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Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity

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Overview

From the author of the New York Times bestselling How to Read Literature Like a Professor comes a highly entertaining and informative new book on the twenty-five works of literature that have most shaped the American character. Foster applies his much-loved combination of wit, know-how, and analysis to explain how each work has shaped our very existence as readers, students, teachers, and Americans.

Foster illuminates how books such as The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, My ...

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Twenty-five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity

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Overview

From the author of the New York Times bestselling How to Read Literature Like a Professor comes a highly entertaining and informative new book on the twenty-five works of literature that have most shaped the American character. Foster applies his much-loved combination of wit, know-how, and analysis to explain how each work has shaped our very existence as readers, students, teachers, and Americans.

Foster illuminates how books such as The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, My Ántonia, The Great Gatsby, The Maltese Falcon, Their Eyes Were Watching God, On the Road, The Crying of Lot 49, and others captured an American moment, how they influenced our perception of nationhood and citizenship, and what about them endures in the American character. Twenty-five Books That Shaped America is a fun and enriching guide to America through its literature.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

University of Michigan professor Thomas C. Foster has established a healthy extracurricular reputation as the creator of engaging intros to classics. In fact, his How to Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor have won readerships far beyond the classrooms. His new Twenty-five Books That Shaped America serves a comparable purpose by placing seminal works within the context of our national myths and philosophy. Some of his book selections are predictable (Leaves of Glass; Huckleberry Finn; Walden); others, like Cat in the Hat, Love Medicine, and Song of Solomon, less so. An insightful refresher course on the books that made us who we are.

Publishers Weekly
Works of imaginative literature from American writers are Foster's choice for his "Great Books" list. Despite stilted language, Foster says, Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans makes the cut because Cooper shows us what a real, sprung-from-the-soil American hero looks like, and because it gave us the first mixed-race buddy story—a notable achievement in a racist time. Foster (How to Read Literature Like a Professor) doesn't much like The Scarlet Letter, but includes it because of Hawthorne's discerning eye for folly, hypocrisy, redemption, and our capacity for error. Walden's importance is about being that still point in the turning world; with Moby-Dick, Melville proves himself America's avatar of complex, even mad narrative; and The Great Gatsby is the most devastating portrait of capitalism run wild in Roaring 20s New York. Among the titles rounding out the list are Leaves of Grass, Huck Finn, My Antonia, The Cat in the Hat, On the Road, Song of Solomon, and Love Medicine. Foster tries to balance the list with women and African-American and Latino writers, though the classic canon and much of the list is predictable. But Foster is a witty, quirkily provocative and perceptive literary critic. (June)
Janice A. Radway
“Funny, challenging, clear, and always insightful, this intriguing book will make you think again about what it means to be an American.”
Library Journal
Foster (English, Univ. of Michigan, Flint: How To Read Literature like a Professor) is quick to admit that selecting just 25 books to discuss how they helped shape and define a nation is "obviously insane," but he writes that these 25 are simply to be illustrative, not definitive. If you can get past how arbitrary this all seems, Foster's actual writing—breezy, smart, and funny—is a pleasure if a bit too cute. For example, he admits that he would prefer to write about The House of the Seven Gables ("it has a character named Hepzibah, and how often does one of those come along?") over The Scarlet Letter, but "all the world thinks otherwise," so discusses the latter. Nonetheless, Foster's chapters, which include overviews of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Little Women, My Antonia, The Crying of Lot 49, and Song of Solomon, may make you want to read, or reread, the books themselves. Foster concludes by briefly mentioning 15 additional books. VERDICT The book is a delight to read, but the author is not brave in his choices and doesn't take any stands. Not for scholars, but entertaining enough that people familiar with the titles may well enjoy it as much as readers new to many of the books covered.—William D. Walsh, Georgia State Univ., Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews

A genial guide to American literature from the bestselling author ofHow to Read Literature Like a Professor(2003) andHow to Read Novels Like a Professor(2008).

Call this oneHow to Read the American Myth Like a Professor. For his 25 selections, Foster (English/Univ. of Michigan, Flint) gravitates toward texts that bolster the folksier conception of Americans: rough-hewn, individualistic, fun-loving but concerned about family, full of prejudices but generally assimilating. Those familiar themes are underscored by the familiar books included here:The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,Leaves of Grass,The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn andThe Adventures of Augie Marchare sacred texts of freewheeling independence;WaldenandMy Antoniaare praise songs to nature and the heartland;Go Down, Moses, On the Road andThe Crying of Lot 49showcase the wildness of American experimentalism. Foster doesn't mean to simplify these texts: In the better essays, he reveals Melville's complicated moral territory and the politics that pushed John Dos Passos' epic U.S.A. trilogy out of favor. When the author dedicates himself to close reading, as he does in chapters on Faulkner and Robert Frost, he unlocks plenty of insights. But with roughly 10 pages devoted to each classic, Foster is forced to generalize about the importance of each, making for bromides and upbeat interpretations. For instance, when he says a key message ofThe Grapes of Wrathis that "people can be generous and supportive and decent and even civic-minded when the profit motive is absent," he's not wrong, but he's softening a novel that throws hard elbows at the profit motive. Many readers will wish they had a high-school English teacher as cheery and engaged as Foster, but that doesn't make his choices feel any less outdated. He includesThe Last of the Mohicanseven though he admits that it's a slog, and the most recent book on the list, Louise Erdrich'sLove Medicine, was published more than 25 yeas ago.

A too-polite American Lit 101 primer.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061834400
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/24/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 214,650
  • Product dimensions: 7.84 (w) x 5.38 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas C. Foster is a professor of English at the University of Michigan-Flint, where he teaches contemporary fiction, drama, and poetry as well as creative writing and composition. He is the author of Twenty-five Books That Shaped America and several books on twentieth-century British and Irish fiction and poetry. He lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: In the Four Corners xi

1 Maybe Just a Little Made-Up: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin 1

2 A Man, a Plan, a Flintlock: The Last of the Mohicans 17

3 The Allegory Man Cometh: The Scarlet Letter 27

4 Gotta Get Back to the Pond and Set My Soul Free: Walden 43

5 I've Been Workin' on the Whale-Road: Moby-Dick 55

6 The Good Gray Poet, My Eye!: Leaves of Grass 69

7 Girls Gone Mild: Little Women 83

8 About a Boy-and a Raft: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 95

9 Twofer: A Boy's Will and North of Boston 107

10 In Praise of Prairie: My Ántonia 123

11 A Whole Heap of Ashes: The Great Gatsby 135

12 Life Is a Carnival: The Sun Also Rises 147

13 It Takes a Weary Man to Sing a Weary Song: The Weary Blues 159

14 The Bird Is the Word: The Maltese Falcon 171

15 So Big: U.S.A. 183

16 The Winepress of Injustice: The Graces of Wrath 195

17 Like a Hurricane: Their Eyes Were Watching God 205

18 He Ain't Heavy, He's My Cousin: Go Down, Moses 217

19 American Candide: The Adventures of Augie March 235

20 Me and My Shadow: On the Road 247

21 When Reading Got Good: The Cat in the Hat 259

22 Walk a Mile in My Shoes: To Kill a Mockingbird 271

23 Not in Kansas Anymore: The Crying of Lot 49 281

24 Race. Relations.: Song of Solomon 295

25 Home, Home on the Res: Love Medicine 305

Conclusion: Fifteen More and the G.A.N. 317

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 11, 2013

    Thought-provoking and informative

    From both a cultural and literary point of view, this is a very informative book. Thomas Foster did a thorough job of presenting the connections, and yet the reader doesn't get bogged down in unnecessary details. Great book that I recommend for all bibliophiles!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2013

    Lionrun

    Hey i missed you

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2013

    Gingerpaw

    Thank you poppystripe! He races off to cottondusk.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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