Books about the American dream have both celebrated and criticized the national ethos of the United States. The American dream is a uniquely egalitarian ideal, promising wealth and success to those who work hard and sacrifice for their dreams. The dream is rooted in the original Declaration of Independence, which declares all men equal, fueling the idea that success is not dependent upon fortunate birth or divine favor. Books about the American dream include novels, financial planning books, motivational essays and more.
However, the pursuit of the American dream is not without consequences, and many books about the American dream have explored its negative consequences. Despite the promises of the American dream, not everyone who works hard finds the success that they were seeking. In many of these books about the American dream, desperate people turn to shady deals, questionable ethics and outright crime when they don’t find the success they were promised. Books about the American dream also explore how powerful individuals have exploited the American dream to manipulate others.
#1 – The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
In this classic story about wealth and doomed romantic love, readers follow along with Nick Carraway as he is swept into Jay Gatsby’s lavish world of endless parties. Gatsby is still pining for a former love, Daisy, who married another man. Gatsby’s obsession threatens to burn out of control as the book continues. This was one of the first books about the American dream to show the negative consequences of its pursuit.
#2 – The Glass Castle
In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls reflects on her childhood with her dysfunctional family. When the family’s money runs out, they move to West Virginia, beginning a period of difficult challenges. As with many books about the American dream, Walls and her siblings were able to leave behind their troubles and find success in their own lives.
#3 – Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money–That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!
Like many practical books about the American dream, this personal finance book aims to help people seize success through their own hard work and dedication. The author compares his father with the rich father of his friend, drawing lessons from both men’s financial health and work ethics.
#4 – Of Mice and Men
Like many books about the American dream set in the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men explores the shattering of the dream in the face of unsurmountable circumstances. After taking up employment in a ranch in California, George and Lennie think that their dream of owning their own stretch of land is finally within reach. When Lennie misunderstands the intentions of one of the ranch’s residents, the luck of the two men drastically changes.
#5 – Nickel and Dimed
In this sobering book about the American dream, Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover as an unskilled worker to find out what life is really like for those just scraping by. After working as a retail clerk, hotel maid and waitress, Ehrenreich discovered that these jobs rarely pay people enough to afford some of the basic necessities of life.
#6 – Middlesex
Inspired by events from his own life, Jeffrey Eugenides weaves a family saga about the effect of a mutated gene on a family, going back three generations. The protagonist, Cal, was born a girl, but discovered in his teenage years that he was actually intersex. Cal goes on to explain the course of his family’s history, starting with their immigration to the United States in the 1920s to pursue the American dream.
#7 – The Grapes of Wrath
Set during the Great Depression, this book about the American dream focuses on the challenges that the Joads face after losing their farm in Oklahoma. After hearing wonderful stories about California, the family moves to the state. Unfortunately, California proves to be less magnificent than the family had believed.
#8 – Radical, Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream
Directed at American Christians, this book makes a case for adherents to live more closely to the teachings of Christ. To live this way, followers should give up many comforts, including wealth and convenience. Unlike many books about the American Dream, this book criticizes the ideals of wealth accumulation.
#9 – Fight Club
This fictional critique about the American dream delivers its clever commentary through the eyes of a man despondent about his dead-end job. While relaxing at a beach, the narrator meets the mysterious Tyler Durden and begins to participate in underground fight clubs. Under Durden’s influence, the club transforms into an anarchist terrorist movement.
#10 – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are cousins with a creative streak and an idea for a comic book. Together, they create a story about a superhero named The Escapist, who has strong anti-Nazi convictions and a love for his country. Even with their winning idea, however, Joe and Sammy face plenty of challenges. Like many books about the American dream, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay explores the hidden darkness lying underneath the American dream.