s With Morrie” if we are going to focus on the end stage of life?

Hmm. I’m an English teacher and a writer. I haven’t read all the books on this list, though the ones I have read I have truly loved. There are SO many books that could/should be on the list and aren’t. Where is Willa Cather? Where is THE GRAPES OF WRATH? This list also needs some ethnic diversity. As Americans, are we meant to only read American authors? And mostly male ones at that? For Lord’s sake, I’m not even a Hemingway fan, but where is THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA? Toni Morrison? Why UNCLE TOM’S CABIN and not BLACK BOY?

This list looks as if it were compiled by Southern men. It has not a lot to do with my literary tastes as a woman of the 60’s. I was thinking it was going to be books by great “American” authors. I agree that Their Eyes Were Watching God should be on it. And what about Ernest Hemingway? Too many political and war books. I thought this was about literature.

It should not be where is this book on the list or that book. It should be here is a list of books.. if you haven’t read them then you should. If you’ve read other books, and not these, then great. If you’ve read all these books lucky you!

It is 13 books. Not the 13 best books. Not the 13 top books. It is a subjective list of really good books.

Americans should read 30, 50, 100, 500 books/novels of merit. Kids today don’t read anything that is not in a seven book series. I found a few suggested books on this list that I would like to read that I haven’t.

Thank you!

I would like to thank all of you for stopping by and suggesting additional books and criticisms. Any time we’re discussing literature is good. I just want to make clear, which I thought I did in the intro, that the list was never meant to be comprehensive or authoritative, but merely a survey of some of the books that members of our small staff suggested when I asked them that one question. I also told them, as I explained in the intro, to go with classics only if they felt strongly about them, and so it is that “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Catch-22” come with personal memories of staffers being read to by their fathers or being in high school during the first Gulf War, respectively. Of course “Huckleberry Finn” should be on this list, and “Invisible Man” and “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Great Gatsby” all of the books you’ve suggested here. That’s why we asked you what you would choose. For a post by and for people passionate about reading, I sense that many of the commenters who suggest it is sexist or racist didn’t actually read the intro, and instead jumped right to the list, or they would have known its intention and how it was gathered. I’m sorry you feel that way, but respect your criticism.

That considered, it’s still a great discussion to have. You have reminded me, or introduced me, to several books here that I need to add to my own list.


As Seigenthaler says at the close of each week’s episode of “A Word on Words,” “Keep Reading!”

Joe P.

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
– Robertson Davies

Although Harriet Beecher Stowe, author “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was credited by President Lincoln as being “the little woman who started the big war,” it is arguable that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” did more to humanize the problem of segregation and its irrationality than any other novel of its time. It was blasted when it was published and continues to find itself on the list of banned books for different reasons to this day. Surely Twain/Clemens’s seminal novel deserves a place on this list.

There’s not a title submitted that is less than wonderful in the chronicle of American novels. Thanks for getting it started. I’m adding Thomas Wolfe’s LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL.


[…]The Thirteen Novels Every American Should Read – News and Programming Updates From Nashville Public Television[…]…

Leave a Reply