Books Every American Should Read

Before getting too sloshed on Saturday, I want to share the books about American history I am using to educate myself on the country that I am from – and do love.

I’ve ordered them based on the time in American history they address.

Pre-Colonization

1491 by Charles G. Mann

Few books bother to address the vast civilizations that existed on the American continents before Europeans ever touched land. While I think some bits are missed, 1491 is great launchpad to dive into pre-American history – i.e. the years of very complex and advanced Indigenous civilizations.

1700s

Common Sense by Thomas Paine

If you want to know what started it all, read it.

The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay

Here are the essays that made us the star-spangled society we are today – supporting others’ interpretations of our Constitution to preserve our American statehood.

Buy The Founding Of A Nation Book at Easons

The Founding of a Nation by Merrill Jensen

Written recently, Jensen reevaluates how the American Revolution became the pride-filled staple it is today without dismissing the opposing politics and motivations that made it happen.

1800s

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Stowe’s book is largely credited with driving the antislavery movement. Its portrayal of Blacks in America is stereotypical (to say the least) but it demonstrates an important point: not everyone who opposed (and opposes) slavery is antiracist.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Did you talk about the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee Creek in your history class? Hopefully, but I sure didn’t. Brown’s work not only offers a Native perspective of the American mistreatment of Indigenous communities. It also offers a look at how this history has been largely erased from the collective history of America.

The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn

Like a Wild West movie but true. Outlaws and the O.K. Corral are readdressed in Guinn’s striking book about the realities of the American West after the previously mentioned Indigenous communities were decimated.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

Gwynne blends ideas present in the last two books in this well researched account of the Comanche Nation and the rise of the American West. This one is close to my heart as it relates very closely with my family’s heritage but it’s also a fascinating book in its own right.

1900-1940

The First World War by John Keegan

This book is one of those that’s thrown around a lot – but most of the American focus is on the war that followed. With images, maps, and pulling narrative, Keegan forces us to address the true nature of “great” wars and they chaos they cause.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This book can explain a lot about how the significance of wealth and status prevails in our society’s valuation of people. It can also tell us just how corrupted we become by prescribing ourselves to it.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

A story that demonstrates how the Great Depression wrecked the American economy but not the American fabric – I mean how many books focus on the plights suffered by BIPOC during the Great Depression?? (I’ll tell you my favorite one next.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston’s novel actually came out before Steinbeck’s but did not receive the recognition it deserved in its time. Hurston was a Black writer who experienced the Great Depression in her own right and funneled that experience into her novel. Their Eyes Were Watching God demonstrates the expounded pressure on working-class Black Americans during this time.

Hard Times by Studs Terkel

Last one about the Great Depression. Terkel’s book explores a more varied perspective of the United States during one of its most iconic periods. While still not all-encompassing, the book features the lives of the notable figures of this time and the people we’ve forgotten since.

1940-1960

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

A WWII book whose title became an overused lexicon?? Yes. Not only does Heller show the odd irony of war but he also shows us how rules can harm the efforts of people who want to do good.

An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson

Atkinson marries journalism and literature well in this book about the Allied invasion of North Africa during WWII. It’s a history book that’s genuinely gripping and bizarrely thrilling.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Don’t worry, you can still watch that Kate Moss movie without spoiling this book. In this story, we learn about the unseen nature of Black lives in a white-predominant culture. It also demonstrates that the BLM movement is not calling on a new issue but one that has run deep in the history of the United States. [I previously covered this book on hollyandoates. You can read that here.]

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Published just four years ago, Shetterly shares the true story of three NASA employees whose contribution to the moon landing had been largely forgotten – maybe because they were women, or because they were black, or maybe because of both.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Lee’s American gothic novel may be the kind of book you dreaded reading high school but it tells an important story – how racism is taught and maintained. AND how the perception of gender, class, and race structures has been driven more by hatred and greed than anything else.

1960-1999

Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks

The first African-American to win the Pulitzer Price, Gwendolyn Brooks, did so with this beautiful collection of poems that highlight the pervasiveness of poverty, racism, and other issues in the lives of Black women in America.

We Are Everywhere by Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown

Technically, this book covers a lot more than Stonewall but I wanted to include it here because this is the time when people started waking up to the fact there are real people fighting for their civil rights and place in America. Their history should not be torn away from our American tapestry.

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

Health crises aren’t new. The AIDS epidemic of our yesteryears is more than enough proof that we’ve been here before and that ineptitude and apathy only make these crises worse.

The Law that Changed the Face of America by Margaret Sands Orchowski

Ever heard of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965? Well, it basically changed the demographic of American citizens forever – and for the better. While there is a LOT of controversial views on immigration today, we have to understand where these issues started and the attitudes the U.S. has historically held in order to address them right.

Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald

The Vietnamese War was telling time for Americans. The first war to be broadcasted on television was met with protests and resistance that the government wasn’t prepared for. The book also demonstrates how cultural ignorance and misrepresentation played into the United States’ failed strategy in Southeast Asia.

& More

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Zinn teaches us American history through the lives of the everyday people who lived through it. The book encompasses American events as far back as the 15th century and is as insightful as it is inspiring.

Seizing Destiny by Richard Kluger

Kluger doesn’t just teach us history, he teaches us how a disproportionate number of Americans continue to benefit from the actions of our ancestors. In a similar way, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (below) shows us how this idea was not and is not exclusive of one administration.

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski

Because the LGBTQ+ community has ALWAYS been here and has ALWAYS been a part of our history.

Because I love my country, I want it to be better. These books are helping me learn more about where we’ve done well and wrong and how we can do more to rectify the issues that have permeated our society for decades on decades.


All images from bookshop.org (support local bookstores!)

EXCEPT: The Founding of A Nation from Easons

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