Ten books to explain America

A really interesting question at the cassandra pages: ‘If you were recommending, say, five to ten books you most felt would “explain America” to a foreign person who had never been here in person, what would they be?’ You can read people’s answers there.

I’m not about to try and pick ten books about America, for obvious reasons. I suppose that, as a foreigner, I’m in a position to name books that I felt gave me an insight. But I’m not going to do that. I might try to come up with ten books for the UK. It’s difficult, though; for a start, how much historical background do you need to touch on? I don’t see much need to go too far back ino the Middle Ages, but the Reformation, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the Empire, the loss of the Empire, the growth of unionism and the Labour party, the Suffrage movement, and the two World Wars are all to some extent relevant to what Britain is now and what British people are like. Oh, and I almost forgot the battle of the Boyne, the Potato Famine, the Irish Question*, the Easter Rising, partition and the Troubles.

But if anything, people’s perceptions of Britain seem to be mired in the past – Americans always seem to be convinced that we’re still obsessing about the loss of empire, for example, which I really don’t think is true. So perhaps the history should be downplayed and more emphasis placed on the past 30 or 40 years. And for the curious visitor who wants to get inside the head of the British, is lots of historical background better than one really insightful novel anyway?

Anyway, I’ll try to think of some interesting choices.

* according to 1066 And All That: ‘Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question.’

4 replies on “Ten books to explain America”

Well, I’m still thinking about it. I can think of plenty of choices which are fine in themselves – it’s choosing ten without hideously over-representing aristocratic and upper-middle class writers or under-representing urban life. And finding the right books from the past 30 years.

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