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Thirteen Books That Shaped America


President-elect Barack Obama has plenty enough to do to ready himself for inauguration day. But if Jay Parini had his way, he'd probably give Obama a copy of his new book, "Promised Land." In "Promised Land," Parini, who's a novelist, poet, and scholar of American literature, has chosen the 13 books that he thinks are crucial to an understanding of American identity. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: This election night, we added a few lines of update to one of our most cherished national myths, the belief that America is a land of limitless opportunity where anybody can become anything. Granted, Ben Franklin could never have imagined a President Barack Obama. But in broad strokes, Obama's story of a hard-won rise from obscurity is as old and as American as our founding father Franklin's own autobiographical tale, that begins with him landing in Philadelphia as a nobody with just a few cents and three puffy rolls in his threadbare pockets.

The stories that we tell about ourselves as Americans shape our national identity. That's the self-evident truth of Jay Parini's latest book "Promised Land," subtitled "13 Books that Changed America." Parini's book comes out shrewdly, just in time for what promises to be a season of national self-reflection. In it, he explores not the great American canon, no "Moby Dick" or "Leaves of Grass" lurking here, but those works, mostly non-fiction and popular, that helped to define or consolidate our idea of what it means to be an American.

Of course, as Parini acknowledges, the number 13 is a gimmick, echoing the number of original colonies. In his appendix, he lists 100 additional influential books, and he says even that list could have gone on and on. But given his self-imposed limit, Parini has made mostly thoughtful choices - Franklin's autobiography, "The Federalist Papers," Thoreau's "Walden," Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." A few of his picks are surprising, but he makes convincing cases for them - Mary Antin's immigrant memoir, "The Promised Land," and Dr. Spock's "Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care."

In every instance, Parini side steps the pitfall of a project like this one, that is feeling obliged to supply plot summaries for those books that lots of Americans once read, but that these days, lots of Americans only feel like they've read. Parini's background as a poet comes in handy here. He's able to do justice to the voice, tone, and thesis of, say, a book like W.E.B. Du Bois' "The Souls of Black Folks" in just a few charged paragraphs.

List books like Parini's are invitations to readers both to discover new treasures and to quibble. First, the treasures. Parini's haunting discussion of "The Journals of Lewis and Clark" made me not only want to go out and buy a copy, but to grab a canoe and start paddling upstream into the forest primeval. Here's one of the insights Parini offers about the journals. In the tradition of nature writing, Lewis and Clark rank high as practitioners. Their close observation of the western landscapes still inspires awe. They offered the first descriptions of grizzly bears, prairie dogs, antelope and mountain goats, and, alas, mosquitoes.' These moments in the journals dazzled readers and established a mode of reporting about the natural world that persists in writers like Barry Lopez and Gretel Ehrlich.

Less reverential but just as revelatory is Parini's lively discussion of Dale Carnegie's 1936 blockbuster, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," a book, Parini says that's squarely in the enterprising small businessman spirit of Franklin's autobiography. Parini also points out that, between 1989, when Communism failed in Russia, and 1997, Carnegie's self-help tome went through 68 editions in Russia.

So the quibble, Jack Kerouac's 1957 run-on monument to his own narcissism, "On The Road." I've read it numerous times and remain unmoved. I know there are good reasons for the pick, and Parini makes all the logical arguments. But since he devotes so few chapters to American novels, I would have voted for Gatsby or even for Dashiell Hammett's great mystery, "The Maltese Falcon," given that hard-boiled detective fiction is a homegrown American genre.

But Parini's list is his own autocratic creation, not a democracy. Especially at this time in our history, readers will benefit from dipping into Parini's book and reacquainting themselves with the nation's bedrock myths and stories, even as new American stories are about to be written.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Promised Land: 13 Books that Changed America" by Jay Parini. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.