John Hooper allows that describing The Italians is not easy.

“(It’s) a bookstore’s nightmare,” he jokes via email. “Like my earlier books about Spain, The Italians belongs to a micro-niche of books about entire societies, and from several perspectives. I’ve seen The New Spaniards on the shelves reserved for Travel, History, Sociology, Contemporary History and goodness knows what else. But if I had to give the simplest possible description I would say it is the book that I would like to have been able to read when I first came to work in Italy as a correspondent in 1994.”

When one thinks of Italy or Italians, it is likely some stereotypical image of food, family (or, for The Godfather fans, the Family) and Fellini, whose La Dolce Vita introduced the term “paparazzi” into the global language. The Italians is a revelatory delve into the geography and historical, religious and cultural forces that have shaped the country and its people.

Drawing on his more than 15 years as a correspondent in Rome for The Guardian and The Economist, Hooper challenges stereotypes about and perceptions of Italy to etch a panoramic portrait of the divide between the country’s “mind-spinning legacy” and its uncertain future.

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For many years, the adage, “write what you know” kept Hooper from writing The Italians. “When I left (Italy) after my first stint, in 1999, I was quite clear that I didn’t have the knowledge or the understanding needed to write the book about Italy that I had always wanted to write,” he says. “And that feeling persisted for several years after I came back in 2003.”

In one of The Italians’ humorous anecdotes, Hooper recalls misinterpreting a seeming olive branch offered by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to an opponent. An Italian colleague sets him straight. “That wasn’t a burying of the hatchet. For me, that was a warning….That’s the way any Italian would have understood it.”

“It was only after I stopped having those disconcerting experiences that I felt up to the task (of writing the book),” Hooper says.

His first encounter with Italy was as a teenager in 1968, when he received what he calls “still the best piece of advice anyone  ever gave me about Italy.” As it happens, it came from an American. “I had washed up in Rome after leaving a boat on which I was working,” he recalls. “I stayed for a few nights in a flat shared by three girls, one of whom I had known in Paris. One evening, doubtless after I had made some fatuous generalization, one of the flatmates said: ‘Don’t think that Rome is like Paris. Everything seems to be on the surface. But it isn’t. Much of it is hidden. This is a city of secrets and mysteries.’ That is Italy’s fascination.”

At that time, Hooper said, he was witnessing “the afterglow of ‘La Dolce Vita,’ ” a period of economic growth, social transformation and cultuHooper cover the italians ral blossoming during which Italy became a modern, mostly urban society. When he returned in his capacity as a correspondent, he, like many foreigners, saw Italy in terms of “Ferraris and Ferragamo, a country of cutting-edge engineering and fashion.”

That side of Italy is real, he maintains, “but I wasn’t ready for the depth of their conservatism, the intensity of their reluctance to change. For the last 20 years, the country has been in the grip of a generation that harks back to the ‘Dolce Vita’ days and really does not want to join the 21st century. That is changing as a younger generation finally gets its hands on the levels of government. But it is still the case today that the leader of Italy’s main right-wing party is 78 and the president is 89.”

As to Italy’s relationship with America, Hooper said that the country, like Britain, enjoys a “special relationship” with the U.S. “Americans and Italians get along together more easily than Americans and Britons,” he says. “The U.S. was a refuge for millions of Italians in the 19th century and that still counts for a lot. Americans were also closely associated with that golden ‘Dolce Vita’ period. One its most famous images, which you still see on the walls of bars in Rome, is that of Gregory Peck racing through the city on his scooter in the movie Roman Holiday.”    

The Italians covers a daunting amount of ground, but it is an accessible and entertaining read even for the most casual armchair traveler or historian. “Being a journalist helped” in writing the book, Hooper says. “Almost every day I have to explain usually a quite complex issue in a way that is acceptable to an expert yet comprehensible to someone who has no previous knowledge of the subject.”

The primary challenge, he says, was “trying to keep a balance between positive and negative. Any journalist will tell you it is much easier to write a critical article than a laudatory one that doesn’t sound sycophantic. After nearly two decades of economic stagnation, after Berlusconi and his Bunga Bunga parties, it is only too easy to write negatively about contemporary Italy and overlook the many positive aspects of the country and the people. I hope I’ve succeeded in avoiding that pitfall.”

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based writer who has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, Roger Ebert.com and the Chicago Sun-Times.