Friday, March 5, 2010

Book Review: "Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America" by Jay Parini.

[Similar version was published first at ]

"You know more than you think you do." So says an Olympic gold medal winner, and so begins a book that over sixty years later still influences the baby boomer generation. A book that espouses a kinder gentler approach to the journey from birth to adolescence. One of the founding myths/stories of our American heritage is the road trip. The story of two characters on a journey to freedom, either real or dreamed, the epitome of which, according to Hemingway, was penned by Mark Twain.

Since the Mayflower arrived in the New World, Americans have been on road trips. Whether it was the great unknown wilderness of Lewis and Clark or the quest for "it" as recounted by Kerouac, we've been searching. We learn from the journey and sometimes feel that when we have reached our destination, it stretches further out before us on the horizon. And we continue on. As individuals we continue the journey begun by our ancestors while seeking goals of our own along the way. Inspiration comes from our accomplishments and is driven by the efforts, desires, and dreams of previous generations passed along to us by oral family histories, diaries, journals, and books (both fiction and non-fiction).

A special collection of those books is celebrated in Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America by Jay Parini. The author teaches college in Vermont and has a long list of credits that add up to "literary scholar". He sees "..poetry as the most important form of writing," and has several collections of poetry, novels and biographies to his credit.
His selection criteria in his own words, "I was looking for books that played a role in shaping the nation's idea of itself or that consolidated and defined a major trend." It is clear that this is not a collection of America's "greatest books". Choosing could only be made less difficult by narrowing the focus; he includes a list of one hundred works that also changed the country with a confession that another hundred could have easily been added.

Parini has chosen his baker's dozen well. Included are significant works from politics, religion, adventure, exploration and philosophy. These books are filled with stories--memorable legends of both fact and fiction that describe our many interconnected journeys and the diverse experiences that make us Americans. He suggests questions to help us ponder the trip. His analysis inspires us to come up with our own questions. How could a country founded on the notion that all men are created equal allow slavery? How can we not be thought to be crazy or depraved when we push the boundaries of acceptable behavior? How can we change someone else's attitude without giving offense or arousing resentment? How could women not be allowed to vote? How much individual freedom are we willing to give up to be able to say we live in a free country?

A chapter is devoted to each book and treats each with the same format. He offers a brief summary of how the book changed the country. Next is a biography of the writer and historical context of the book. If you have not read the book, you will enjoy the third portion, a detailed description of the book. In some cases he details individual chapters. Despite this occasional level of detail, he manages to keep each chapter to approximately twenty pages. A discussion of the books that followed in the wake of the subject work concludes each section. In some cases, books that came before or inspired this particular work are mentioned.

Prior to reading this book I had never considered the importance of "the road trip". It was enlightening to see the diversity in the types of trips, the parallel motives and lessons learned along the way. The most memorable benefit of this book for me was the connections that came to mind while reading. Many of the stories reminded me of other books I've read on my own journey. I can ride on the raft with Huck and Tom, stand on the shore with Eliza, enjoy Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims or ride a chopper with Dennis Hopper. I can participate in my country's grand experiment in self-governing and I can speak with confidence in front of a group. Somehow it's easier to bear my own cross down the road to the promised land because of the journeys of my ancestors and mentors. The books chosen by Parini helped me to see that they, along with many other books I've enjoyed, have not only changed America, they have changed my generation, shaped my thoughts and made me who I am. I read not only to learn, I read to survive.


  1. You echo my mind on all things literary. Your closing paragraph was so true.

    I can ride in the raft with Huck and Tom.

    I read not only to learn, but to survive.

    These words could be mine. Well said!

  2. Sounds like an interesting read. It's amazing how books can come along that transform & change nations & generations. The power of words!

  3. Thank you all for your comments!