As American as a first library card
some friends' favorite reads on the American experiment
Of all the things in my life that completely changed when I came to America at five, perhaps the most powerful was my first library card. Before we arrived, I had one children’s book. I couldn’t read yet but I memorized it and then asked for another. But there wasn’t money for more. In America, every book in every section of the Albany Public Library was for me. Overnight I became unfathomably rich. I could spend whole unsupervised weekend days there reading whatever I wanted.
With this first childhood taste of America’s limitless possibilities in mind, I asked seven American friends, writers and thinkers I value if they’d each make a quick reading recommendation that’s been meaningful to them on the question of what makes America unique or important. Below are their responses, plus a couple of excerpts I couldn’t resist sharing.
Rob Henderson: Born American, but in the wrong place. Rob shared this powerful personal essay by the late Peter W. Schramm, who writes movingly here about so many things, including his actual aversion to libraries (perhaps an instinctual overcorrection from a communist boyhood), once he could actually afford the luxury of owning all the books he loved. What follows is an excerpt about the moment his dad decided they would escape communist Hungary:
Why America?” I prodded.
“Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place,” he replied.
My father said that as naturally as if I had asked him what was the color of the sky. It was so obvious to him why we should head for America. There was really no other option in his mind. …. How is it that this simple man who had none of the benefits or luxuries of freedom and so-called “education” understood this truth so deeply and so purely and expressed it so beautifully? It has something to do with the self-evidence, as Jefferson put it, of America’s principles. Of course, he hadn’t studied Jefferson or America’s Declaration of Independence, but he had come to know deep in his heart the meaning of tyranny. And he hungered for its opposite. The embodiment of those self-evident truths and of justice in America was an undeniable fact to souls suffering under oppression. And while a professor at Harvard might have scoffed at the idea of American justice in 1956 (or today, for that matter), my Dad would have scoffed at him. Such a person, Dad would say, had never suffered in a regime of true injustice. America represented to my Dad, as Lincoln put it, “the last, best hope of earth.”
Kite Runner. I’m not usually one for fiction, especially fiction like this but I was forced to read it for a class and am glad I did.
The protagonist is an Afghani refugee, and while the entire story is gripping and raw, to me it was his experience with getting settled in America that resonated most powerfully. He describes finding his footing in the new and strange land, of going from an upper class lifestyle in Afghanistan to working at the flea market in America. But despite the hardship, America was safe, America was a promise. That even their poverty in the US is a stroke of fortune is evident as you find out more about what happened to those who were left behind in a land without hope.
Chandler Burr: “The Drifters by James Michener. I don’t know if it’s readable today, but I think it would be to a teenager, and it had a huge and very positive influence on me when I read it, probably 5 times or so, as a teenager.”
I immediately thought of Brian Boyd's bio of Nabokov, which contains numerous references to how much Nabokov loved the lack of class consciousness (and with it the aristocrat arrogance and lower class servility he loathed) in the US. But as far as I know Nabokov himself never wrote about it in any connected way.
Or practically any book by Wallace Stegner, which all (well, all I've read) are predicated on the freedom to become that is a huge part of the US at its best. But I don't know if he wrote a single book about it.
Colin shared Jonathan Rauch’s book without comment. I have been getting lobbied at home to read this slim volume. I promise, I will move it to the top of my stack. The book dates to 1993 and I think a big question is whether it is more chilling or amazing that the diagnosis remains so spot-on today. Here are some quotes:
It is bad enough to have to remind people that there is no right not to be offended, and that criticism is not the same as violence. It is deeply embarrassing to have to deliver this reminder to people at the center of American intellectual life.
So, I think…..the mechanism of liberal science is a good social system to choose if you care about peacefully holding together a diverse community while systematically keeping irresponsible voices on the fringes, where they belong.
In liberal science, the community discovers what it thinks through criticism– and its members never do all think any one thing. If they did, intellectual progress would stop.
And as for me, all I ever do is flog books, but I can’t resist throwing in a few recs today, my ultra predictable go-to’s alongside a couple of curveballs (for me):
John Brown Biography: To Purge This Land with Blood
And speaking of Sarah, she has a lovely piece out today on her Substack about the privilege of being an American. It generously acknowledges my July 4 post from 2021, Get Lucky, which, aside from January’s E.O. Wilson post, in which I was speaking for more than just myself, remains my most loved Substack piece.
I hope everyone had an excellent July 4th! Happy 246th, America!