Sunday, December 21, 2008

America's DNA laid out in 13 volumes

Writer and academic Jay Parini's latest effort is a delightful assortment of books that, he believes, capture the essence of American society and history. Some of Parini's choices may seem eccentric, but none of the 13 books in this collection can be called a lightweight against the rather tough standards the author measures them.

The title, referring to Mary Antin's The Promised Land, harks to the immigrant's experience in America, a society where "except for native Americans, everyone is an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants." Continuing in this vein, Parini also includes William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, a founding text about the original Pilgrims, "one of those primal stories that have shaped our sense of who we are."

The other major American issue that Parini sees fit to tackle is race. Both Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Souls of Black Folk find mention. While Parini is not entirely enthusiastic about the talents of Harriet Beecher Stowe, he nevertheless pays hearty tribute to the seminal contribution that Uncle Tom's Cabin made on race relations in America.

Part of the charm of this well-written collection is Parini's inclusion of such non-literary works as the global bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Parini's reason to include the latter is as much cultural as it is sociological. Dr Spock's treatise on baby care, he says, "became the sourcebook of choice for parents in the postwar years; as such, it helped to shape the baby-boom generation, and its effects still reverberate."

Parini's well-rounded collection also includes Walden, Thoreau's vivid account of the pleasures of nature, Betty Friedan's anti-patriarchy polemic, The Feminine Mystique, and yes, an immediately recognizable literary title as well, On the Road.

Parini has a special gift to somehow locate common strands in the disparate works that make this collection. "Reading these books," he says, "I have felt our visibly personal connection to the traditions of spirituality." He goes on to express his delight at discovering the mystical quality in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, whose "independent, even rebellious, spirit" resonates in the writings of Mary Antin, Benjamin Spock, Jack Kerouac, and even in the defiance of Betty Friedan.


This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

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