Welcome to America: A Designer’s Experience in 12 books

by Alicia Bergin, Managing Director

Several years ago, a colleague asked for a recommendation for a book that would help him understand America. Somewhat newly arrived to San Francisco (via London and Argentina), he sought context. What makes these people tick? What do I need to know about American history to understand their motivations, their behaviors?

First decision: one book won’t cut it. But could a dozen? I asked two friends — avid readers — to take a pass, and combed my collection in parallel. Our lists were strikingly different, and raised an even more interesting question — what does it mean to understand America?

Our specific reader — and many that have followed — are design professionals. More than people with a keen eye, designers are attracted to context and elegant problem solving. To design with the user in mind, you truly have to understand that user — his/her context, history, biases, and influences. The challenge therefore: design a list for the design mind.

The list that follows may never be complete. Over the past few years, I’ve replaced key selections as better candidates have surfaced. I’ve also narrowed my selection criteria around a few major themes.

First: history isn’t enough. Historical facts are great, but in absence of context and emotion, a personal narrative, they read as homework assignments. Similarly, chronology doesn’t exactly work as an organizing theme. Our national identity hasn’t advanced on a decade-by-decade basis, but certain tonal themes do cluster in certain periods.

A sense of national identity (or the emergence of it) is critical. There are many interesting books about the landmass that became the United States, but for the sake of the theme they’ve been eliminated. I have a notable bias to the West — as it was defined at the time. There are several notable West Coast examples, but also a strong theme around “Going West” and the nature of the frontier, be it a place or a state of mind.

Finally — boring books are, well, boring books. Who wants that list? I’ve favored immersive narratives — in most cases fiction — that capture mindset and behavior against a specific historical context.

The list (in chronological order by the dates depicted, not publication date):

  1. John Adams, by David McCullough (major action roughly 1770–1826; covering the American Revolution, drafting the Constitution, a Presidency, a crazy friendship with Thomas Jefferson, and much more.)
  2. Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana (1830s, with a fascinating update set in the 1850s. A mind-bending exercise in worlds colliding, spanning tall masted ships in a world with scurvy, California before and after the Gold Rush, and society life at Harvard. A true portrait of the transition into the modern age).
  3. Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, Hampton Sides (1846–1864; a masterful piece of history capturing the tragic end of the Native American era, with colorful characters and setting.
  4. Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende (1840s-1850s. The Gold Rush with a healthy feminist narrative and attention to the broad non-European immigrant story.)
  5. Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder (1870s; the ultimate account of frontier life. Every adult should read this again.)
  6. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1861–1877. A tough selection over more African American-centric perspectives, but for impact to movie making, our collective understanding of the outsider leading man, and simply the sheer pleasure of reading a great story, it gets my vote.)
  7. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1870s. Hilarious and biting, America’s answer to Jane Austen. A fascinating counterpoint to books #6 and #7 as an exploration in differences in experience in a highly fragmented society.)
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1936. There’s little this book doesn’t cover — civil rights, sexuality, mental illness, broken families, the Depression, the South, standing up for the right thing — with some of the most memorable characters in literature. Guaranteed to make you cry.)
  9. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon (1939–1950ish. Perhaps an odd choice, but it weirdly checked all my boxes and is a wonderful read. Hollywood, comics, WWII, Jewish experience during WWII, emergence of gay rights.)
  10. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1947–1952. Not to everyone’s taste, but as American as it gets. On the Road was a close second choice, but it’s frankly not that fun to read if you’re over 25 and Lolita features both a foreign author (the only one on the list) and is overtly, explicitly about America and everything that is starting to crumble as we march towards the civil rights movement and the dawn of hippy culture.)
  11. The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe (1947–1963. After Lolita — jump to optimism with a healthy dose of cold war drama. The dawn of the space age, a time of self-invention and can-do attitude that continues to permeate our culture to this day.)
  12. The Stand, Stephen King (1990. Really, The Stand? Yes. The ultimate atomic age end-of-the-world novel, with a broad swath of American geography and really interesting hints at the emerging fractures of “high tech” professions. Scary and reassuring at the same time.)

Interestingly, this list is close to a 50/50 split of male and female authors — not a conscious choice, but a pleasing one. It’s perhaps no surprise that many of these books endure as as pop culture icons as well as literary masterpieces — in several cases, both — and have inspired countless film versions. I drew the line at 1990 and look forward to seeing the books that emerge as most reflective of the current era.

Curious about the cuts? The list is long, but a few highly contested options included Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Edna Ferber’s So Big, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Herman Work’s The Winds of War, John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom series, Richard Wright’s The Invisible Man, and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

Happy reading! I’d love to hear your selections, and for our recently arrived, welcome to America!