8 Books that Represent “My America”

In honor of our nation’s birthday, the staff here at Off The Shelf have chosen books that represent America to us.  These works, from middle-grade fiction to American classics to satirical commentary, represent the American experience to us, in all of its tragedy and triumph.

1The White Album
by Joan Didion

The first edition of Didion’s The White Album has a simple white cover adorned with huge red and blue text. That’s the edition that I picked up at a bookstore before flying to Seattle to embark on a road trip with a friend down the West Coast. I do this nerdy thing I like to call “thematic reading” whenever I’m really excited to go somewhere or do something—it’s kind of like scouring travel guidebooks but way more interesting and much less practical. It lends context for a place, at least temporarily, until you can replace it with your own experience there. This is the book that accompanied me on the cross-country plane ride and in the passenger seat of my friend’s boyfriend’s car, read against a backdrop of coastline and redwood and wine country. The furthest we made it was Berkley, so my idea of LA is still Didion’s: Black Panther meetings and Charles Manson testimonies, static images of paranoia and chaos, emblematic of 1960s America. - Meg Miller

2A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith

This is a great coming of age story set during a difficult time for the country. Universal themes….just a wonderful story. - Gail Gonzales

3Parliament of Whores
by P.J. O'Rourke

I heard about this book when I went to a week-long brainiac camp at West Point the summer before senior year of high school. Being exposed to so much military and government over the course of a week, it was just what I needed to re-set my brain. It’s hilarious and reminds me that though our system isn’t always the best, it’s better than everything else out there. And though we fight like hell to make it better, it’s OK to make fun of ourselves now and then, even with that which we hold most sacred: our own democracy. – Kevin Myers

4As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner

Not an easy read but a marvelous one. The story of the Bundren family on their journey to bury the family matriarch, Addie, is told from alternating points of view that expose and explain the character’s lives and the story of this family. The way it is told-- the beautiful knotty language that demands attention be paid and the immersion into the psyches of each character in a way that was completely new when it was written -- is quintessentially American not just because it is about the South, and nowhere in the world is like the South, but because no one but an American could write it. On reading lists for years it should be on everyone’s book shelf too. – Suzanne Donahue

5The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is a vivid portrait of a fascinating period of American history - the Roaring Twenties, a time of excess, glamour, debauchery, and free-flowing alcohol (prohibition be damned!). But to me, Jay Gatsby himself represents so much more – he is an embodiment and an interrogation of the "American dream". Gatsby began his life as James Gatz, the son of a poor German immigrant farmer. Through hard work, carefully constructed lies, and some illegal bootlegging, Gatsby becomes a member of the nouveau-riche. Despite having achieved the quintessential American dream of pulling oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps and working hard for success, he is profoundly unhappy and scorned by his "old money" neighbors. The sense of disillusionment and restlessness felt by many returning WWI veterans, like Gatsby, is just as relevant today as it was when The Great Gatsby was written. The iconic image of Gatsby in his expensive suit, standing outside of his lavish mansion, and reaching his arms out towards the green light in the darkness represents America to me – constantly striving for something more. - Sarah Jane Abbott

6The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz

This book emphasized to me that America very often is not just the space we occupy, but the histories, traditions, and cultures we/our ancestors brought with us to this space, whether 10 years ago or 300 years ago. America is informed by a multitude of traditions from around the world, and how we negotiate those traditions to form the American ideal is an exciting and fascinating process. – Etinosa Agbonlahor

7Little House on the Prairie (Series)
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I love the whole series, but On The Banks of Plum Creek is my stand-out favorite. As a child, I wanted to be Laura Ingalls, which is a testament to how charmingly appealing she made the homesteading of this country by non-indigenous people seem. As an adult, I know better, but I still admire the Ingalls’ family’s strength, love, curiosity, bravery, and adaptability as they traversed life as early settlers. Humble, complicated roots. . . that is America to me. - Allison Tyler

8The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth

Few writers working today have the narrative depth and complexity as Philip Roth. And it is at an intellectual high-point with The Plot Against America. The novel follows a working class Jewish-American family during the eve of World War II. Unlike the actual events surrounding America’s involvement, Roth constructs an alternate reality where Charles Lindbergh, the famous pilot and Nazi sympathizer, climbs to political prominence and, in a juicy moment of American politicking, succeeds in beating the incumbent and well-respected Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Thus emerges an America more aligned with the policies of the Third Reich than with the allies, and becomes all the more troublesome for a Jewish family targeted by an increasingly hostile state. The vividness of America’s pogroms is terrifying and Roth delights in his ability to make the most absurd of situations real and doubtlessly convincing. It is perhaps an unusual choice when asked what book defines America for me, but Roth is fully invested in the American consciousness and his version could only have been written by someone who cares deeply about what America means and how best to relay its people’s perspective. I’ve never been one to shy from controversy and Roth, I think, embellishes the American spirit better than others who merely claim ownership of America without any foresight into why or for what purpose. - Pronoy Sarkar