About 20 years ago now, my Irish friend asked me a really interesting question – “what is America?” What she meant, she explained, was that she was trying to get at some kind of unified-field-theory to sum up America’s identity.
This being a multi-verse of a nation – especially now – that was a impossible question to answer. But it gave me a great idea for a July 4th observation – every year, I spend part of the day reading books about America’s history and culture and thinking about her question. I tend towards collections of first-hand source documents, too – anthologies of letters, eye-witness accounts, speeches, and the like – so I always have time for at least something every year, whether it’s just a couple essays read on the subway on the way to a cookout or a couple hours’ worth of reading on a blanket in the park. I’ve got a big enough library assembled for this, too, that it’s high time I share.
- History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around The World Portray U.S. History. This is one of my favorites – it’s an anthology of excerpts from high school history textbooks, but they’re all textbooks from other countries, discussing their perspective on interactions they had with the United States over the years. So you get the what the British textbooks say about the Revolutionary War, for instance, or what the Canadian textbooks say about the War of 1812, or French textbooks’ take on D-Day, etc. It’s a fascinating take on some familiar stories, and a reminder that we are one of many nations in the world.
- History In The Making: This is another book by one of the same editors as History Lessons above. It’s also a collection of excerpts from textbooks; this time, though, the textbooks are all American. With this book, the editors have selected a handful of incidents from America’s history, and studied how history textbooks from different time periods have reported on the same incident. So you can watch how a small border skirmish between the United States and Mexico gets an exhaustive report in the years immediately following, to a couple paragraphs 50 years later, to a single sentence today. You can also see how different eras emphasize different elements of each story.
- Witness To America: This is one of three different collections of first-hand documents I have – anthologies of letters, court transcripts, interviews, and speeches, running the gamut of the momentous to the mundane. You have everything from a transcript of Neil Armstrong’s comments during the first moon landing to a kid who rode for the Pony Express talking about what life in the saddle was like.
- The Cartoon History of the United States: Okay, first let me say that Larry Gonick, the man behind this book, is a phenomenal writer. This is just one of the many cartoon guides to things he’s published – there are also cartoon guides to Statistics, Ecology, Physics, and Sex in his quiver, as well as an even more ambitious Cartoon History Of The Universe, which is more accurately a 6-volume history of our own planet from the days of the Big Bang up to 2004. I learned of Gonick through that last series, and was stunned how exhaustive the series is – he covers things that are rarely included in most Western-world published “World History” books, like the history of the Mali Empire to a discussion of the impact of the Black Plague on non-European countries. His books are so well-researched they’re often assigned as supplementary reading in college classrooms. This book only covers up through the late 80s and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but it still covers a lot of ground.
- America Eats! On The Road With The WPA: The Venn diagram between “foodie” and “fascinated by the history of the Works Progress Administration” is probably very small; nevertheless this book fits that niche. During the Great Depression, the New Deal had a program designed to give work to writers; one idea they had was to send writers out into their communities to report on the various food traditions where they lived, as well as any public food-related events – an account of a traditional New England clambake, an article about a Baptist church’s ladies’ auxiliary fundraising supper, a piece about hunting in the backwoods of Louisiana, things like that. The intent was to publish one massive book about “American Food Traditions”, but the project was interrupted by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the manuscript was archived for 50 years. This is one of a pair of books that was eventually assembled from the archive – author Pat Willard combines passages from the archive with her own writing, chronicling a handful of trips to revisit some of the bigger events from the archive to see how they’ve changed.
- Travelers’ Tales – America: Some of the best travel writing is in the Travelers’ Tales anthologies, a series I’ve been diving into for years. Technically this is a travel anthology, but the editors focus more on the writing than on the topics covered, so this isn’t yet another series of anecdotes about family vacations to national parks or the like; instead you have things like an account of life on Skid Row in Los Angeles, to a comedic take on a lackluster bus tour of Cincinnatti to an essay on camping in Yosemite.
- The Journals of Lewis and Clark: Speaking of travelogues – do yourself a favor and read these. This is the firsthand account of the expedition where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored and mapped the Louisiana Purchase, an expedition that at the time was akin to the Apollo 11 mission. So Lewis and Clark took copious notes about the things they saw and heard along the way, all of the people the expedition met, and countless little incidents and hiccups. There’s a section chronicling a five-day stretch of bad luck that befell one of their boats that literally had me laughing out loud.
I actually have a new book to crack into this year; will not report on it just yet, I’d like to give it a thorough read first.