All-American books

With a political changing of the guard in progress and recent reason to focus more keenly on domestic issues, there is no better time than now to read Jay Parini’s Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America. Parini’s book about books explores the way literature has shaped American culture and sparked important political and social change.

Parini explains how he decided to write Promised Land after attending a lecture in London, titled “Twelve Books that Changed the World.” All of the chosen books were English books, a fact that got Parini considering which books have been the most influential in American history. He explains that he wasn’t concerned with writing a book about the “greatest” American books. Rather, he sought out the books that “played a role in shaping the nation’s idea of itself or that consolidated and defined a major trend.”

Parini’s list includes books from this nation’s beginnings, such as The Federalist Papers and Of Plymouth Plantation. He chooses The Journals of Lewis and Clark and Walden to help explain American notions of exploration, independence and reverence for nature. He writes about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Souls of Black Folk to explore changing attitudes about race. Parini also picks books that have shaped American thought on topics such as parenting, business and the role of women in society.

Promised Land has a predictable organization that is easy to follow. Each chapter focuses on one book and divides the discussion into four parts. First, Parini discusses the book’s general topic and suggests how it influenced this country or helped shape its identity. He then offers biographical and historical context and proceeds to describe the book’s subject in detail. The final section of each chapter offers thoughts about the book’s legacy and suggests the impact it had on American thought.

The drawback of reading a book about books is that often the process is sustained by one’s intellectual curiosity alone. Those interested in history, literature and American culture will be most stimulated by this book, but even those inclined to enjoy this subject matter may find themselves bogged down in the plot summaries of a few books included here. These are not always the most exciting books, but they do demonstrate, as Parini hoped they would, “the intellectual and emotional contours of this country.”

But the lack of a riveting plot is made up for by Parini’s witty style and eye for interesting detail, with comments on American history that are occasionally both amusing and profound. For example, he pronounces that “being a Pilgrim” was “a fairly dull business.” And in a standout chapter on W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he presents a chilling account of this nation’s ongoing struggle to achieve racial equality. Parini’s discussion of this book raises important questions for our times and shows how “despite the emergence of a figure as strong as Barack Obama … [t]he legacy of slavery remains a heavy one, still carried on black shoulders.”

Parini, a poet and novelist, has also written biographies of American literary giants John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and William Faulkner. His knowledge of American literature, coupled with his ability to turn historical figures into lively characters, gives Promised Land an intellectually adventurous feel.

America is a country of great cultural diversity, and it would be difficult to choose just one book that captures its literary history. Promised Land, however, is not a mere book. It’s the story of 13 books, and in capturing the essence of each, Promised Land is a work of historical merit that stands on its own.