23 Books that Prove America Ain't So Bad
This has been the hardest column I’ve ever had to introduce. And I wrote a column about the “child sewer orgy” in Stephen King’s It.
If I may, a short story.
Pete’s not in a great place. I’m calling myself “Pete” for a minute here. Let’s just go with it.
Pete’s in a long-distance relationship. Really long-distance. And it sucks.
And the only secret I can share, the only advice I have for anyone else, is that you need to find ways to remind yourself what’s good about your relationship.
It costs money, it takes time, but do it. It’s worth it. The only way a relationship survives distance is by you reminding yourself that what you’re doing is worthwhile. However you can.
Okay, this is the part where I bring it back to America. And stop referring to myself as “Pete.”
As much as I need to seek out and engage in the reminders about my romantic relationship, I need those sorts of reminders about the place I live, too. America. The U.S. of A.
What was clear, when I went looking for other lists of American books, was that those lists tend to come in two flavors. Flavor 1 is “The Great American Novel.” Flavor 2 is “Here’s the awful history of America.”
I’m not interested in talking down those flavors or saying they’re invalid. I’d like to humbly offer a third flavor. The strawberry of the neopolitan. I know strawberry is the worst of the three flavors, and I picked it on purpose. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but for people who like it, here it is.
Cities can be cosmopolitan and wonderful, but there’s something uniquely American about small towns in the midwest. Michael Perry, as a volunteer firefighter, got to know his neighbors in tiny New Auburn, Wisconsin, as he put it “one siren at a time.” The emergencies are a great vehicle to drive the stories, but there’s also some deep thought about the intersection of blue collar lifestyles and the value of art.
What It Says About America: Small-town Wisconsin is probably not what you think.
This American Life regular contributor Jack Hitt celebrates the tinkering spirit in garages and sheds across the country. You’ll walk away from this one curios about what’s going on in garages and spare bedrooms wherever you live. I just enjoy the attitude of “This doesn’t suit me, so I’m going to roll up my sleeves and do something about it.”
What It Says About America: This book spends time talking about how some of the “American spirit” was formed by self-taught tinkerers who didn’t see innovation as the exclusive territory of trained, educated professionals.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview from NPR. This gives you a taste of what the book is like:
Sometimes, I think, in order to get to something that we really want or we really love or something that needs to be realized, that we're tested. I mean, I think if you look at any stories all over the world, they are usually set up as, OK, here's where I start, here is where I want to go, and here are the tests...And they were pretty intense tests ... I failed a lot of them, or you find a way around. And maybe there is no such thing as failure ... that's kind of what I've had to come to. Yes, I mean, there's times ... when we fail. But it's a useful thing...At least I've had to come to that in my life, to realize that this stuff called failure, this stuff, this debris of historical trauma, family trauma, you know, stuff that can kill your spirit, is actually raw material to make things with and to build a bridge. You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you.
What It Says About America: As a member of the Mvskoke Nation, Joy Harjo is uniquely qualified to talk about the ways we can be transformed by pain and the ways we can transform with it.
There’s a lot to be said about the most American food that exists. Hot dogs and hamburgers are the traditional contenders, but I’m putting my weight behind cornbread. Cornbread, as you find it on your plate at Thanksgiving, is a combination of Native American and European cooking styles (Native Americans using corn meal for all sorts of good stuff, Europeans using the ingredient to make breads like the ones they made back home). And this book book doesn’t weigh in on the great sweetened/unsweetened cornbread debate. It gives great options for both, and you can vote with your oven.
What It Says About America: We have better things to offer than tubular meats.
Provocative, boisterous, and a different American way. Eddie Huang was a film and English major. A law student who got a corporate law job. Then he got laid off and took to stand-up and dealing weed. Then he was a clothing designer. Then a chef and restaurateur. And author. He’s lived a dozen reinventions of himself.
What It Says About America: Some people see this book as insulting towards America and Americans, but I think that’s the whole point here. “Americans” aren’t this monolithic, singular group. Eddie's take:
Take the things from America that speak to you, that excite you, that inspire you, and be the Americans we all want to know; then cook it up and sell it back to them for $28.99.
What’s more American than baseball? How about a rebel who uses math and a laptop to shake the sport to its core? The best thing about this book is that one by no means has to love baseball or sports to have a good time with it.
What It Says About America: It’s hard to change things. Even in something like baseball, even when everything you’re saying is objectively correct. But it can make for a damn good story.
There was this whole thing for a while about whose superpower funny lady memoir was better, Amy Pohler’s or Tina Fey’s.
I’m here to tell you the answer is neither, because Mindy Kaling’s is better. It’s funnier, and it doesn’t get too exhaustive in the biographical. It’s just a better book.
What It Says About America: Mindy Kaling was a big writer on The Office, and The U.S. still produces a ridiculous amount of great entertainment. Fact is, there’s a lot of entertaining people here.
Nothing like the Great American Road Trip. This one is tinged with a hint of desperation, but it’s a great picture of the ways different generations view the same place.
What It Says About America: It’s still all about family.
Everett is mostly ignored when it comes to literary lists of writers of color. And I think it’s probably because he’s so sharp and satirical that people don’t know what to make of him, and as you read his books, you’re thinking, “Should I be laughing at this?”
In Erasure a writer who’s frustrated that his works won’t sell while exploitative novels go like hotcackes, decides to write an exploitative book of his own, a parody. Which, of course, hits it big.
What It Says About America: The Percival Everett’s are out there. Just when you think you’ve scraped the barrel of gutsy, unusual American writers, you can still knock that barrel over, get a shovel and start digging.
'Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About The World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think' by Hans Roling and Hannah Rosling Rönnlund
Bill Gates loves this book. Here’s what he had to say:
Hans argues that...instincts make it difficult to put events in perspective. Imagine news coverage about a natural disaster—say, a tornado that kills 10 people in a small town. If you look at only the headlines, you’ll view the event as an unbearable tragedy (which it is). But if you put it in the context of history, you’ll also know that tornadoes today are a lot less deadly than they used to be, thanks to advanced warning systems. That’s no consolation to the loved ones of those who died, but it matters a great deal to everyone who survived the tornado.
What It Says About America: America can be both bad and better than we think.
I recommend this book on almost every list. It almost always applies. It’s beautiful. James Galvin is a poet who wrote another novel, Fencing The Sky, which wore the skin of a western thriller, but really it was an excuse to “talk about the pretty flowers.”
What It Says About America: America, as a place, as a land, is damn pretty at times.
There’s no book list about America without a Texas book. Brownsville sits at Texas’ southern tip, just across the river from Mexico. Writing about a sense of place can be really tough, but this book totally nails it.
What It Says About America: This book, in its authentic characters, shows the way a sense of place is built by the people who live there.
'You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, And My Misadventures With Two of Music's Most Maligned Tribes' by Nathan Rabin
If there are two media-based subcultures we love to hate, they’re juggalos and Phish fans. But as Rabin starts to look a little further, you find out they’re...actually kind of cool. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to slap some Phish on any playlists any time soon. It just turns out that most Phish fans and juggalos don’t seem half bad.
What It Says About America: Even the groups that seem so far away from us can be pretty cool on a personal level.
I'm not saying you'll absolutely meet a horrific death if you travel to the Canadian woods. But this book might be saying that.
What It Says About America: If the only way to make yourself believe America ain’t so bad is to see gore and gruesomeness in Canada, this is your ticket.
If I told you to read an entire book about a Nebraska town you’d never heard of, it’d probably be a tough sell. But if I told you there’s a ramblin’ man settling down with his wife, who is an immigrant from Mexico, and their son, who may or may not be autistic, and, oh, a local college professor is tied naked to a tree and burned to death and nobody can figure out what happened, I feel like that might make things more enticing.
What It Says About America: There’s an idea out there about lives in small places being simple and less complicated. Poe Ballantine shows us otherwise.
'An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864' by Lauren Cook Burgess
It’s not talked about a great deal, but there was a surprisingly large number of women who dressed and acted as men and fought in the Civil War. I don’t know why it’s a subject that isn’t talked about more, but there you have it. A country born in rebellion continues its rebellion.
What It Says About America: The people fighting the good fight have always been there, even if they’ve been in disguise.
The best thing I’ve ever learned about American history is in this book. Nell Arthur, wife of Chester A., died about a year before Chester became President. When Chester was asked to be a patron for a memorial stained glass window at St. John’s church, he agreed to do so and dedicated the window to Nell. He selected a south facing window so that he could see it every night from the White House.
What It Says About America: Even in something as ugly as American politics, there are still moments of heartbreaking beauty.
Okay, we can’t really have a book list about America without having a book about New York. This one has a solid contributor’s list (a term I’d like to replace with “Rogue’s Gallery” from now on), and it mostly avoids anything too saccharine.
What It Says About America: For some, New York is America.
Hey, if we’re doing an east coast book, we need a west coast-er too. Orange County is a weird place. It’s part of the “tech coast,” it contains two gigantic theme parks, it’s neighbors with L.A., but it’s also one of the most conservative places in the country. This book tells the history of the area and the history of Arellano’s family in alternating chapters, mingling the personal and the historical.
What It Says About America: As Arellano puts it, Orange County is a “petri dish for America's continuing democratic experiment.” The book’s format does a great service of showing the way our collective and individual histories shape our lives.
Poker is an American game, and what’s weird is that despite all the so-called entertainments we’ve developed around poker (mostly I’m thinking of televised poker, which is crazy considering that poker was developed before television as a way to kill time) so few have read this book. If you like poker, you’ll like this book. If you like Whitehead’s writing, you’ll like this book. And the best part is, you only have to like one of those things to enjoy this book.
What It Says About America: Colson Whitehead is the perfect embodiment of someone who defies definition. He wrote a zombie book, a historical fiction about the underground railroad, and a book on poker. He’s a writer who won’t let what he did yesterday determine what he’s doing tomorrow. There’s a lesson there.
Okay, it’s the second in a set. I say “set” instead of “series” because it follows some of the same characters, but each piece stands on its own. More important, it’s about the question of what it means to be home. And it’s a quiet, slow-burning question.
What It Says About America: The where and the who are equally important questions when we talk about home.
It’d never occurred to me that people from other places didn’t know what a Dagwood was. But then again, I had no idea that in Georgia, someone who’s stuck up is called “biggity.” This book is a great way to learn some colloquialisms and tell the Queen’s English to cram it with walnuts at the same time.
What It Says About America: Lots of us only sort of speak the same language.
Sometimes it’s all about perspective. I do have a very specific recommendation that goes along with this book: Read the last chapter first. After I finished, I wished the book had been laid out that way. The last chapter gives all this great context that helps the rest of the book make sense. Trust me on this one.
What It Says About America: America is unbelievably small on a cosmic scale. And on a chronological scale. But somehow, this comes off as a really positive thing.
Geoffrey Canada founded the Harlem Children’s Zone, a space occupying nearly 100 blocks that provides education for children and their parents with the goal of breaking the poverty cycle. Canada looked at a problem, and he asked himself what it would take to solve it. And then...he got to work.
What It Says About America: We’re a country of problem solvers.
If you’ve seen the movie, it’s a little like that and a little not. In the book, Captain America takes a very surprising, very anti-America-seeming stance against registration of superhumans. But in doing so, he reinforces a different sort of American value, which is that of standing up for what’s right.
What It Says About America: Even if you’re clad head-to-toe in red, white, and blue spandex, that doesn’t mean you have to let someone else’s idea of America define you or the place you live.
Though Dr. Gawande's father is proudly American, he was born in India and doesn’t agree with the way Americans treat their elders. Dr. Gawande is pretty honest about the drawbacks of a system where elders remain at home and are taken care of by their children, a system we romanticize in America.
What It Says About America: America's medical system is messy. But the truth seems to be that nobody's got end-of-life care figured out. Some problems are more human than they are American.
This book forces us to ask the titular question: What if we’re wrong? And it ponders how this question might be asked in any situation. It also goes to great lengths to demonstrate that humans, as a species, are spectacularly bad at predicting how events occuring in the present will be viewed in the future.
What It Says About America: Each of us is assuredly very wrong about something.
That's my list. No excuses, no blowing off the fact that there's some rotten stuff going on. But I hope this list gives you a chance to remember why America is an idea worth caring about.
Got any books that make you love America? Hit me with them in the comments.
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