The Best Books About The United States of America

By Tristram Riley-Smith

The Books I Picked & Why

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America

By David Hackett Fischer

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America

Why 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.


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The Americans: The Colonial Experience

By Daniel J. Boorstin

The Americans: The Colonial Experience

Why 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).


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Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence

By Garry Wills

Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence

Why 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.


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

By Victoria de Grazia

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

Why 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.


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Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

By Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

Why 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.”


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