I have scoured thousands of books about books over the years, and author Jess McHugh has made a delicious contribution to any collection of such books. Her newest work, Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books, tells the story of America as seen through several hugely successful, instructive books, such as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, and Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. We come to see their role in defining what it means to be American.
Further, it reveals how books not only defined what America actually was, but showed Americans how to realize a vision of something more, new, better. Her tome is clearly a great example of what books should aspire to be: reflective, instructive, inspiring. Each chapter could have been halved or doubled and it would not change the fact that she wastes no words in presenting a cogent and moving work. She reinvigorates life into the featured books, a gesture that will surely contribute to growing their already impressive legend.
Here is an interview with Jess McHugh:
inspired you to write Americanon? Better, yet, why is it needed?
I wrote this book because I felt like there was something missing from the American story—or rather, that there were a lot of things missing—and I don’t just mean absent from the sanitized version of American exceptionalism. People tend to understand the American story as something to be slowly uncovered, piece by piece, like a natural object. The actual origins of our culture are far more disparate, coming not only from presidents and revolutionaries but also from nationalist schoolteachers and scorned socialites. I think this perspective is necessary because we often have this limited perception of what makes for great or important books, and I wanted readers to understand that almanacs, cookbooks, and self-help books were just as important to Americans throughout history—if not more so—than great novels or political treatises.
You selected 13 popular books to tell the story of America. How do these
books do just that?
books shaped and redefined American identity by taking aspects of popular
culture—meritocracy, independence, self-reliance—and ingraining them into
people's daily habits. Whether an almanac that encouraged farmers to become
ideal citizens, or an etiquette book designed to allow people to achieve social
mobility, these books were doing far more than what exists on the surface
level. They took the things we like to believe about ourselves as Americans and
put them into the daily lives of millions of people, there to be read and
reread by generations of Americans.
Is there more than one side to our history -- and more than one way to tell each side?
I think there are so many sides to our history; it's no longer a question of telling "both sides"—it's about looking at the myriad perspectives that make up American history. Part of what I wanted to do here was both to look at our history through this alternative canon and also to be mindful of the many voices that are still left out of it: the narratives of working class Americans, Black Americans, women, and Indigenous peoples in particular.
As a journalist who has traveled across four continents to get a story, are
you concerned that real journalism is disappearing today?
really. The rise of television news and demagogic anchors is certainly cause
for concern, but I've never really considered that journalism. I know so many
journalists, especially for newspapers and magazines, who are willing to go to
lengths to get at the truth of the story: to travel to remote areas, to
interview people, and to seek untold stories. That gives me a lot of hope.
What are some of the books that made the cut?
All of the books I selected were nonfiction how-to books, based on their sales figures—usually in the tens of millions range. That includes everything from The Old Farmer's Almanac and Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography to How to Win Friends and Influence People, Webster's Dictionary, Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.
Can we really judge a nation by the books it
less about judging and more about using these books as a window in average
Americans' lives. Especially in a pre-TV and Internet age, we are what we read.
Especially when we're talking about books such as cookbooks or school primers
that are not read once but are read sometimes on a daily or near-daily basis.
In that way they serve as a kind of Freudian slip for what a nation believes
(or wants to believe) about itself.
How many of these books influenced or impacted you --either as a reader or the results of their publication?
grew up with many of these books: The Old Farmer's Almanac, Webster's
Dictionary, and Franklin's autobiography, to name a few. The dictionary was one
of those books that had the greatest effect on me, in a way that was strangely
similar to the way that some Americans used it centuries ago. When I was a
child, I used to read the dictionary thinking it would make me
"smart," but it instead just made me laughably bad at using words I
didn't understand (or know how to pronounce!). I was heartened to learn that so
many Americans throughout history also saw the dictionary as a tool of
self-education, even social mobility.
And of the books that got strong consideration for inclusion into your historical record , but didn't, what did you use to determine they didn't make the cut?
it was simply because they did not have the numbers behind them. In order to
make a broader argument about books that had a historical impact, I needed to
be able to say that they were national bestsellers and not just niche
Any advice for a struggling writer today?
Find some fellow struggling writers. Joining a writers' group: talk about
what's working or not working in each other's writing. Vent. Discuss pitches
Put yourself out there. Nearly every major byline I landed (The New York Times,
The Washington Post, TIME) came from my looking up an editor's email and
sending them a cold pitch. If you've got a good story, take a shot.
Get a job in a bar. I bartended for years before I got my book deal,
and it is a good way to combat the loneliness of writing (plus, free drinks).
What can we do to promote literacy -- and books -- in America today?
I love this question. The more we can get people interested in their local library or independent bookstore, the better—whether that's author talks or community events. I especially think that places where people can get together to talk about books are especially important. Join a book club, people! (And maybe read Americanon in it).
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