His book is primarily about nonfiction works including How to Win Friends and Influence People, which I had no interest in doing. And I thought, "That's been done. I'm off the hook."
Parini also uses the phrase "changed America" rather than "shaped America," which is what you use.
I wanted "shaped" because I thought "shaped" opened up some possibilities. But it also meant they didn't have to be books where you could say, "This law got enacted because of this book. "
What else did you consider when you were making the list?
I wanted a representative sampling: Quite a lot of books from the 19th century, quite a lot of books from the 20th century. I wanted to have various groups represented. I didn't say, "I want one from column A, I want one from column B," but I wanted books that would look at the Midwest experience, some Eastern experience, various takes on race and ethnicity.
I started coming up with a list. I wasn't sure how I could get down to 25, but I could get up to 50 or 60 pretty quickly. And then I started culling. It was more a matter of justifying the books I was staying with than it was asking the books to meet a standard. I assumed there was a standard—I just hadn't articulated it for myself.
I was very careful—and I think I addressed this several times in the book—I was very careful to avoid the definite article in the title. Because these are 25 books. These are not the 25 books that shaped America. There's a big difference there. They're exemplary rather than exclusive, I think. And that's how I intended them to be.
How did you cut the list from 50 or 60 down to 25?
I went with books that I had a fairly strong feeling about—mostly positive. I make an exception for The Last of the Mohicans, for which I was grinding my teeth. I'm with Twain on the subject of [James Fenimore] Cooper's prose. At the same time, he can make you turn pages in a way that any contemporary thriller writer would be happy to be able to do. Cooper's sort of a mix blessing where I'm concerned. I know a lot of people liked him rather better than I do.
Were there any books you wanted to include but didn't?
I tried and repeatedly failed to color outside the lines a little bit. I wanted to do The House of the Seven Gables, but it just didn't work out. So I wound up with The Scarlet Letter.
I get into AP English classes on a fairly regular basis, and there was a class over in East Kentwood, right by Grand Rapids, and I said, "Ok, I'm going to do this book on 25 American books—what should I include?" And I got the usual smattering of answers—everything from Gatsby to Ayn Rand to Chuck Palahniuk. But the title I heard almost universally from them was The Scarlet Letter. And I thought, "Well, you know there's something that works there for them." It wasn't that I didn't want to include it, it's just that I thought Seven Gables would take me in a different direction.