The best books about American culture that will surprise you

Who am I?

Claudia Keenan is a historian of education whose interest in American culture was awakened during her doctoral studies, when she researched the lives of mid-twentieth-century educators. Growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., she developed a strong affinity with place and time among the beautiful old homes and avenues lined with elms, set against a backdrop of racial strife and ethnic politics. She continues to reconstruct and interpret American lives on her blog, and has recently finished a book about Henry Collins Brown, founder of the Museum of the City of New York. Claudia received a BA from the University of Chicago and a PhD from New York University.


I wrote...

Waking Dreamers, Unexpected American Lives: 1880-1980

By Claudia Keenan,

Book cover of Waking Dreamers, Unexpected American Lives: 1880-1980

What is my book about?

Opportunists, millionaires, student radicals, artists; industrialists, posers, bohemians, suffragists— Waking Dreamers is a set of short stories, largely about obscure nineteenth-century Americans, whom Claudia Keenan discovered in the course of 20 years of historical research. Messianic, tragic, brave, clever; they seemed to merit attention, so she sifted through thousands of clues, details, and images in digitized magazines and newspapers, digging up their pasts. Her interest in reconstructing lives, and interpreting cultural and social context, grew out of her doctoral studies in the history of American education.

Ranging from the modern dancer Violet Romer to the brilliant progressive educator Willard W. Beatty; from the freethinker and vegetarian J. Howard Moore to the forlorn First Lady Jane Pierce, Waking Dreamers pulls back the curtain on Americans who suffered and triumphed through the Gilded Age and into the twentieth century.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate

Claudia Keenan Why did I love this book?

This unlikely thriller of a book explores a seemingly bland subject: the network of interstate highways built by the Federal Government after World War II. In fact, these highways transformed American culture, not only spelling the demise of many country roads and small towns but replacing the friendly hitchhiker with the terrifying “killer on the road.” Further, the highways led to the creation of rest stops and shadowy neighborhoods that came to harbor predators, while the interstates aided the criminals’ flight. Killer on the Road keeps you on the edge of your seat, unfolding into horror, mystery, and victimization.

By Ginger Strand,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Killer on the Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Starting in the 1950s, Americans eagerly built the planet's largest public work: the 42,795-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Before the concrete was dry on the new roads, however, a specter began haunting them-the highway killer. He went by many names: the "Hitcher," the "Freeway Killer," the "Killer on the Road," the "I-5 Strangler," and the "Beltway Sniper." Some of these criminals were imagined, but many were real. The nation's murder rate shot up as its expressways were built. America became more violent and more mobile at the same time.

Killer on the Road tells the entwined stories…


Book cover of Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion

Claudia Keenan Why did I love this book?

Nearly a century ago, in the small town of Dayton, Tenn., one of the most heated trials in U.S. history occurred. Few Americans could ignore the small, crowded, overheated courtroom where an illustrious criminal lawyer squared off against a renowned politician over the teaching of the theory of human evolution. The case, which pitted religion (William Jennings Bryan) against science (Clarence J. Darrow), highlighted the rift between urban and rural values, and demonstrated the rising authority of modern educators and experts. Perhaps most exciting, this book chronicles the untamed expansion of American popular culture during the 1920s. 

By Edward J. Larson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Summer for the Gods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the summer of 1925, the sleepy hamlet of Dayton, Tennessee, became the setting for one of the twentieth century's most contentious courtroom dramas, pitting William Jennings Bryan and the anti-Darwinists against a teacher named John Scopes, represented by Clarence Darrow and the ACLU, in a famous debate over science, religion, and their place in public education. That trial marked the start of a battle that continues to this day -- in cities and states throughout the country.Edward Larson's classic Summer for the Gods -- winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History -- is the single most authoritative account of…


Book cover of The Devil and Sonny Liston

Claudia Keenan Why did I love this book?

“A ghost story, a haunting unto itself”—thus, music journalist Nick Tosches opens his tough tale of the boxer Sonny Liston, two-time heavyweight champion of the world. Born in 1932 into a family of tenant farmers that lived on the border of Arkansas and Mississippi, Liston grew up with violence, reinforced by an early stint in prison. Deftly, Tosches conjures the grim, ruthless culture of professional boxing during the 1950s and 60s. Most poignantly, he shows that Liston never possessed his own life—not in the fields from which he fled as a youth and not as a winner in the ring. He was always owned by white men who operated a fundamentally racist business. For readers interested in Black cultural history, this is a timely book. 

By Nick Tosches,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Devil and Sonny Liston as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A biography of the controversial fighter follows Liston from the mean streets, where he was a petty criminal, to the heavyweight championship and his life as a pawn of organized crime. By the author of Power on Earth. Reprint. 25,000 first printing.


Book cover of A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York

Claudia Keenan Why did I love this book?

Once upon a time in the nineteenth century, George Appo was one of the most famous criminals in New York City. The son of immigrants—a Chinese father and Irish mother—he grew up in the dirty, rotten Five Points neighborhood, where he learned to con, steal, fight, and outrun the police. In and out of prison, teaming up with gangs, and frequenting the opium dens where Bohemianism flourished, Appo knew every swindle and dodge on the street. But, as he once told a judge, he did not consider himself a “bad character.” Indeed, this intricately researched, beautifully written book demonstrates that Appo inhabited a multicultural subculture with its own honor code. 

By Timothy J. Gilfoyle,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Pickpocket's Tale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In George Appo's world, child pickpockets swarmed the crowded streets, addicts drifted in furtive opium dens, and expert swindlers worked the lucrative green-goods game. On a good night Appo made as much as a skilled laborer made in a year. Bad nights left him with more than a dozen scars and over a decade in prisons from the Tombs and Sing Sing to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he reunited with another inmate, his father. The child of Irish and Chinese immigrants, Appo grew up in the notorious Five Points and Chinatown neighborhoods. He rose as…


Book cover of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States

Claudia Keenan Why did I love this book?

Chop Suey is the scholarly, entertaining story of how Chinese food found a home in America. It opens in 1784, as the Empress of China sets sail from New York to initiate U.S.-China trade. But not until the California Gold Rush, which drew waves of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and eventually Chicago and New York, did Chinese vegetables and delicacies like birds’ nests and dried oysters arrive in this country. Soon, Chinese restaurants proliferated. Among the topics in this fascinating book are the Americanization of Chinese cuisine, its expansion into the suburbs and exurbs, and restaurant décor—juxtaposed with the violence and prejudice encountered by Chinese immigrants.

By Andrew Coe,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Chop Suey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1784, passengers on the ship Empress of China became the first Americans to land in China, and the first to eat Chinese food. Today, the United States is home to more Chinese restaurants than any other ethnic cuisine. In this authoritative new history, author Andrew Coe traces the fascinating story of America's centuries-long encounter with Chinese food. CHOP SUEY tells how we went from believing that Chinese meals contained dogs and rats to making
regular pilgrimages to the neighborhood chop suey parlor. From China, the book follows the story to the American West, where both Chinese and their food…


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A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

By Nita Sweeney,

Book cover of A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

Nita Sweeney Author Of How to Make Every Move a Meditation: Mindful Movement for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Insight

New book alert!

Who am I?

As a thirty-year meditator, certified meditation leader, and award-winning author, it’s my job to keep up on the latest books about mindfulness and Zen practice. Despite seeing new volumes being published regularly, I return to these books as great sources of solid practice information. Each of these authors explains meditation in accessible terms, easy for readers to follow and understand. I can’t remember who said that a confused reader is an antagonistic reader, but they are right. The books I’ve suggested offer clarity. They help readers begin or continue their practice and understand how and why meditation is worth their time.

Nita's book list on why meditation is worth your time and effort

What is my book about?

Reduce stress, ease anxiety, and increase inner peace—one day at a time—with a year of easy-to-follow mindfulness meditation techniques. Certified mindfulness teacher, bestselling author, ultramarathoner, wife, and dog-mom Nita Sweeney shares mindfulness meditation practices to help anyone break free from worry and self-judgment.

Mindfulness meditation trains you to live in the present moment—the now. Feel calmer. Think more clearly. Respond more effectively and enjoy a more fulfilling life. Even in tiny doses, mindfulness is scientifically proven to enhance physical and mental health, boost creativity, and improve cognition function.

A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

By Nita Sweeney,


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