A Very American Reading List

Understanding American identity and our relationship to the country can be more disenfranchising than comforting. America is not perfect, born out of sins and exclusion like every other country, and 2020 seems to be a time where the sins of America’s birth and the system it has created supersede any feelings of patriotism. Americans are at odds with themselves, striving for retribution while desiring forgiveness, wanting to address deep-seated hate while attempting to move past it. This push-pull has brought some together and torn others apart.

America, however, will still be standing at the end of this year. It will last longer than COVID and rioting and Trump’s presidency. It will last past our next president too, whether Republican or Democrat. It won’t matter. The country moves on. In the midst of struggles we feel like we are experiencing the end of something, but on a long enough timeline, our moment of discontent becomes a deflection, a shift, a change in the greater narrative of our great nation (and it most certainly is great even if it is not great for all and not great all the time).

So at a moment in my life, where understanding America, Americans, and what it means to be an American citizen, is as challenging as it has ever been, I compiled a Very American Reading List of books that highlight America’s past, outline thought patterns American’s hold, and narrate interesting times in American history. These books have helped me understand how significant moments, realized and unrealized, don’t mark the end, but a new path. They may apply to what we see in America right now, they may not, but they make our country, whose borders are becoming blurry, a little clearer, in both its wonderful parts and its flaws.

1. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

There is no moment in American history that showcases American ideals better than the race to space. America was, for the first time, at the top of the food chain with only one major competitor, The Soviet Union. Their battle for global supremacy played out on many fields, some visible, others not. But all eyes certainly watched the space race to see who would reign supreme. 

Tom Wolfe, in his element, documents America’s journey from ground to air to space. He perfectly captures the egoism in the pilots who were selected to go to space and how it mirrored the egoism of America, as it strived to be the best, to build its modern ziggurat to god in the form of a shuttle to space. The Right Stuff captures how this race didn’t just define our place in the world but defined a mindsight that is a core of American identity. That we are in control of our own destiny, that victory goes to those who work the hardest, and that in our pursuit of the heavens we came to worship the journey more than the destination. The book, without addressing it specifically, goes a long way in explaining the mentality that causes so much greatness and so much inequality in one country.

2. American Ground by William Langeweische

America was spectacular as the underdog. But, in large part, it has struggled as the top dog. Once America became the world’s leading superpower, it has been plagued with decision making errors in the name of nation building and world policing. But there was a wonderful and terrible moment when America was the underdog again, where they once again became the country that vaulted it to the forefront of global politics, and it happened on that terrible morning of September 11th, 2001.

American Ground documents, not the horrible act itself, but something much more subtle, the response to the destruction of the Twin Towers, specifically how New York and the Federal government orchestrated the cleanup of The Pile left in the middle of the biggest city in the US. As Langeweische documents the challenges and triumphs of the ‘unbuilding,’ he also taps into a vein of American identity that is hard to label, that America is great when there is a vacuum that needs filling. American greatness is almost directly correlated to action, not thought… to doing, not talking… to volunteering not advocating. And in the wake of 9/11 as we struggled to keep people away from the rubble and the lives they were trying to save, American ingenuity was at its finest. There was an immediate concrete need, and America came together to fix it. 

Being at the top exposes weaknesses in equality and equity, freedom and privilege, choice and duty, all abstract terms that become hard to define and harder to fix. Not the case with a big pile of fire, twisted metal and shattered glass. This was something America could do, like explore the west or overthrow England or invade Normandy. We are a nation of doers, and we may be a one trick pony, but damn is it an impressive trick.

3. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Some American books address some American moment and the Americanness inherent in the scenario. Others go a long way to explain why our nation functions as it does. Truman Capote hit a nerve with his 1966 novel, In Cold Blood, about the mass murder of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in 1959. The book embodied the shift in the American mindset surrounding safety and security from the 1950s to the more paranoid state of the 1960s, one we generally hold to this day.

In Cold Blood is a book about why America started locking its doors. We keep shrinking the definition of ‘neighbor’ to a select few who live lives like our own. Long gone are the days of random pop-ins to your neighbor’s home and letting your children be babysat by the neighborhood kids just because they are around. ‘Neighbors’ have broadened in distance and tightened in size. In large part this is due to the randomness and goriness of the Herbert Clutter murders (as an example) that feed the fears of lone wolf attacks that could strike at any moment. 

4. Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Efficiency and effectiveness. These are the foundation of modern American values. Our social lives our streamlined, our businesses are overviewed and overhauled, our every motion enhanced by technology all for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness. Moneyball may be the best embodiment of this information and data driven mindset. A mindset that demands we do away with faulty human logic and intuition and replace it with irrefutable numbers for the sake of… efficiency and effectiveness.

Moneyball, and Billy Beane as its hero, attacks America’s pastime, baseball, a sport rich in superstition, judgement calls, gut feelings, and intuition by old men who have just been doing it longer than everyone else, so just wait 100 years until it’s your turn. And the book oozes the bravado of a younger generation that believe they know how to do it better, now. Quantify, qualify, evaluate, and calculate, and we can do away with the stodginess and tedium of old men condescendingly telling us they know how to do it better. 

Nothing is sacred when we can turn baseball into a number… we need ‘X’ amount of runs to make the playoffs… we need hits not homeruns… this player is not as valuable as everyone thinks. The mindset is tantalizing, the implications are irresistible. To me, Moneyball signified a wave in America where everything has ‘an app for that’ and everyone is looking to disrupt the current market or system using technology and a new generation of people, data, and analytics.

5. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

The American Dream is an obsession with success and how we define it. Gladwell, in Outliers, sets out to redefine success, and transversely, the American Dream. He looks at the paragons of success in America, presidents and billionaires, tech giants and geniuses, and deep dives into what actually makes them different. 

Spoiler Alert: It’s not good old American values and pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, it’s another very American ideal… opportunity.

But here is the difference in Gladwell’s conclusion and the original Land of Opportunity. Not everyone has the same opportunities… not by a long shot. And not everyone who works hard is successful. The book helps define what privilege is and what it is not (it is advantages, it is not something to feel guilty for). And also makes the case for different sets of needs for different people. Equality is not equity, even in America. This is the struggle of the modern century, and the amount of copies of this book flying off the shelves is a testament to it.

6. All The President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

Commonly regarded as the greatest work of nonfiction ever written, All The President’s Men is a thriller, a mystery, and a history. Through the journalism of Woodward and Bernstein we receive a news cycle on fast forward for all the events and breakthroughs during the Watergate scandal that has come to define the 1960s, a decade that shifted American culture. 

Today, America is not known for trusting in politics and politicians. ‘Politician’ is almost synonymous with dis-trustworthy. These seeds were planted with the story this book tells and has been watered and germinated ever since. To understand America’s relationship to government and politics, why we add ‘gate’ after every scandal, why politicians feel a need to hire an Independent Special Investigator after every perceived wrong-doing in politics, and why conspiracies abound in the minds of citizens viewing the shady halls of the White House, you should start here. Plus, it’s an awesome read.

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If you liked this, you may also like:
Empathy Through Reading: Recommendations During Racial Unrest
Quaid Reads [The Right Stuff]
I Don’t Like Elizabeth Holmes [Bad Blood by John Carreyrou]
[Harry Potter]’s Legacy: Often Imitated, Never Repeated
Reticence and Memory, a Beautiful Duo [Kazuo Ishiguro]

12 thoughts on “A Very American Reading List

    1. Gladwell is a person of color, but I get your point. My main focus was not to have a comprehensive list, but just a few books that I have read that have spoken to the American experience. I wasn’t even thinking about the authors (obviously).

      This is not an attempt at an all-time American reading list. Would love some recommendations of others here in the comments if you want to add to the list for diversity’s sake.

      Like

      1. I’d love to, and thanks for the response and the opportunity. I tried to keep “very American” in mind. With a bit more time I can think of some more.

        “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman
        “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson
        “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson
        “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The Silent Spring and The New Jim Crow are both on my list. I am always hesitate to start Silent Spring though because I am afraid it aged out. So I appreciate the recommendation.

        Like

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