Books That Changed Our Mind

Last night I happened to casually start reading Malcolm Cowley’s introduction to “Books That Changed Our Minds,” a collection of essays published in 1939 in which eminent intellectuals of the day were asked to pick those works “of the past forty years which have shaped modern American thought.”

First off, I was impressed by Cowley’s introduction: “It is enough to say that sooner or later the life of our time is summarized in its books. Our new ideas are expressed there, whatever may be their original sources or the first mediums through which they reached us. It is books that form the permanent record, and books that furnish the most convenient basis for describing the mind of the world in which we live.”

Second, I was astonished to remember that I used to talk to Cowley on the phone when I was a very young Book World editor back in the late 1970s. He wrote at least two or three reviews for me. And I remember assigning Douglas Bush—the eminent Harvard professor—to review Cowley’s somewhat saccharine “The View from 80.” Bush asserted, with real passion, that there was nothing good to be said about old age.

Third, I was interested to see what titles were finally selected as the paradigm-shifting works of the previous 40 years. Here they are:

• Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams”
• “The Education of Henry Adams”
• Frederick Turner’s “The Frontier in American History”
• William Graham Sumner’s “Folkways”
• The work of Thorstein Veblen
• The work of John Dewey
• Franz Boas, “The Mind of Primitive Man”
• Charles Beard’s “Economic Interpretation of the Constitution”
• I.A. Richards’ “The Principles of Literary Criticism”
• V.L. Parrington’s “Main Currents of American Thought”
• Lenin’s “The State and Revolution”
• Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West”

I would venture to say that at least half these books are probably unfamiliar to most modern readers under the age 50, even those fairly well educated. Of course, most of them have a certain populist, Depression-era aura to them, one which now seems wholly outmoded. These books seem very much of their time rather than timeless.

But, as is my wont, the list set me thinking about today. What nonfiction books of the last 40 years would you select as having shaped our current American thought? This is a lot harder than it seems. Offhand, I would probably select Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology,” and . . . Well, what books would you choose and why? Please share your suggestions with the rest of us. This should be fun.

- Michael Dirda

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