A question for July 4: Can a book explain America?


From time to time, as today, we record on these pages responses to more or less outrageous questions somehow related to books. Next Saturday is the United States of America's 222nd birthday. (Satanists, of course, will note it is exactly one-third of 666, but let that pass.) With an eye to that occasion, though not to numerology, your faithful book editor conconcted this week's question:

"A fluently English-speaking alien from outer space pleads with you to help it understand the United States as it is today, as quickly as possible. What single book would you tell it to read and why?"

In previous years on this weekend, we have sought nominations for the Great American Novel and for the worst well-known American novel. Near Christmas, we have asked for the most nourishing book-gift ever received, and the most prayerful one ever given.

The idea of them all is to avoid the numbing - and I believe largely useless - cliche of lists and surveys and little seasonal catalogues so beloved in the book trade. You will find no "summer reading list" on these pages, unless you take the best-seller chart as one, which is as good an idea as most others.

If you want guidance for buying books - besides book reviews here and elsewhere - my advice is to go wandering around a bookstore, with no pressure of time, and grab what grabs you.

So, what about the question?

No single book, of course, can define America - or, for that matter, a single human being, which is why people go on writing biographies, even of those whose lives have been chronicled before.

Today's sample is not remotely statistically representative. We chose respondents on the basis of considered whim - with the hope that they would offer surprises with their perceptions of the state of the nation. Individually and collectively, they more than amply fulfilled those hopes.

It is a tough question. If someone had asked me, for publication, I very well might have suddenly remembered I had an appointment on the other side of Samara, or told him to behave himself and go away.

So, I am much grateful to those whose names appear on the next page. These are interesting people - with nerve. Please read what they have to say.

It is almost inevitable that any thoughtful pursuit of the question would turn on two points. One is a personal assessment of America today; the other, an estimate of where America is - or, perhaps, should be - going.

At a dinner the other night, something very close to a consensus emerged from a serious discussion: that Americans are now suffering from a deep sense of purposelessness. In a time of the greatest prosperity and general peace in the history of the human race, it was argued, people feel they are unable to accomplish anything, to find the worthwhile.

To the extent that the proposition is correct - to those for whom it applies - I would argue that "The Metamorphosis" - that most telling tale of Franz Kafka's - explains that sense of impotence and uselessness better than any contemporary American novel. The main character awakes to find he has become a huge, hideous insect, and then slowly dies from family neglect and personal despair.

Of course, Kafka was not an American, and was also insane. The core of that most profoundly disoriented and disorienting book, the awful sense of loneness, of the incapacity be loved or to love, to care, is a haunting theme among a significant slice of the American population.

But no one who responded to our question took so grim a view, though interestingly, I find, none cited a book that celebrates the capacity of humankind - or American-kind - to improve the nature of Earth and its peoples.

If I had to choose one book, perhaps it would be Nathaniel West's "The Day of the Locust." Its theme is the ursurpation of real life by Hollywood fantasy - ending the book with an apocalyptic conflagration. It brilliantly examines the too-often primary focus of American consciousnesses: illusion, "entertainment," evasion of the real, fantasy-living.

Written in 1939, it may not be acutely contemporary, but I believe it defines brilliantly what the Disney Company is doing, what makes American films, what is controlling the awareness, the internal dynamics of a great number of people who spend their days hypnotized by television or computer games.

Among the answers here, the greatest surprise was that only one work received more than one nomination and that got four out of 22 - an astonishing concordance among people of quite different frames of reference.

I agree with them - as I do with the others, of course: There is profound truth and insight in Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" - an intricately woven tapestry of the utter superficiality of what is taken as success, and the hypocrisy and impotence of the law, politics and institutions.

Wolfe has not suffered from lack of popular attention, but I believe he has generally been perceived, or presented, as being less important than he really is. "Bonfire" is a great book. I cannot imagine that intelligent people will not be reading it a century from now, two centuries.

And Wolfe's next book, "A Man in Full," also a novel, is due to go on the market this November. Watch this space.

Want to read one - or more, or all - of the books cited? Electronics has made searching infinitely easier than even a few years ago. Any library or bookstore worth its shelf-life can tap into one computer program or another and tell you almost instantly where and how to borrow or buy virtually any book.

But for inspiration for summer reading - or any other season's - go prospecting in a book shop. Most of all, trust your instincts - and that glint in your eye.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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