J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Since his debut in 1951 as the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with adolescent rebellion and angst. The influential story concerns three days after Holden has been expelled from prep school. Confused and disillusioned, he wanders New York City searching for truth and rails against the phoniness of the adult world. Holden is the first great American antihero, and his attitudes influenced the Beat Generation of the 1950s as well as the hippies of the 1960s. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most translated, taught, and reprinted books in the world and has sold more than 65 million copies.
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Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
The Old Man and the Sea reestablished Ernest Hemingway’s reputation as one of the world’s greatest writers. In fact, this Pulitzer Prize winner was specifically cited when its author won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for “his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.” Some critics, however, claimed it was the worst book Hemingway had ever written, and that it read as a parody of the author’s famously spare prose. Despite the controversy, Hemingway’s economical style has undeniably influenced countless writers who came after him.
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John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)
Of the many novels that John Steinbeck wrote, East of Eden was his favorite and the one of which he was proudest. It takes its title from a chapter of the Bible’s Book of Genesis about the struggle between brothers Cain and Abel (Cal and Aron in the novel): “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” The theme of good versus evil is universal, according to Steinbeck, who said, “there is no other story.” However, the author believed that everyone is given free will to choose whether or not to do what is right or wrong and the interplay between these two extremes forms the narrative’s basis. When first published, the reception to East of Eden was mixed. The public loved it, making it a bestseller; while critics said the biblical references were unsophisticated and clumsy.
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Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953)
A thinly veiled critique of the second Red Scare and the government effort to root out communist sympathizers, The Crucible is set in 1692−93, when mass hysteria led to the Salem witch trials, in which twenty people were executed under suspicion of practicing witchcraft. During the early to mid-1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee staged investigations of suspected communists, many of whom were actors, directors, and writers in the performing arts. Arthur Miller himself was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to identify colleagues as suspected communists. The Crucible demonstrates how paranoia can lead to dangerous consequences in any period.
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Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury’s disturbing vision of a future United States in which books are outlawed and burned. Even though interpretations of the novel have primarily focused on the historical role of book burning as a means of censorship, Bradbury has said that the novel is about how television reduces knowledge to factoids and destroys interest in reading. The book inspired a 1966 film by François Truffaut and a subsequent BBC symphony. Its name comes from the minimum temperature at which paper catches fire by spontaneous combustion.
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John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (1956)
John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage comprises eight brief biographies of U.S. senators and the courageous actions they took despite losing popularity. The earliest senator profiled is John Quincy Adams and the last, Robert Taft. The book was published during Kennedy’s term as a Massachusetts senator. Although Kennedy is said to have overseen the book’s production and overall focus, it is generally acknowledged that his speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, wrote the book. The book was not initially nominated for the Pulitzer; however, Kennedy’s father intervened by asking columnist Arthur Krock to urge the prize board to vote for it. Profiles in Courage was a bestseller.
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Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957)
Although mainstream critics reacted poorly to Atlas Shrugged it was a popular success. Set in what novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand called “the day after tomorrow,” the book depicts the United States caught up in a crisis caused by a corrupt establishment of government regulators and business interests. The book’s negative view of government and its support of unimpeded capitalism as the highest moral objective have influenced libertarians and those who advocate for less government.
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Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)
Theodor Seuss Geisel was removed as editor of a campus humor magazine while a student at Dartmouth College after too much reveling with fellow students. In spite of this prohibition-era setback to his writing career, he continued to contribute to the magazine pseudonymously, signing his work “Seuss.” This is the first known use of his pseudonym, which became famous in children’s literature when it evolved into “Dr. Seuss.” His introduction to animation and illustration came during World War II, when he worked on military training films and developed a character named Private Snafu. The Cat in the Hat is considered the defining book of his career. More than 200 million Dr. Seuss books have been sold around the world.
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Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)
The defining novel of the 1950s “Beat Generation” (which Kerouac named), On the Road is a semiautobiographical tale of a bohemian cross-country adventure, narrated by the character Sol Paradise. Kerouac’s odyssey has influenced artists such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Hunter S. Thompson and films such as Easy Rider. On the Road has achieved a mythic status in part because it portrays the restless energy and desire for freedom that makes people take off to see the world.
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Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
This 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner was an immediate critical and financial success for its author, with more than thirty million copies in print to date. Harper Lee created one of the most enduring and heroic characters in all of American literature in Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer who defended a wrongly accused black man. The book’s importance was recognized by a 1961 Washington Post book reviewer: “A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere eighteen ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird.”
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Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961)
More than any other cookbook, restaurant, or celebrity chef, Mastering the Art of French Cooking opened America’s eyes to a new world of food. Its three authors wrote the book specifically for the U.S. market. They wanted to teach Americans how to make classic French fare, such as cassoulet and beef bourguignon, and for them to see that such dishes could be successfully produced without formal training. The book’s success led to Julia Child’s television series of the same name, in which she demonstrated many of the recipes. She was notable for her fearlessness in the kitchen: her mistakes were left in her broadcasts, as a way of showing that even a French-trained chef does not always achieve perfection. The second volume of the book was published in 1970.
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Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows (1961)
This children’s classic is about a boy, his two hunting dogs, and the bonds of friendship and trust they forge. Billy and his coonhounds are caught up in a series of increasingly challenging raccoon-hunting adventures that test their mettle. The lesson Red Fern gives its young readers is that persistence and adherence to the straight-and-narrow path almost always result in a good outcome. Rawls’ novel initially met with lukewarm sales, and after about six years nearly went out of print. An agent who believed strongly in the book’s merit marketed it heavily, and it went on to great success. Since its initial publication, three film adaptations have been produced.
Wilson Rawls (1913−1984). Where the Red Fern Grows: The Story of Two Dogs and a Boy. New York: Bantam Books, 1974. Private Collection (041.00.00)
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Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961
Joseph’s Heller’s Catch-22, an irreverent World War II novel and a satiric treatment of military bureaucracy, has had such a penetrating effect that its title has become synonymous with “no-win situation.” Heller’s novel is a black comedy about airmen dutifully following logical orders, not based on reason, from superiors and a main character, Yossarian, who just wants to stay alive. He pleads insanity but is caught in the famous catch: “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.” Although the novel won no awards upon its release, it soon became a cult classic, especially among the Vietnam War generation, for its biting indictment of war.
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Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962)
ilton Friedman and the term “free market” are nearly synonymous. As an adviser to both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, Friedman’s views on trade, monetary policy, and taxation reigned supreme. The idea that the best government is the most minimal government was central to his economic theories. Many of Friedman’s ideas, such as an all-volunteer military, free-floating currency, and school vouchers have seen varying degrees of implementation. However, his beliefs that doctors should not have to be licensed and that corporate income tax should be abolished have few advocates. Friedman, the 1976 winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, was one of the leading voices in the Chicago school of economics, which rejects the Keynesian theory that government intervention in the economy is desirable and often necessary.
Milton Friedman (1912−2006). Capitalism and Freedom. With the assistance of Rose D. Friedman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Private Collection (042.00.00)
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Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s (1962)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was an immediate success for its author, Ken Kesey, who based much of the novel on his experiences working in a mental institution and a Veterans Administration hospital. Through characters as memorable as inmates Randle McMurphy and Chief Bromden, and the notoriously hateful Nurse Ratched, Kesey presents an unvarnished indictment of mental institutions and their treatment of patients. The oppression and control practiced inside Kesey’s fictional institution can also be seen as a metaphor for the rigid societal constraints of the times. The rebelliousness of McMurphy and Bromden mirror the turmoil of 1960s America. The 1975 film adaptation was also an enormous success, winning the top five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
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Ken Kesey (1935−2001). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. General Collections, Library of Congress (044.00.00)
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Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)
A marine biologist and writer, Rachel Carson is considered a founder of the contemporary environmental protection movement. She drew attention to the adverse effects of pesticides, especially the use of DDT, in her book Silent Spring, a 1963 National Book Association Nonfiction Finalist. At a time when technological solutions were the norm, she pointed out that man-made poisons introduced into natural systems can harm not only nature but also humans. Her book met with great success and, as a result of heightened public awareness, DDT and other pesticides were banned.
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Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy novel tells the story of a young girl, Meg, and her search for her father, a government scientist, who mysteriously disappears. In L’Engle’s world, there are no shades of gray, and all the characters can be easily classified as either good or evil. The “wrinkle” in the novel is the passage through space and time that young Meg and her friends travel through to rescue Meg’s father. Written in 1963, the subject of death was not a common theme in children’s books, but the author confronts the topic without artifice. A Wrinkle in Time garnered a Newbery Medal and several other prestigious awards.
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Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)
By debunking the “feminine mystique” that middle-class women were happy and fulfilled as housewives and mothers, Betty Friedan inspired the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Friedan advocates that women need meaningful work and encourages them to avoid the trap of the “feminine mystique” by pursuing education and careers. By 2000 this touchstone of the women’s movement had sold three million copies and was translated into several languages.
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Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
Poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, is a semiautobiographical work originally published in the United Kingdom in 1963, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. In 1967 the book was published with Plath’s name, but it was not released in the United States until 1971. The Bell Jar documents a young woman’s mental decline, her stay at an institution where she receives electroconvulsive therapy, and her feelings of being stifled under a bell jar— unable to breathe. A month after the book’s initial publication, Plath committed suicide. Her tempestuous relationship with her husband, British poet Ted Hughes, has often been cited as the major cause of Plath’s death. However, Plath had been clinically depressed for most of her life and had attempted suicide before her relationship with Hughes.
Sylvia Plath (1932−1963). The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1975. Private Collection (047.00.00)
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Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree (1964)
The Giving Tree’s conceit is that a boy and a tree can talk to each other. In School Library Journal’s 2012 listing of the “Top 100 Picture Books,” Silverstein’s book is ranked number eighty-five. The Journal called it “one of the most divisive in children’s literature. . . . You are either a Giving Tree fan or you loathe and abhor it.” Why so much controversy? The boy asks many things of the tree until it has nothing else to give. At the end of every request is the sentence, “And the tree was happy.” When the tree is left with nothing more than a stump, the book concludes with the same sentence. Is this a story of unconditional love or unbridled selfishness? Only the reader can decide.
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Frank Herbert, Dune (1966)
With more than twenty million copies sold, Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the best-selling novels of any genre and perhaps the best-selling science fiction novel of all time. The initial success of Dune spawned five sequels by Herbert and more than a dozen by other writers. The series’ scope and grandeur have resulted in the books being called science fiction’s answer to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Herbert’s themes are as far-reaching as the environment, the decline of empires, and gender equality. The filmed version of Dune, directed by David Lynch, received very mixed reviews. Countless books have taken their inspiration from Dune, and its influence can be found in television shows as well as films such as Star Wars.
Frank Herbert (1920–1986). Dune. New York: Berkley Books, 1984. Private Collection (050.00.00)
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Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966)
Robert A. Heinlein, often called the dean of science fiction writers, wrote The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as his vision of a libertarian lunar colony. The novel was awarded a Hugo award in 1967, the fourth of his Hugo awards. The most memorable character is a supercomputer named Mike, who has a distinct personality and is referred to in the book as “our man John Galt,” a direct reference to the main character in Ayn Rand’s 1957 Atlas Shrugged, another novel that extols the virtues of libertarianism.
Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988). The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. New York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1968. Private Collection (051.00.00)
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Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
“All this happened, more or less” is the first sentence of Kurt Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as told through the eyes of the unreliable narrator who relates the story of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II soldier who refuses to fight. In the novel, the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, Germany, is treated satirically and with antiwar sentiment. Vonnegut, who was in Dresden during the actual destruction, was captured and held in a meat locker below a slaughterhouse. Following the bombing, he was ordered to bury and incinerate the bodies of the fallen. More than twenty years later, Vonnegut penned Slaughterhouse-Five, written in the disjointed style of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: “It is so short and jumbled and jangled,” he writes, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” The novel was published during the Vietnam War.
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Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (1970)
Judy Blume wrote one of the most important pre-teen novels in 1970 with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Margaret, who herself has no religious affiliation, is the child of a Christian mother and a Jewish father. She searches for religion in the book while at the same time facing typical adolescent growing pains, such as how to deal with boys, the changes in her body, and the general awkwardness that comes with transitioning into adulthood. In Margaret, young girls finally had a book with a character who faced the same things they were experiencing. The book was so successful that Blume went on to write a similar book, from a boy’s perspective, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.
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Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972)
A haze of drugs permeates Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, which very loosely recounts trips that Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta embarked on while on assignment for Sports Illustrated. Thompson was to write captions for a photo essay on a motorcycle and dune buggy race near Las Vegas. The piece turned into something much more, and Sports Illustrated refused to publish it. Rolling Stone picked it up in 1971. The novel freely mixes fact and fiction, in a style referred to as “gonzo journalism.” The book met with mixed reviews, but it has become recognized as a classic, albeit a very nontraditional one. Thompson himself called it “a failed experiment,” which was based on William Faulkner’s idea that “the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism.”
Hunter S. Thompson (1937−2005). Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Popular Library edition. New York: Random House, 1976. Private Collection (054.00.00)
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Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
With more than 400 characters and numerous plot lines, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow has been cited by many critics as one of the greatest postmodern novels in the American canon. This National Book Award winner is set mostly in Europe after World War II. Fact and fiction are intermingled as Pynchon weaves his tangled tale that focuses on the Germans’ V-2 rocket and the mystery surrounding its development. In reality, the V-2 was responsible for the most deadly single-rocket attack during the entire war, killing 567 people in a Belgian movie house. Pynchon’s style has influenced many other writers, such as David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and T. C. Boyle. Admirers of Gravity’s Rainbow may well be outnumbered by its critics, some of whom go so far as to call it “unreadable.”
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Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All The President’s Men (1974)
The story of the Watergate break-in and how it became the biggest American political scandal in modern-day history unfolds in All The President’s Men. Washington Post cub reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were savvy enough to recognize that there was much more to the story than a simple break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex. All the President’s Men is a case study in investigative journalism and the power of the “fourth estate”— the press—to bring justice to bear on even the most powerful person in the world. Today, any word appended with “gate” denotes some sort of scandal.
Carl Bernstein (b. 1944) and Bob Woodward (b. 1943). All The President’s Men. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1974. Private Collection (056.00.00)
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Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)
Few works have captured the national zeitgeist quite like Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a first-person account of the author’s motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California. According to the Daily Beast, “It is a nostalgic, old-fashioned novel that nevertheless reflects the malaise of its era and prefigures our own technophiliac age.” This work puts forth Pirsig’s theory of the “Metaphysics of Quality,” a hybrid philosophy in which quality cannot be defined because it exists only in the present, based on one’s individual experience. Pirsig wrote the book, which takes place over seventeen days, during a four-year period while he held a job as a writer of computer manuals.
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Alex Haley, Roots (1976)
The influence of Alex Haley’s Roots is vast. From the millions of amateur genealogists it inspired, to the production of television shows such as Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Finding Your Roots,” to the interest it generated in African American history, the book continues to make an impact forty years after its initial publication. The story of Kunta Kinte, captured in the Gambia and sold into slavery in the United States, was adapted into an equally popular television series (1977), seen by a then record-breaking 100 million viewers. The book spent twenty-two weeks at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list. However, many controversies surrounded Roots. Author Harold Courtlander successfully brought a suit of plagiarism against Haley for copying numerous passages from his novel The African, and historians have found many errors in the family history that Haley presents as factual.
Alex Haley (1921−1992). Roots. New York: DoubleDay & Company, Inc., 1976. Private Collection (058.00.00)
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Stephen King, The Stand (1978)
Stephen King’s epic, post-apocalyptic horror-science fiction novel has influenced countless writers. After a lethal virus, “Captain Trips,” is accidentally released from a U.S. Army base, more than ninety-nine percent of the world’s population is decimated. The survivors, who have immunity to the virus split into two camps. One group follows a woman who receives visions from God and sets up a democratic society in Boulder, Colorado, and the other follows a so-called “Dark Man” who establishes a tyrannical society in Las Vegas, Nevada. The groups prepare to take a stand against each other for good or evil. The Stand was a 1994 television miniseries, and there have been several attempts to turn the novel into a feature-length film.
Stephen King (b. 1947). The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Version. Illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. New York: Doubleday, 1990. Private Collection (059.01.00)
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John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces immediately brings to mind another picaresque masterpiece, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Confederacy was published posthumously eleven years after Toole’s suicide. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The book may never have been published if not for the persistence of Toole’s mother and the novelist Walker Percy. Set in Toole’s native New Orleans, the novel is populated with eccentric, colorful French Quarter characters such as the protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly, whom Percy called a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” The novel takes its title from a Jonathan Swift proverb: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
John Kennedy Toole (1937−1969). A Confederacy of Dunces. New York: Wings Books, 1994. Private Collection (060.00.00)
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Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (1980)
The premise of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States can be seen in much of the current political discourse. It claims that those at the very top of the economic ladder exploit the majority of the population for their own gain. Zinn sought to tell an alternative version of history, one that focused on ordinary individuals rather than well-known figures. The book has been praised for its novel approach as much as it has been criticized. Historians have accused Zinn of ignoring important historical events when they do not suit his thesis. Nonetheless, the book has infiltrated popular culture as few histories have—musician Bruce Springsteen said his dark and spare 1982 Nebraska album was influenced by Zinn’s book.
Howard Zinn (1922−2010). A People’s History of the United States: 1492−2001. New edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003. Private Collection (061.00.00)
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Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose (1980)
Husband-and-wife economists Milton and Rose Friedman wrote Free to Choose (which was also a ten-part series on PBS) as an alternative to John Kenneth Galbraith’s book The Age of Uncertainty (also a television series), which promoted interventionist government economic policies. Like the earlier Capitalism and Freedom, Free to Choose praises the virtues of a free market and argues that so-called cradle-to-grave policies are inferior to those that are market driven. The television series outlined both successful and failed economic stories to demonstrate, in the Friedman’s view, how capitalism ultimately leads to long-term prosperity.
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Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)
The stark depictions of sexism and racism in The Color Purple have won it many fans, but its frank discussions of those themes, coupled with its violent scenes, have made it a controversial and often challenged novel by censors and parents’ groups alike. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Alice Walker’s book, told through a series of letters and documents, was adapted into a hit movie directed by Steven Spielberg, as well as a Broadway play. Strong relationships among women and the power of those relationships are at the novel’s heart. Many said the book perpetuated racial stereotypes, but just as many people praised Walker’s prose for its feminist themes.
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Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (1985)
This Pulitzer Prize-winning Western started out as a screenplay by Larry McMurtry. The film, which was to star John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda, was never made, and the author decided to turn the screenplay into a novel, which became part of a trilogy. Lonesome Dove, then became a much-loved, critically acclaimed television miniseries that won seven Emmys. Four more miniseries followed, as well as two additional television series. The story is a fictionalized account of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana led by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving in the 1870s and the travails of Goodnight while returning Loving’s body to Texas for burial after his death.
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Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)
Tim O’Brien was already an established writer when he penned The Things They Carried. He had won the National Book Award in 1979 for Going After Cacciato, and subsequent works such as The Nuclear Age were met with much acclaim. The Things They Carried, classified as fiction, recalls many of the incidents O’ Brien witnessed as a soldier in the Vietnam War. In his novel, he names the protagonist after himself and believes the best way to convey the horrific effect of war is to blend elements of fiction and nonfiction. O’Brien uses the words “things” soldiers “carry” as more of an emotional than physical metaphor. The author has been called one of the finest writers ever to focus on the Vietnam War.
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