The very best books to guide an understanding of America

February 14, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

Please read the question at the top of this page, then the 25 responses. I think the reason I so much enjoy these occasional informal surveys about books and ideas is the interplay: The joining of perceptions and flickerings of visions -- meetings of minds.

Any single question and a two-sentence restriction on the answer are outrageous impositions on the wisdom and expressiveness of the respondents. Accept the question as a provocation. And the answers must be taken as the same.

It is very interesting, I believe, that among 25 smart and wise women and men recommending the best one-volume guidance for new Americans, only two books received more than one nomination. Neither should come as a surprise. Both are indisputably sound choices: Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" and John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage."

The essence of America, the heart of the nation, was central to at least two other survey exercises on these pages.

At the end of June in 1996, I asked for nominations for the Great American Novel. Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" led the list with four votes, followed by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," with three each.

A year later, I asked a different set of readers and writers to cite what they felt was the worst widely celebrated American novel. Interestingly, four of those respondents chose "Moby Dick." No one damned "Huck Finn," but there was one "worst" citation for "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Those novel questions could not have elicited de Tocqueville or Kennedy citations, since both are works of nonfiction. But I find it pleasing that among our 25 respondents today, five chose novels -- imaginative and daring tributes to the truth-seeking role of fiction and of art generally.

I will take "Moby Dick" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as irreplaceable building blocks of a sense of Americanness. But my delight in free spirits is nourished by the fact that these two books also made it into the ranks of the worst.

It is an almost universal characteristic of the novel to delve deeply into the character of a person or -- as is often the case with serious American fiction -- into the nature of America as a society from the inside. Nonfiction works of serious intent often play the same insider's role, even more directly. So it's particularly engaging that today's choice by Gov. Glendening and Mayor Schmoke -- two of our three respondents in the highest public offices -- was an outsider's look at the meaning of America, written 164 years ago.

Alexis Charles-Henri-Maurice Clerel de Tocqueville died, age 54, in 1859, after a studious and intermittently politically successful life that was dominated by the revolutionary turmoils of his native France. In 1831 and 1832, still in his 20s, he spent nine busy months in the United States with his close friend Gustave de Beaumont. Both these seekers of political understanding were convinced that because of its newness as a society, America would increasingly become the world's great laboratory of democracy.

In that era of French instability, with memories of bloody violence still very fresh, many of even the most liberal-minded Europeans were terrified by the potential for excess inherent in untrammeled democracy. The American travels of de Tocqueville convinced him that prospects were less threatening than he had imagined.

That trip led in 1835 to the first of four volumes of his "Democracy in America," an evolving examination of political ideas that ranged far beyond his observations of the United States by the time he completed it in 1840.

It's folly to try to reduce anything complicated to simple declarations, and de Tocqueville is very complicated. But few would dispute that America was particularly well-equipped by attitude and social prospects -- in the mid-1800s as it is now -- to preserve both liberty and intellectual progress while extending democratic inclusiveness.

Today, de Tocqueville is credited with extraordinarily precise recognition of the importance in America of religious faith, of family and community solidarity, of the widespread promises of ambition, a free market and a free press. Whether or not you voted for them, both Glendening and Schmoke know deeply that of which they speak in their citation.

So what about books and who we are? To find any single life that has not been developed, enriched, muscled up by books most often is to run across a very barren life. But to say that books -- or, certainly, any single book -- can define the American essence, the vastly diverse American people, would be outrageously disrespectful of human individuality, uniqueness.

Putting forward 23 often apparently incompatible books that can contribute to such a definition, however, is both a delight and a nourishment. The interplay of the backgrounds and personalities of the 25 contributors and their tightly focused thumbnail observations is a delicious provocation.

But fair is fair. I put it upon 25 others, so I must answer, too. My choice today is Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" -- because I know no other book in current time that more fully and demandingly examines with such literary craft and precision the major dynamics -- social, economic, political -- that permeate American society at the end of the century.

I deliver that pronouncement with heartfelt modesty -- and in the hope that in a month's time -- or a year's -- I might come up with some other book, so far unread or unimagined. I do so not disagreeing with any of the other answers on these two pages, all of which I applaud -- as I do the generosity of those 25 busy women and men who have enriched these pages.

Pub Date: 02/14/99

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