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Thirteen Books That Changed America

by Jay Parini

Pub Date: Nov. 4th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-385-52276-2
Publisher: Doubleday

A baker’s dozen of titles that have altered the course of history.

The 13 “winners” include the expected (Walden, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), the indisputable (The Federalist Papers, The Journals of Lewis and Clark), the pleasant surprise (Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care) and the capricious (How to Win Friends and Influence People). With this last, readers of The Art of Teaching (2005) will recognize another tribute to the influence of Dale Carnegie in Parini’s youth. Each chapter has the same structure: an introduction, some background on the writer and the book, a summary of the text (15 pages or so being too long for some of them) and a discussion of the work’s legacy. The Promised Land (1912), for example, spawned an entire genre of literature written about the immigrant experience, stretching into the present with Frank McCourt, Amy Tan and Sandra Cisneros. Parini (English and Creative Writing/Middlebury Coll.) is usually generous, although Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique takes some shots. (He finds it on occasion “cursory and reductive.”) The author also aims some pokes at the current Bush Administration, at minister Joel Osteen (“one of the shallowest of current hucksters”) and at Bill Clinton. Parini does not always work sufficiently hard to eliminate clichés; we read about a work’s “sheer impact”; we learn how Friedan, in college, “spread her wings.” Still, his analysis of the racial controversy about Huckleberry Finn is illuminating and wise; his discussion of Of Plymouth Plantation, invigorating. A point not much discussed: Will books ever again so greatly affect our ever-more-nonliterate society? Perhaps anticipating snarls of displeasure about omissions, the author offers a lightly annotated appendix, “One Hundred More Books That Changed America.”

Admittedly formulaic, but also learned, educative and even provocative.