The best books on the ideals, aspirations, and unfulfilled promises in American civilization

Alex Krieger Author Of City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present
By Alex Krieger

Who am I?

My interest in the topic of these books has grown across four decades of teaching about cities and urban planning at Harvard, and in active practice as an architect and urban designer. At any moment a city’s very physicality reflects both a culture’s aspirations and the limitations of that culture to achieve those aspirations. Cities are, in a way, compromises in time: among efforts to preserve a past, overcome the challenges of the present, and pursuit of plans for the future. My book focuses on the role of American ideals especially in city and community building, while the five I recommend offer crucial counterpoints about the difficulties and setbacks encountered in reaching for national ideals.  


I wrote...

City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

By Alex Krieger,

Book cover of City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

What is my book about?

The book portrays the American inclination to experiment with forms of settlement, evident in both utopian and pragmatic efforts at reconceiving how and in what shape our towns, cities, and urban regions should grow. Such aspirational approaches to community and city-building have served as a parallel to the political efforts to establish a republic dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As post-revolutionary America expanded the frontiers of social and political institutions, the reevaluation of old-world institutions and traditions also extended to pondering how better to gather spatially in communities. 

Each of the chapters explores an effort, cultural trend, or belief about what makes a good neighborhood, a better town, a more humane city, and about some of the consequences of proceeding to build such places. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization

Why this book?

For starters an absolutely brilliant book title: beautifully capturing the complexities of American culture, at once compelled by soaring social aspirations while tending to act out of pure individualism often with disdain for social impact. The narrative abounds in identifying seemingly contradictory national impulses – imported vs. Indigenous traditions, socialism vs. libertarianism, utopian vs. prosaic undertakings, the welcoming of and resisting of others – with the author arguing that through the interaction of such opposite impulses over time the particular genius of American society evolved. Kammen delights in reminding Americans of our “unstable pluralism,” and supports William James’ conclusion that “Americanism” continues to be a “volatile mixture of hopeful good and curable bad.”  Overall impressive scholarship and a delightful read.   

People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization

By Michael Kammen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked People of Paradox as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the beginning, what has given our culture its distinctive texture, pattern, and thrust, according to Michael Kammen, is the dynamic interaction of the imported and the indigenous. He shows how, during the years of colonization, some ideas and institutions were transferred virtually intact from Britain, while, simultaneously, others were being transformed in the New World. As he unravels the tangled origins of our culture, he makes us see that unresolved contradictions in the American experience have created our national style. Puritanical and hedonistic, idealistic and materialistic, peace-loving and war-mongering: these opposing strands go back to the genesis of our…


Book cover of To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders

Why this book?

Enormous insight from one of the great scholars of America’s Revolutionary Era, especially as to the complex ruminations and motivations of the nation’s founders as they set out to invent a new society. At the core of their inspiration, ironically resulting from their very provincialism, being separated from European society by an ocean, was their ability to combine a deep sense of pragmatic realism with “a pervasive air of utopian idealism.” From this was formed a nation consistently looking to a better future. A sensibility perhaps best expressed by Thomas Jefferson: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” 

To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders

By Bernard Bailyn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To Begin the World Anew as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bernard Bailyn has distilled a lifetime of study into this brilliant illumination of the ideas and world of the Founding Fathers. In five succinct essays he reveals the origins, depth, and global impact of their extraordinary creativity.

The opening essay illuminates the central importance of America’s provincialism to the formation of a truly original political system. In the chapters following, he explores the ambiguities and achievements of Jefferson’s career, Benjamin Franklin’s changing image and supple diplomacy, the circumstances and impact of the Federalist Papers, and the continuing influence of American constitutional thought throughout the Atlantic…


Book cover of Behold, America: The Entangled History of America First and the American Dream

Why this book?

The book explores the complicated historic interaction among what for many are understood to be opposing tendencies of American life. On the one hand, the promise of the ‘American Dream,’ long held as an ethos of America and associated with expectations of liberty, equality, and access to opportunity. While the phrase ‘America First’ is more often associated with isolationist and nativist campaigns, intolerance of others, and even supremacist ideology. 

Yet, as Churchwell reveals, during times of economic, social, or international crisis the appeal of demagoguery would enable the twisting of the meaning of these two phrases for particular and sometimes less noble purposes.   

Behold, America: The Entangled History of America First and the American Dream

By Sarah Churchwell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Behold, America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A GUARDIAN AND A SMITHSONIAN BOOK OF THE YEAR
A SUNDAY TIMES, OBSERVER AND I-PAPER SUMMER READ

'Enormously entertaining' Sunday Times
'Fascinating' New Statesman
'An enthralling book' Guardian

'The American dream is dead,' Donald Trump said when announcing his candidacy for president in 2015. How would he revive it? By putting 'America First'.

The 'American Dream' and 'America First' are two of the most loaded phrases in America today, and also two of the most misunderstood. The American Dream began as a pledge for equality rather than as a dream of supremacy and 'making it big'. America First has not…


Caste

By Isabel Wilkerson,

Book cover of Caste

Why this book?

We tend to associate the idea of caste with faraway or traditional cultures such as that of India, or more hideously as during the Nazi era in Germany. Wilkerson reveals the presence and persistence of caste across American society, and poignantly distinguishes it from racism, though both fueled by intolerance. For Wilkerson, caste is “in the bones” of a society, less visible but intrinsic, while race is reflected in things like the color of skin, at once superficial but supportive of the unseen yet intrinsic nature of caste. So, the lesson, as the book makes it clear, is that it is insufficient to say “I am color-blind to race and so cannot be a racist” while remaining blind to Wilkerson’s Eight Pillars of Caste, as they persist in societies, including our own.

Caste

By Isabel Wilkerson,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Caste as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE TIME NONFICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR | #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

"Powerful and timely ... I cannot recommend it strongly enough" - Barack Obama

From one of America's most celebrated and insightful writers, the moving, eye-opening bestseller about what lies hidden under the surface of ordinary lives

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human…


Book cover of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

Why this book?

Beginning with the uprising in Ferguson over the police shooting of Michel Brown, which helped catalyze the national Black Lives Matter movement, a long and disheartening narrative unfolds of redlining and urban renewal, persistent racism, support of slavery, Indian removal, and other exploitive acts in support of “manifest destiny.” Not an easy or uplifting read, but an essential one: a reminder of a city’s parallel history, a city also justifiably proud of its 19th-century growth and prosperity, as a haven for immigrants, progressive labor movements, the fulcrum of Mississippi River trade, and as the gateway to the settlement of the West.  

The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

By Walter Johnson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Broken Heart of America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A searing and "magisterial" (Cornel West) history of American racial exploitation and resistance, told through the turbulent past of the city of St. Louis. From Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition to the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, American history has been made in St. Louis. And as Walter Johnson shows in The Broken Heart of America, the city exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation's past. St. Louis was a staging post for Indian removal and imperial expansion, and its wealth grew on the backs of its poor Black residents, from slavery through redlining and…


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