THE WORDS WE LIVE BY by Brian Burrell

THE WORDS WE LIVE BY

The Creeds, Mottoes, Oaths, and Pledges that Have Shaped Our Nation
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A study of American ideals wrapped up in a spirited anthology of key texts. Burrell, a mathematics instructor at the University of Massachusetts, is a hobbyist of history, continuing a family tradition: His father collected ``words to live by'' for many years, filling notebooks with company mottoes and fraternity pledges alongside the American oath of citizenship and the Marine Corps hymn. Burrell approaches this work with much more than a hobbyist's sophistication, and the result is a fine sourcebook in what might be called the history of America's idea of itself. That we need a national self-identity is a matter of great interest to Burrell, and he offers a lively and thoughtful discussion of the ways in which Americans are taught to regard themselves as different from Britons or Russians or Thais, quoting favorably de Tocqueville's observation that ``in the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals who are thus relieved from having to form opinions of their own.'' Burrell's book is full of such ready-made opinions, but he examines each with a critical eye, ranging widely among primary and secondary sources and crafting tidy essays on, for instance, the struggle to arrive at a national motto that would exclude no group. (We do not have such a motto, Burrell opines, in the 1957 coinage ``In God We Trust.'') Elsewhere he examines the history of wedding vows, Masonic rituals, and corporate mottoes, always turning up interesting nuggets. And in any event, you have to like a book that includes not only the usual run of great texts, from the Golden Rule to the Postal Service motto, but also the Mafia initiation oath and--a real treasure--the creed of the Elvis Presley Imitators International Association.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-684-83001-9
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1997




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