three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
Jay Parini
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0
Award Year: 
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Thirteen Books That Changed America

A-Promised LandJay Parini, a professor at Middlebury College who has written novels, poetry, criticism, and literary biographies of Frost, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, examines how 13 works of literature have affected America.

The Topic: According to Parini, various works "played a role in shaping the nation’s idea of itself," thus embodying the intellectual heritage of the United States. Starting with William Bradford’s 17th-century work Of Plymouth Plantation, Parini moves chronologically through American history, visiting stalwarts such as Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain, as well as offbeat voices like Dale Carnegie, Mary Antin, and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Each chapter includes a description of the selected book and an analysis of its origins and lasting legacies. These accounts come together as Parini attempts to draw a lineage between the books, showing how, for example, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road expanded on the idea of exploration and expansion in the writings of Lewis and Clark.
Doubleday. 385 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780385522762

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Naturally, a major part of the fun lies in arguing with the author. Or in venturing further afield. … Perhaps inevitably, Parini, a professor of English, is more reliable in his literary assessments than on historical fact." Alan Cate

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[Parini] focuses on a series of books—some more interesting than great—that he believes touched the broadest possible audience with ideas that shifted the nation›s way of thinking. … Reading Mr. Parini’s descriptions of these 13 books feels like watching a time-lapse film of cultural evolution—with the perennial motifs of American life changing colors and sprouting the odd appendage over the course of two centuries." Wes Davis

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"[The book] takes a more broadly historical and cultural perspective, yielding an erudite work aimed at the intellectually curious general reader. The excitements here are decidedly more intellectual than aesthetic." Heller McAlpin

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Parini excels with his most unconventional selection: How to Win Friends and Influence People. … But the best pages here, which are also the quirkiest, whet the appetite for a more unusual, more personal—and, frankly, more interesting—work waiting to be written in which this intelligent author ignores his self-imposed limits and writes only about the books that matter most to him." Wendy Smith

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"The 13 winners of the Parini sweepstakes are well-considered and worthy reading, but none of them had the kind of impact that could affect history. … There are only three novels on Parini’s list and only one, Uncle Tom›s Cabin, made a splash big enough to track." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

While critics agreed that the 13 works offered by Parini are seminal, they all thought that his short list was, well, too short. Some critics thought that, fundamentally, Parini set far too ambitious a goal and therefore found the book disappointing; others were happy to quibble with the works he selected. Second-guessing the author’s choices is part of the fun, of course. Parini also included a bonus list of 100 additional influential books for readers to consider. However, a few critics cited some of the analysis as dull; the parts where Parini personalizes his selection (as in Carnegie’s How to Win Friends) fared much better. In sum, Promised Land perhaps promises more than it delivers, but it is nonetheless a good starting point for understanding America’s influential literary heritage.