A fluently English-speaking alien from outer space pleads with you to help it understand the United States as it is today, as quickly as possible. What single book would you tell it to read and why?

June 28, 1998

A fluently English-speaking alien from outer space pleads with you to help it understand the United States as it is today, as quickly as possible. What single book would you tell it to read and why?

Kurt L. Schmoke is mayor of Baltimore.

I would recommend "Thinking About America: The United States in the 1990s." This is a collection of essays that asks the right questions about a wide range of issues relating to:

1. The quality of life of people in this country, and 2. the role of the United States in the global community.

Eileen M. Rehrmann currently serves as Harford County executive and is running for governor of the state of Maryland.

I suggest Charles Kuralt's "On the Road." It is a delightful book that shows a special spirit in America - people, personalities and potential - and gives great insight into what makes up our country. Anyone, even an alien, would learn a great deal about us and have fun at the same time.

Paul R. McHugh, M.D.

is Henry Phipps professor and the director of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. He, along with Phillip R. Slavney, M.D., authored "The Perspectives of Psychiatry," a standard text used in American medical schools. He has also written articles for the American Journal of Psychiatry, Medicine and Nature Medicine.

Contemporary America is a culture sour on its principles, irresolute in its practices and more confused than enriched by its diversity of traditions. The best book written in this half-century describing that culture and how it affects our lives, our fortunes and our honor is Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" and a contributing editor to "This American Life" on Public Radio International.

I'd offer a little green man with a hankering for the red white and blue a copy of Steve Erickson's brilliant "American Nomad." And since this book is so acute, accurate and poetic on politics and pop culture, i.e., dark as hell, I'd hand him a big bottle of bourbon to go with it because its insights will drive any organism to drink.

Elijah Cummings represents the seventh congressional district of Maryland and has served in the United States Congress since 1996.

"Things Hoped For," by Dr. Samuel Proctor. The author talks about helping people be lifted up by opening doors of opportunity and carrying out small acts of kindness. It is the granting of these opportunities and these acts that enable individuals to be the best that they can be. They in turn become the fabric of our society.

Nancy R. Norris directs the Master of Liberal Arts Program at Johns Hopkins University and teaches several M.L.A seminars, including "Faulkner's Fiction: Beneath the Southern Facade."

I recommend that the alien read William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" because it remains the most in-depth portrait of the racial, sexual and cultural conflicts that continue to plague the entire United States, not just the South, today. Since the alien is "fluent," it should have no trouble deciphering the complex narrative structure through which Faulkner conveys the tortured tale of Thomas Sutpen and his family, slaves and neighbors.

Steve Weinberg is editor of the Journal, a bimonthly magazine published by Investigative Reporters & Editors, based at the University of Missouri Journalism School.

I would suggest your alien read "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History," by Leo Braudy. The Oxford University Press original edition from 1986 is fine; the Vintage Books trade paperback from 1997, with a new Afterword, is better. Here is the explanation: From George Washington to Madonna, Americans have been fascinated with fame - fame based on remarkable accomplishment, fame as a public relations creation, and many gradations between the two. By harking back to ancient Greece and moving forward in time, Braudy, a University of Southern California English professor, explains how it all happened.

John Waters is a filmmaker, author and chronicler of Baltimore. His book "Director's Cut" was published last year and his new film "Pecker" will be released this fall.

"Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang," by J.E. Lighter. There's nothing worse than an over-educated linguist.

Sharon Miller is a freelance writer, graphic design artist and former editor of the now defunct publication Joe. She currently owns and manages an architectural firm.

Hon, run down to your bookstore and buy the recent best seller "Absolute Power," written, not coincidentally by a lawyer, David Baldacci, in which you will discover America today: a land where the government is corrupt and run by the sleaziest of politicos; crime is rife and is seen by both under and upper classes as a legitimate means to any end; nobody has any aspirations, goals, standards; all gratification is instant; the lawyers have all the money; and we're rapidly losing the ability to speak and write our country's language. Duh!

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