The best books about the United States Of America

Who am I?

Tristram Riley-Smith was posted to the British Embassy in Washington DC in the aftermath of 9/11. Alongside his day job he applied his skills as a Cultural Anthropologist to understand the greatest nation of the 20th Century as it crossed the threshold of the 21st. His interest is in all forms of invention, from those narratives and performances that give meaning to people’s lives to the material objects that furnish their world. In his book The Cracked Bell, Riley-Smith weaves his observations together in a literary portrait of America, revealing the alchemy of opposites that makes up this extraordinary nation.


I wrote...

The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty

By Tristram Riley-Smith,

Book cover of The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty

What is my book about?

The twin concepts of liberty and the free market have been instrumental in shaping American identity. Here, author Tristram Riley-Smith delves into how the perverting of these concepts has led to today's economic crisis and identity crisis for America.


Including President Obama's election and the initial stimulus package, Riley-Smith takes us on a whirlwind examination of America. For three years, he served in the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., and traveled throughout the country and this outsider's perspective offers an in-depth look at the state of American culture after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, toxic debts, and the credit crunch. With lively, insightful commentary, careful research, and illuminating personal anecdotes, Riley-Smith uses images like the cracked liberty bell to explain just where things went wrong, and how we can make them right. He touches upon big issues and examines America's consumer culture, using recognizable icons like Martha Stewart, Giorgio Armani, artist Barbara Kruger, and Wal-Mart.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America

Tristram Riley-Smith Why did I love this book?

This masterpiece is the equivalent of an MRI scan of America’s cultural history. Its 900 pages are packed with scintillating insight into patterns of behaviour and belief underpinning the lives of ordinary Americans. Fischer uncovers ways of thinking and acting that traveled with migrants from the British Isles: Puritans from East Anglia, Cavaliers from the South of England, Quakers from the North Midlands, and English/Scottish Borderers. The author explores and explains American ideas of liberty, time, property, family, ways of working, law and order, and so much more.

By David Hackett Fischer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Albion's Seed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Eighty percent of Americans have no British ancestors. According to David Hackett Fischer, however, their day-to-day lives are profoundly influenced by folkways transplanted from Britain to the New World with the first settlers. Residual, yet persistent, aspects of these 17th Century folkways are indentifiable, Fischer argues, in areas as divers as politics, education, and attitudes towards gender, sexuality, age, and child-raising. Making use of both traditional
and revisionist scholarship, this ground-breaking work documents how each successive wave of early emigration-Puritans to the North-East; Royalist aristocrats to the South; the Friends to the Delaware Valley; Irish and North Britons to the…


Book cover of The Colonial Experience

Tristram Riley-Smith Why did I love this book?

The joy of this book (and its sister volumes on the “national” and the democratic” experience) comes from the panoramic journey across space and time that the reader is taken on. This work is, above all, a positive, life-enhancing view of the United States with its focus on continuity rather than conflict. There is an idealistic and romantic strain to this vision, as he pictures a young nation sloughing off the rigid carapace of the Old World, with the idea of a calling replaced by an idea of opportunity. Boorstin is an exemplary guide: his canvas is rich and complex, with countless stories brilliantly picked out to illuminate his vision. Examples include: the utopian vision for the State of Georgia known as “The Margravate of Azalia”; the creation of the Minnesota Pioneer as a dynamic editor loaded a press on a steamboat going up the Mississippi to the future state capital (St Paul); and the political drama of an early settlement in Oregon where the only law was to kill all dogs in the camp … until a pro-dog party armed itself to defend the creatures (leading the dog decree to be revoked).

By Daniel J. Boorstin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Colonial Experience as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This first volume in "The Americans" trilogy defines the unique qualities of the American nation and rediscovers the American character and way of life as it was shaped in the decisive years between the coming of the Pilgrims and the winning of Independence.


Book cover of Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence

Tristram Riley-Smith Why did I love this book?

I’m torn between recommending this book and Lincoln at Gettysburg by the same author. Wills combines brilliant analysis of language (the meaning and feeling of words and phrases; the syncopation of sentences) with a scholarly understanding of the cultural and intellectual context within which these seminal texts are written. As he unpacks the Declaration, Wills connects the document to Jefferson's own reading and learning. "To understand any text remote from us in time," he writes "we must reassemble a world around that text. The preconceptions of the original audience, its tastes, its range of reference, must be recovered, so far as that is possible. We must forget what we learned, or what occurred, in the interval between our time and the text's." Brilliant stuff.

By Garry Wills,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From acclaimed historian Garry Wills, author of Lincoln at Gettysburg, a celebrated re-appraisal of the meaning and the source of inspiration of The Declaration of Independence, based on a reading of Jefferson's original draft document.

Inventing America upended decades of thinking about The Declaration of Independence when it was first published in 1978 and remains one of the most influential and important works of scholarship about this founding document. Wills challenged the idea that Jefferson took all his ideas from John Locke. Instead, by focussing on Jefferson's original drafts, he showed Jefferson's debt to Scottish Enlightenment philosophers such as Lord…


Book cover of Irresistible Empire: America's Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe

Tristram Riley-Smith Why did I love this book?

This is an outstanding work, full of surprise and insight informed by excellent research. As the author explores the wave of American ideas that broke across the European Continent in the early decades of the 20th Century, we gain a deep insight into the power and creativity of American thinking in those years. The Chain Store revolutionised commerce, becoming "a machine for selling"; mass consumerism was underpinned by new kinds of currency and credit: postal money orders, travelers' cheques, credit cards, and installment plans; advertizing corporations promoted branded goods, spreading Coca Cola, Kellog’s Corn Flakes and Campbell’s Soups around the world. Ultimately, De Grazia shows, the American “standard of living” became a yardstick for measuring the status of any population in the world.

By Victoria de Grazia,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The most significant conquest of the twentieth century may well have been the triumph of American consumer society over Europe's bourgeois civilization. It is this little-understood but world-shaking campaign that unfolds in Irresistible Empire, Victoria de Grazia's brilliant account of how the American standard of living defeated the European way of life and achieved the global cultural hegemony that is both its great strength and its key weakness today.

De Grazia describes how, as America's market empire advanced with confidence through Europe, spreading consumer-oriented capitalism, all alternative strategies fell before it-first the bourgeois lifestyle, then the Third Reich's command consumption,…


Book cover of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

Tristram Riley-Smith Why did I love this book?

Greece has Homer, Rome has Ovid, Ireland has Yeats, America has Whitman. His innovative verse-style continues to startle, 200 years after his birth: no rhyme, erratic rhythm, the shock of a helter-skelter flow of words unexpectedly halted. He is a cheerleader for America, setting out his stall in his preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass when he wrote: “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. In the history of the earth hitherto the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler largeness and stir. Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. …. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes.”

He described America as an athletic democracy, and poems like Song of the Broad-Axe and Song of the Open Road celebrate the excitement of a burgeoning, expanding, optimistic democracy. But his voice is universalist in its passionate advocacy for justice, liberty and equality; and the closing lines of Oh me! Oh life! provide an answer to existentialist questions about the meaning of life that will set any writer’s pulse racing:


“That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

By Walt Whitman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Library of America edition is the biggest and best edition of Walt Whitman's writings ever published. It includes all of his poetry and what he considered his complete prose. It is also the only collection that includes, in exactly the form in which it appeared in 1855, the first edition of Leaves of Grass. This was the book, a commercial failure, which prompted Emerson’s famous message to Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” These twelve poems, including what were later to be entitled “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” and a…


You might also like...

Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

By Bruce Tate,

Book cover of Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

Bruce Tate

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The plan was insane. The trap seemed to snap shut on Bruce and Maggie Tate, an isolation forced on them by the pandemic and America's growing political factionalism. Something had to change.

Maggie's surprising answer: buy a boat, learn to pilot it, and embark on the Great Loop. With no experience, and knowing little about seafaring, diesel motors, or navigation, Maggie, Bruce, and the family dog decided to take on the six-thousand-mile journey down inland rivers, around the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and across the Great Lakes. They would have to navigate canals, rivers, seas, and locks. But along the way, they made new lifelong friends and were forever changed.

For nine months, Bruce and Maggie navigated shallow rivers, bottomless lakes, joy, and loss. Against all odds, they conquered the Great Loop, and along the way, found common cause across political divides with new friends while blowing the walls off their world.

Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

By Bruce Tate,


Topics
  • Coming soon!

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in civilization, Thomas Jefferson, and the economy?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about civilization, Thomas Jefferson, and the economy.

Civilization Explore 209 books about civilization
Thomas Jefferson Explore 49 books about Thomas Jefferson
The Economy Explore 197 books about the economy