Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"Thirteen Books that Changed America"

Monday morning, my friend Jessica alerted me that Jay Parini was going to be on WBUR's "On Point with Tom Ashbrook." She told me this because she knew how much I admire Jay and his writing.

I first met Jay when I attended Bread Loaf Writers Conference under a fiction scholarship in the summer of 2005. Jay was the instructor for my group of twelve writers. We each brought a short story manuscript to workshop. The morning before we workshopped my story, Jay told me he dreamed about Sail, the 10-year-old protagonist in my story. "Sail is such an unforgettable character," Jay said to me. These were the warmest words I had ever heard about my writing, especially surprising as they came from such a prominent author, at a low point of my writing career. I had submitted that story to many magazines, only to receive form rejections. Toward the end of the conference, Jay surprised me even more by recommending the story for the Best New American Voices anthology. Though in the end it did not get in, Jay had saved my writing career. That story, now titled "Feathers," is included in Apologies Forthcoming.

After the conference, I occasionally emailed Jay. I did so a bit gingerly, worrying about disturbing him. But he always replied. He has no airs. This is a rare quality in a great writer, in a time when it's common for established authors to be dismissive of newcomers. Jay stands out not only for his masterful writing, deep insights and great humor, but also his generosity and big heart. He has won forever my respect and fondness.

Listening to Jay's talk on WBUR Monday, I was very pleased to find that his new book, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America, is just what I need. I've always wanted to learn about American history more systematically and thoroughly; what a fun way to do it via discussion of influential books! Jay's book comes just in time for me to get myself a very nice Christmas gift.

Here are the thirteen books Jay is talking about (h/t

- Of Plymouth Plantation (1620-47), by William Bradford
- The Federalist Papers (1787-88)
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793)
- The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1803-06)
- Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), by Mark Twain
- The Souls of Black Folk (1903), by W.E.B. DuBois
- The Promised Land (1912), by Mary Antin
- How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), by Dale Carnegie
- The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946), by Benjamin Spock
- On the Road (1957), by Jack Kerouac
- The Feminine Mystique (1963), by Betty Friedan

Interestingly, and I'm quite proud to say, during my childhood and youth I've read at least three of the thirteen in Chinese translation (in comparison, my American husband had only read two: "Walden and Huck Finn," he said), which are:

- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Huckleberry Finn

As I recall, those were popular books in China at the time. Ironically though, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had served as evidence to support China's anti-America propaganda in the 1960s and 70s. And all of us school kids had bought into the notion that the capitalist America had nothing good but was full of racial discrimination and labor exploitation. This is not much different from the way average Americans view China today: that the communist country has nothing good but is full of human rights suppression and government corruption. I'm sure Americans got that simplified notion from reading some well-written books, just like we Chinese did. Once again, reading diversely is crucial for real understanding.

On the radio, in answering an audience question, Jay said another book, Whitman's Grass, would have been the 14th in his list but was reluctantly left out because not many people read it upon its original publication. Interestingly though, the Chinese translation of Grass was a most popular poetry book among Chinese writers and poets when I lived in China.

Now I wonder, if I come up with a list of 13 most influential contemporary Chinese books, how many would have been introduced to America? I wouldn't even ask how many have been read by Americans.

Another thought: it would be an interesting research to find out which American books have been most influential in China. I can think of a few already. I would love to conduct this research if someone is willing to sponsor it.

"Reading is thinking, and writing is thinking," Jay said on the radio. That is exactly what I feel. Thank you, Jay, for saying this!

The holiday is upon us and let me stop here for now. Merry Christmas, everyone!


judy said...

I would love to see your list oChnese influetial books!

Dan said...

Great post. Great ideas. I can hardly wait to see what people say. Obviously Mao's Little Red Book would go on a couple of the lists....

But that one's just too easy...

jessica lipnack said...

Glad you caught the show, X. What an interesting list Jay has chosen. Those of us growing up in America probably all have stories to tell about our relationship to these particular titles. I certainly do - except for the one that, glancing quickly at its opening paragraphs, I should know best as it is my grandparents' story: The Promised Land, which I've never even heard of. Seeing Dale Carnegie here makes me laugh; seeing Dr. Spock makes me happy; and seeing Betty Friedan makes me proud...And, having taught (blogging!) at the Lewis and Clark Center at Fort Leavenworth earlier this year, I can appreciate what their journal must hold.

I'd really love to see your list of American books that have influenced you personally.