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Originally published Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Promised Land" looks at books that shaped who we are

Jay Parini's "Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America" shows that books as different as "The Federalist Papers," "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "How to Win Friends and Influence People" exerted a powerful influence in shaping America's culture.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America"

by Jay Parini

Doubleday, 385 pp., $24.95

Some books are so well-known that almost no one actually reads them. They have had so much influence that we "know" them merely by living in the world they have helped create. And yet, as the distinguished poet, novelist and critic Jay Parini demonstrates in "Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America," there's a lot to learn by giving them another (or a first) look.

"The Federalist Papers"? "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin"? "Uncle Tom's Cabin"? Or how about "How to Win Friends and Influence People" or "The Feminine Mystique"? Most of us can probably say something about each of them, maybe even something true, but very probably at the expense of reducing a complex thesis to the dimensions of a bumper sticker.

Parini gives a quick but faithful summary of each book, as well as a brief social history: how the book was received, how its reputation has changed, how it shaped later writers and thinkers — including in some cases Parini himself, who in this reappraisal of our literary past becomes our surrogate everyman, albeit an uncommonly sensitive and articulate one.

In one of his many illuminating discussions, he demonstrates that "The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care," better known as "Dr. Spock," offered clearheaded guidance to young parents who found themselves isolated from traditional networks of support with the great migration to the suburbs after World War II. Later, when Spock became a figure in the nuclear-disarmament movement, he made a convenient target for those who needed someone to blame for what seemed to be an entire generation's rush to anarchy. But the book itself, Parini shows, hardly supports the "permissive label" it has since been given. "Spock argues that logical consequences should follow bad behavior," Parini says. Hard to argue with that.

This eclectic assortment ranges from the 17th-century "Of Plymouth Plantation" by William Bradford, the book that helped establish Old World sensibilities in America, to the early 20th-century "The Souls of Black Folk," by W.E.B. Du Bois, a book that revealed that the Civil War hadn't resolved nearly as much as many Americans believed it had. And there's "On the Road," Jack Kerouac's mid-20th-century paean to freedom, a "quest for a promised land, that far, impossible shore where liberty and equality flourish and where every vote counts," in Parini's words.

Parini doesn't gloss over weaknesses. In a generally laudatory account of "The Feminine Mystique," by Betty Friedan, a landmark in the feminist movement, he acknowledges that her "survey of the culture often seems cursory and reductive." Of course, it is the "cursory and reductive" way of looking at things — and of talking about books! — that Parini's own book means to correct.

"Promised Land" tells us we're more literary than we might think, that in fact our culture is in part the product of literature that has become so embedded as to be almost invisible.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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