The key to this take on the well trodden premise is a simple fact not usually assayed: America is still being made and is not a static thing which was done at some historical point in time. The nation is not a baked cake that can be left out in the rain, but a salmagundi, a jambalaya, a gallimaufry, and a slumgullion, if not a farrago. The first America, the one at the time of the Declaration of Independence was not exactly the one that wrote the Constitution a mere twelve years later. The America of 1860 was certainly not the America of 1865. The general self-awareness of this nation has been shaped and reshaped–mostly by events, not by books. Events are hard facts to ignore. Books are interpretations. A national catastrophe like the Civil War defined us far more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance. The hubris of the author is that their words are important to the process—yet that is a determination that can only be made by the reading citizen.
For example, the sheer number of readers of Pain’s Common Sense greatly surpassed Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Hale’s The Man Without a Country far exceeded Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Since the Twentieth Century our national school system has more often dictated what books became part of the public consciousness. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was read and believed by millions more than Lederer’s A Nation of Sheep, though both were bestsellers. And books themselves have carried less and less of the burden of ideas in recent decades. Electronic media have now dominated the national awareness for more than two generations. In these times an ill read and cynical man like Jon Stewart doing schtick on television reaches many more minds than William F. Buckley ever did through discussion on Firing Line. Al Gore has parleyed a nation’s worry about pollution into a religion concerning faux geophysics which has paid off handsomely in political power and financial rewards for himself and his kin. No matter its fabricated content, more change in the national character has been wrought by Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, as it has been shown in public schools to every school child coast to coast in recent years, than was ever had by a weightier piece of fiction like the novel Atlas Shrugged, a book often touted by more conservative thinkers.
The question is asked here in the hope of finding another means of ‘profiling’ the people that we are. To those who believe that we are what we eat, there is little to say. But if we are to a greater degree a product of the books we read, what books have had the greatest influence on us? Suggestions are welcomed.