America, Explained in 10 Books

If you’re under the age of 90 and you own a TV, you pretty much know America.

You’ve been inside its living rooms with the Bradys, the Cunninghams, the Cosbys (sigh), or maybe the Simpsons. You’ve eaten its burgers and devoured its pop culture—eagerly and then ironically—and washed it all down with a gallon of caffeinated soda. But do you know America? To really pop the hood and see what’s driving the land of the free, you’ll need the illumination of a few key books. Here are 10 primers.

The Bible by God

By far the biggest selling and most important book in America. Nearly a quarter of all Americans believe it is the literal word of God. Those numbers pile up in the Deep South and Mid-West where guns, big hats, and conservative politics are also in vogue. Despite propagating a raft of strange ideas (slavery is fine, women shouldn’t talk, the earth was created in six days by an angry man with a beard), the Old Testament bristles with mad stories, ultra-violence and powerful language. Witness Sam Jackson nailing Ezekiel 25:17 in Pulp Fiction. Why is America so violent and yet so polite? It’s all in the good book.

Quote: “And you will know my name is the LORD when I lay my vengeance down upon thee.”

Photographs from America’s Wild Places by Ansel Adams

America wild and untamed, before humans. America carved from granite by storm and strive. America in black and white, straight out of the shower, unadorned and tumescent, before the lens of the great landscape photographer. Adams’ monochromes aren’t just pretty photos. Raw and powerful as their subject matter, they come freighted with emotional connection and a deep wilderness philosophy. Adams was an early champion of national parks and conservation, and his photographs woke people up to America’s natural bounty and the need to preserve it. America’s current Prez is less keen on nature and has been busy slashing national parks and culling environmental funding while pushing for a return to fossil fuels, offshore drilling and military spending.   

Quote: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Batman by DC Comics

Batman is America’s fave superhero, perhaps because he doesn’t have superpowers. By day he’s the all-American businessman, by night he slips into his Batsuit and tears around the place sorting shit out. Not unlike a dozen other American caped crusaders. Read between the comic book lines and you’ll find the type of industrial strength moxie needed to pitch your national flag on the goddamn moon. You may also get a sense of why America’s foreign wars often go so unaccountably wrong.

Quote: “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

A book that seizes you with a cold hand and walks you through the gates of hell. You’ll feel spattered in blood by the end. Set during the Indian Wars around the Mexico border, it follows a young protagonist known only as The Kid as he joins a gang of Indian-scalping bounty hunters. Epic in reach, it has been compared to Moby Dick by literary critic Steven Shaviro: “Both savagely explode the American Dream of manifest destiny, racial domination and endless imperial expansion.”

Quote: “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester

There are many more comprehensive histories of America but this is surely one of the most accessible and entertaining. The prolific Winchester (25 books and still smashing the keys) is a natural story-teller with a hawk’s eye for characters, narrative and detail. Here he explores how America has managed to stay united despite the stark differences that threaten to pull it apart. A good historical overview and a timely reminder that the States can prosper despite its differences.

Quote: “The creation of any sense of unity among a population of potentially disharmonious settlers almost always requires the deliberate agency of man.”

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Hemingway famously said: “All American literature comes from Huck Finn”. Twain’s popular classic unfolds on the mighty Mississippi before the turbulent Civil War split America in half over slavery. It’s seen as a scathing satire of racism, but also derided as racist for its unflattering depiction of black characters and the frequent use of the N word. 134 years later the debate is still bubbling away as identity politics again heat up America.

Quote: “They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home… Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there.”

The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is the go-to book for the shadow story of the American Dream—the dispossession, resistance and slaughter of its original inhabitants. But if you want to get a sense of Native America today, Erdrich is your portal. The Roundhouse is set on a North Dakota reservation and is layered with contemporary issues—mental health, sex crime, race, revenge, parenthood, justice—but never burdened by them. It’s a compelling story, peopled with characters you take into your heart, beautifully written by one America’s best.

Quote: “We are never so poor that we cannot bless another human being, are we? So it is that every evil, whether moral or material, results in good. You’ll see.”   

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Inspired by the tragic true story of an escaped African-American slave, Margaret Garner, who killed her own two-year-old daughter rather than see her return to the South as a captured slave. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for this gut-wrenching novelization. The book is dedicated to “sixty million and more”, referring to the Africans who died because of the Atlantic slave trade. Beloved displays the unbearable horrors wrought by slavery. It’s modern-day repercussions are expertly examined by Ta-Nehisi Coates in We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

Quote: “Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby’s fury at having its throat cut, but those 10 minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Booed on release in ’57 but hugely influential today, Atlas Shrugged is set in a dystopian future where Big Government stifles private enterprise and individual growth. It has been embraced by America’s Alt Right who stiffen like broom handles for Rand’s ideas about free market capitalism and “the virtue of selfishness”. Rand is reviled by lefties for the same reasons. Republican senator Paul Ryan is a massive fanboy, as is Donald Trump (although he prefers Fountainhead).

Quote: “I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest values and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle.”

Optimism Over Despair by Noam Chomsky

The most important intellectual alive today according to the NY Times, Chomsky has written over 100 books and countless essays. His latest collection is a series of interviews about all the big issues antagonizing the modern world: terrorism, global warming, neo-liberalism, Trump, and the rise of China. Chomsky is particularly scathing of America’s military interventions in the Middle East (he calls them “war crimes”) which he argues have massively boosted global terrorism. Resolutely grim reading, the title is misleading.

Quote (on climate change): “That’s how the Trump administration deals with a truly existential threat: ban regulations and even research and discussion of environmental threats and race to the precipice as quickly as possible in the interests of short-term profit and power.”

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