463: Where do you find yourself in these three provocative portraits of America?

ALL THIS WEEK, we’re searching for glimpses of our American “Spirit” as we approach the July 4 weekend. On Monday, we shared snapshots captured by some creative college students. This week, the OurValues.org Web site is asking: What unites—and divides—Americans?

    TODAY, we’ve got news about three new books: You might completely overlook this trio—but all three are vivid opportunities to explore America’s heart and soul. What’s more—they’re all great summer reading.

(Thanks Again, Harvey Pekar!)

    Younger readers may not appreciate the creative bombshell Studs Terkel dropped in 1974 with the publication of “Working.” Journalists like myself were indelibly stamped by the exciting possibilities of this thing called oral history. (Studs Terkel, of course, was steeped in this literary form since before WWII.) To appreciate the spiritual insight in this book, consider its full subtitle: “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.”
    When I opened up the front cover of “Working” in ’74, I was hooked! I’m not sure I even slept that first night. It was like Studs had opened up a new front door to America and I couldn’t stop meeting people—chapter after chapter. Just like Studs, I wanted to grow up to help Americans see the beauty of our crazy-quilt culture.
    In the book, Studs let dozens of people tell what I would describe as the most important spiritual stories of their lives—the meaning they find in daily living. Or, in some cases, Studs’ storytellers talked about what keeps them from finding greater meaning in their lives. Along the way, Studs talked with a janitor, a piano tuner, a dentist, a baseball player, a spot welder, a hospital aide—on and on.
    There was so much energy in his album of American life that comic-book guru Harvey Pekar now has turned “Working” into a real album—with pictures! Pekar and other writers adapted Studs’ chapters for graphic treatment and worked with top artists in new-style comics and graphic novels.
    If you’re looking for America this week—start here! You’ll have a ball with this big, thick comic book about the U.S.A.


    If you’ve read this far, then you’re probably among our many readers who share a special concern for America’s minorities. Over the years, I’ve interviewed historian Howard Zinn and I’ve experienced first hand his passion for correcting historical imbalances when it comes to men and women marginalized in American life.
    Zinn’s “alternative” histories have become classroom favorites over the past three decades. I even spotted the trademark red-white-and-blue cover of his “A People’s History” in HBO’s “Sopranos”—in an episode featuring a heated debate between Italian immigrants and Native Americans.
    Zinn didn’t stop with that one bestselling textbook. Two years ago, “A Young People’s History of the United States” was released in a couple of hardback volumes. Now, this summer, the “Young People’s” version is available in a nicely designed paperback edition. There are dozens of sepia pictures sprinkled through the book and nice big type that’s easy on the eyes. This is a great summer read for adults who want to bone up on American history—and who welcome Zinn’s special attention to the plight of the underdogs.


    Edmund S. Morgan ranks with Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn as a major shaper of the way we understand American history. From the 1950s into the 1980s, he taught history at Yale—and, along the way, he taught the rest of America how to teach history. President Bill Clinton bestowed the National Humanities Medal on him in 2000 and, in 2006, he won the Pulitzer.
    In this new volume, “American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America,” Norton has collected 16 pieces by Morgan that profile people in America’s early centuries. Famous names like Christopher Columbus and Benjamin Franklin are included. But you’ll also meet a host of people of more interest to the likes of Terkel and Zinn.
    The original versions of these Morgan chapters appeared in various forms over the decades that he was teaching—but some chapters appear for the first time in this new book. Like the previous two books recommended today, this is written in a comfortable tone for general readers, making it a solid choice for summer reading.
    This is not stodgy stuff, despite the appearance of the cover. The book cover features a painting of “founding fathers” and the title sounds like a tired old hymn of praise to heroes, as well. But here’s the kind of counterpoint Morgan loves to share with readers. In the opening pages, Morgan explains that he shares Benjamin Franklin’s skepticism of anyone who claims to be a “hero.” Here’s the Franklin quote that Morgan includes in his book—well worth passing along to friends …

    “There are three great destroyers of mankind. Plague, Famine and Hero. Plague and Famine destroy your persons only, and leave your goods to your Heirs; but Hero, when he comes, takes life and goods together; his business and glory it is to destroy man and the works of man. … Hero, therefore, is the worst of the three.” (Benjamin Franklin)


    How could we end this list without a book by a Native American? We’re very proud, at ReadTheSpirit, to have commissioned Warren Petoskey (an Odawa and Lakotah elder) to produce, “Dancing My Dream,” an American Indian memoir.
    Check out Warren’s Web site to learn more and read samples.
    We’ve even added audio and video of Warren, plus we’re beginning to include recommended Web links to other important Native American Web sites.

    Come back on Wednesday for a special Conversation With Rebecca Barnes-Davies, who helps religious groups develop plans for “Creation care.” She’s got a terrific game plan with 50 different strategies you can try—and she will tell you about a few of them, tomorrow.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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