Is it possible to winnow down all the great books that have been
written in --- and about --- America to a baker’s dozen? Jay
Parini thinks so and offers PROMISED LANED as proof.
Parini --- a poet, novelist, biographer and professor at
Middlebury College in Vermont --- selects his choices dating back
to William Bradford’s HISTORY OF PLYMOUTH PLANTATION and
ending with Betty Friedan’s THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE. He defines
his selection process as including books “that helped to
create the intellectual and emotional contours of this country.
Each played a significant role in developing a complex value system
that flourishes to this day.”
The other 11 titles feature a combination of novels and
nonfiction, (relatively) light reading and much more serious fare:
THE FEDERALIST PAPERS by Alexander Hamilton, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, THE JOURNALS OF LEWIS AND CLARK, WALDEN, UNCLE
TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain’s THE
ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK by W. E. B.
Du Bois, THE PROMISED LAND by Mary Antin, Dale Carnegie’s HOW
TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, THE COMMON SENSE BOOK OF BABY
AND CHILD CARE by Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Jack Kerouac’s ON
Each analysis consists of a brief biographical look at the
author and an in-depth examination of the book and its impact on
American society. Parini also shows how each volume has held up;
sensibilities during the time each was printed have greatly changed
over the generations, but they still pack a punch.
Parini actually embraces the discomfort one might find in
discussing certain themes, such as the treatment of
African-Americans in Dubois’s SOULS OF THE BLACK FOLK or THE
PROMISED LAND, a novel about the struggles of Jewish immigrants to
adjust to life in a new homeland. The content of these books are
connected, Parini insists. One common theme is the struggle to
survive and thrive, be it as a colonial state: “One learns a
lot about America by looking at these texts closely --- and the
texts that swirl around them,” he writes, freely admitting
that his choices are quite personal.
A book like this is designed to engender discussion. Why this
book and not that? As widely-read as it has been, does
Carnegie’s masterwork --- ostensibly the first
“self-help” book --- merit consideration as one of the
elite that “changed America”? Or Spock’s book on
child care? Surely there are others better suited for inclusion.
Fear not, for Parini offers another hundred titles of similar
significance, any one of which the reader might want to substitute
for the 13 finalists.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 23, 2011