The American experience is diverse. It’s filled with characters and a multitude of stories just waiting to be heard, or read.
As Americans kick off celebrations for Independence Day, PBS NewsHour staff have shared their favorite books about the United States, including presidential biographies, Alaskan murder mysteries and histories of U.S. energy and the Great Migration.
We hope you enjoy them!
Share with us: What’s your favorite book — fact or fiction — about the American experience? Join the discussion in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
Recommended by Katelyn Polantz, politics reporter/producer
Katharine Graham’s autobiography boils down to the story of a woman who inherited The Washington Post from her wealthy father and influential husband.
But it’s her leadership of the paper for decades — through the Watergate era, the publishing of the Pentagon Papers and union protests — that make this book a gripping portrait of mid-century American politics, history and feminism.
I remember the tension in this book haunting me as I braced to read about each major event Graham lived and worked through.
Katelyn also recommends:
- “Liar’s Poker” | by Michael Lewis
- “The Passage of Power” | by Robert Caro
- “In the Garden of Beasts” | by Erik Larson
“U.S.A.” | by John dos Passos
“Studs Lonigan” | by James T. Farrell
“McTeague” | by Frank Norris
Recommended by Ray Suarez, senior correspondent
For me, the most under-covered, under-discussed era in American history is the half-century that made modern America, 1870-1920. Three of the best books to read to give you an insight into the tensions and challenges of a strapping young superpower are John dos Passos’ “USA,” James T. Farrell’s “Studs Lonigan” and Frank Norris’ “McTeague.”
The sweep, the characters, the finely drawn portraits of three great cities — New York, Chicago, San Francisco — the motive power of money and the terrors of poverty, are stuffed into these sprawling stories. Immigration, industrialization, politics … the stories may take place in the Gilded Age, World War One and the Roaring Twenties, but you’ll find a lot of concerns are fresh and contemporary. Maybe I’ve cheated a little bit: “USA” and “Studs Lonigan” are both trilogies. But hey, you’ve got a whole summer stretching out in front of you!
Recommended by Christina Bellantoni, political editor
It’s a little less traditional, but for a terrific novel that you won’t forget, read Stephen King’s “11/22/63.” A man discovers a wormhole that allows people to be transported back in time to the same date in 1958.
He wants to change history, and opts that he has the best chance at doing so by preventing President Kennedy’s assassination.
It’s a haunting and heartbreaking book. And it’s such a good read it doesn’t feel like 864 pages.
Hurry, before it gets ruined via a television series.
Recommended by Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent
This deeply reported and affecting work takes the reader along on the trains, busses and automobiles that carried thousands of black Americans from sharecropping and Jim Crow in the deep South to new opportunities in the Northeast, Midwest and West.
The Great Migration, as it came to be known, fundamentally remade America.
And Isabel Wilkerson introduces to the people who were bold enough to uproot themselves and aspire to something – a deeply American story.
Gwen also recommends:
Recommended by Peggy Robinson, senior producer
A great read about the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804-1806 and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a truly continental United States. This is a grand story of exploration and the unknown.
A mere 20 years after the American Revolution the physical boundaries of the fledgling nation were vastly expanded by the Louisiana Purchase whereby the United States acquired all or part of 15 present states and two provinces of Canada.
But what lay between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains? Was there a passage from the Mississippi to the Pacific? This is the vividly told story of that journey of discovery.
Peggy also recommends:
- “Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams” | by Lynne Withey
- “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” | by Neil Sheehan
- “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” | by Jeanne Theoharris
Recommended by Charles Kasten, production controller
My favorite book of non-fiction is “John Adams” by David McCullough. In his early career, Adams became a lawyer who defended British soldiers who killed colonists at the Boston Massacre. At the Continental Congress, Adams took a leading role in promoting independence, nominated Washington as head of the army and assisted Jefferson in crafting the Declaration of Independence. This was ably depicted in the Broadway musical “1776”.
Adams’ correspondence with wife Abigail and with Jefferson is the highlight of the book. The fitting conclusion is that Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826.
Recommended by Elizabeth Shell, data producer
History is written by the victors, the saying goes. But not in this case. Howard Zinn recounts America’s major events over the last five centuries from the point of view of those who didn’t ‘win’ — the common, everyday people — not those in power.
Zinn starts with the Native American peoples Christopher Columbus and his crews raped, murdered, and forced into slavery upon their landing in the Caribbean and continues through with the Robber Barons, the civil rights movement and finally, the War on Terrorism.
While often troubling, it’s a good reminder that nations have been cruelly made on the blood of others and that history is more complex than typically written.
Recommended by Mary Jo Brooks, producer
One of my favorite books about the American experience is the novel Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Although a work of fiction, it is a vivid portrayal of the hardships of settling the West in the 19th century.
By weaving together stories from the past and present, it is also an unflinching look at love and marriage.
“A Cold Day for Murder” | by Dana Stabenow
“Murder on the Iditarod Trail” | by Sue Henry
Recommended by Sandi Fox, librarian
Two authors I like to read are Sue Henry and Dana Stabenow, who both have mystery/detective series set in Alaska. Their books provide background and detail about Alaska – what makes that state special? What are the people like? How do they live? The books put you in the 49th state.
Dana Stabenow has a series of books that feature Kate Shugak, an Aleut detective, who lives in a National Park in Alaska. She and her boyfriend Jim Chopin solve crimes and take you on a journey for all things Alaskan. The Sue Henry series features Jessie Arnold a sled dog racer.
Sandi also recommends:
- “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” | by Fannie Flagg
- “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” | by Mark Twain
- “The Grapes of Wrath” | by John Steinbeck
- “The Scarlet Letter” | by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” | by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Recommended by Clay Raine, marketing and data research assistant
I tackled “The Prize” about six years ago when my reading entered an “environment and energy” phase. Covering the rise of the global petroleum economy (1850-1990), this Pulitzer Prize winner runs over 900 pages, and covers much of America’s development in the process.
“The Prize” hooked me because, as another reader said online, it’s a book that really shows you how the world was built. I met larger-than-life characters and legends, such as St. John Philby and “Mr. Five Percent” Calouste Gulbenkian, journalist Wanda Jablonski and John D. Rockefeller.
Whether you recognize the names or not, these are people who drove and tied together history-making events across more than a century. “The Prize” is a good book to start on a holiday, I emphasize start, when you can devote extra time to an activity such as reading this book.
Clay also recommends:
- “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” | by Hunter S. Thompson
- “The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy” | by Hardy Green
- “Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life” | by Tom Lewis
- “The Machine Age in America: 1918-1941” | by Richard Guy Wilson, et al
“The Great Gatsby” | by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Recommended by Simone Pathe, web producer
Skip the fantastical blockbuster and technicolor love story and spend a summer scorcher diving into Fitzgerald’s original; you’ll find a portrait of the American Dream — its fortune and its failing — that won’t soon leave you.
Jay Gatsby’s ambition to live the life his class denied him resonates well beyond the Jazz Age, and the tragedy that disproportionately strikes every character packs the kind of empathetic punch that allows you to live more than one American experience.
Read it in the stickiness that colors Fitzgerald’s prose, and you might as well don an airy flapper or seersucker trousers to enrich the experience of one of these Americas.