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?


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?

Kurt L. Schmoke is mayor of Baltimore.

I would recommend "Thinking About America: The United States in the 1990s." This is a collection of essays that asks the right questions about a wide range of issues relating to:

1. The quality of life of people in this country, and 2. the role of the United States in the global community.

Eileen M. Rehrmann currently serves as Harford County executive and is running for governor of the state of Maryland.

I suggest Charles Kuralt's "On the Road." It is a delightful book that shows a special spirit in America - people, personalities and potential - and gives great insight into what makes up our country. Anyone, even an alien, would learn a great deal about us and have fun at the same time.

Paul R. McHugh, M.D.

is Henry Phipps professor and the director of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. He, along with Phillip R. Slavney, M.D., authored "The Perspectives of Psychiatry," a standard text used in American medical schools. He has also written articles for the American Journal of Psychiatry, Medicine and Nature Medicine.

Contemporary America is a culture sour on its principles, irresolute in its practices and more confused than enriched by its diversity of traditions. The best book written in this half-century describing that culture and how it affects our lives, our fortunes and our honor is Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" and a contributing editor to "This American Life" on Public Radio International.

I'd offer a little green man with a hankering for the red white and blue a copy of Steve Erickson's brilliant "American Nomad." And since this book is so acute, accurate and poetic on politics and pop culture, i.e., dark as hell, I'd hand him a big bottle of bourbon to go with it because its insights will drive any organism to drink.

Elijah Cummings represents the seventh congressional district of Maryland and has served in the United States Congress since 1996.

"Things Hoped For," by Dr. Samuel Proctor. The author talks about helping people be lifted up by opening doors of opportunity and carrying out small acts of kindness. It is the granting of these opportunities and these acts that enable individuals to be the best that they can be. They in turn become the fabric of our society.

Nancy R. Norris directs the Master of Liberal Arts Program at Johns Hopkins University and teaches several M.L.A seminars, including "Faulkner's Fiction: Beneath the Southern Facade."

I recommend that the alien read William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" because it remains the most in-depth portrait of the racial, sexual and cultural conflicts that continue to plague the entire United States, not just the South, today. Since the alien is "fluent," it should have no trouble deciphering the complex narrative structure through which Faulkner conveys the tortured tale of Thomas Sutpen and his family, slaves and neighbors.

Steve Weinberg is editor of the Journal, a bimonthly magazine published by Investigative Reporters & Editors, based at the University of Missouri Journalism School.

I would suggest your alien read "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History," by Leo Braudy. The Oxford University Press original edition from 1986 is fine; the Vintage Books trade paperback from 1997, with a new Afterword, is better. Here is the explanation: From George Washington to Madonna, Americans have been fascinated with fame - fame based on remarkable accomplishment, fame as a public relations creation, and many gradations between the two. By harking back to ancient Greece and moving forward in time, Braudy, a University of Southern California English professor, explains how it all happened.

John Waters is a filmmaker, author and chronicler of Baltimore. His book "Director's Cut" was published last year and his new film "Pecker" will be released this fall.

"Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang," by J.E. Lighter. There's nothing worse than an over-educated linguist.

Sharon Miller is a freelance writer, graphic design artist and former editor of the now defunct publication Joe. She currently owns and manages an architectural firm.

Hon, run down to your bookstore and buy the recent best seller "Absolute Power," written, not coincidentally by a lawyer, David Baldacci, in which you will discover America today: a land where the government is corrupt and run by the sleaziest of politicos; crime is rife and is seen by both under and upper classes as a legitimate means to any end; nobody has any aspirations, goals, standards; all gratification is instant; the lawyers have all the money; and we're rapidly losing the ability to speak and write our country's language. Duh!

Donna Crivello is owner of Donna's coffe bars and a former editor at The Sun.

What first came to mind was "The Joy of Cooking," Written in 1931. It has been revised through the '40s, '60s, '70s, '80s and even in the '90s. It's just an amazing book. And it has everything about our culture, who we are, what we eat, how we celebrate our holidays. How we shop. And if you can say that people are what they eat, then you could really get a whole lot from "The Joy of Cooking." A quote in the front (1974 edition) from Faust: "That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it."

Ellen Sauerbrey is Republican gubernatorial candidate of Maryland.

"The Death of Common Sense," by Philip Howard. Americans historically have been a very practical people. This book shows how many of America's problems today stem from our departure from a common-sense approach to public policy.

James Bready wrote for The Evening Sun for many years as a reporter and a book editor. He writes a monthly column on Maryland books.

For the alien, obviously, a Yellow Pages, so it could see how diverse a polity we are, an economy, a society. Then present it a One Big Book and a mound of other phone books, showing how complicated our communications, genealogies and spellings are. For the alien, a bank book, with balance. Then when ET wants to call home, maybe it'll have enough money.

Eduardo Gonzalez is professor of Latin American Studies, and Film and Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

John E. Mack's "Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens." So that the alien from outer-space - rather than Mexico - could learn about the extent of our despair, and if the creature were not immortal, die laughing.

Paul West, The Sun's Washington bureau chief, has worked as a reporter in the capital for almost 20 years. He helped cover this summer's Senate hearing on financing of the 1996 presidential campaign.

"Understanding Media" by Marshall McLuhan. Decades before "The Truman Show," McLuhan anticipated the Information Age and modern life in the nerve center of the global village. We have, indeed, become what we behold.

Jon Morgan writes about sports business for The Sun and is the author of "Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL."

"Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65," by Taylor Branch. There can be no understanding of America, past or present, without a thorough examination of its racial divides. Diversity has always made America unique among nations; the ensuing conflicts pock our history and hover pervasively over the great debates of our time: crime and punishment, housing, budgets, education, social justice, economic opportunity, representational government.

Sandy Levy is director of Library & Information Services for The Sun and has worked for The Sun since 1994. Before that she worked as an information specialist at the Health Sciences Library at UMAB.

"Bonfire of the Vanities," by Tom Wolfe. As timely now as when it was published 10 years ago, it skewers much of what is America today - courts, politicians, police, the press, organized religion, marriage, the very greedy rich and the very angry poor - and shows they have at least as much in common as they have differences. Everyone's so busy looking out for number one we've lost sight of the high ideals on which the U.S. was founded.

Craig Eisendrath, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, serves on the board of the Interfaith Council on the Holocaust. His play about Jewish anti-Nazi resister Lisa Fittko, "The Angel of History," recently received a New Play Commission in Jewish Theatre from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Alien sir, read "The Americans," a three-volume history of the United States by Daniel J. Boorstin. Boorstin's rampaging bibliography draws on an astounding range of sources to tell the American story in all its richness.

Sangeeta Ray is an associate professor of English and the director of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I would recommend "Typical American" by the Chinese-American woman writer Gish Jen. The novel captures the trials, tribulations and putative triumphs of a Chinese-American family as they struggle to come to terms with the vagaries of life in the U.S. The novel plays wittily and poignantly with the notion of what it means to be a typical American even as it recasts the dominant image in the figures of its first-generation Chinese male and female characters.

Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and others.

The great 19th-century novelists assumed that part of their task was to capture the spirit of the age; but many modern writers seem content simply to capture the spirit of one person. Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" is one of the few American novels of recent years to give the proper epic treatment to our astoundingly ambitious and corrupt age.

Joan Mellen has published 13 books, is completing a memoir titled "An Enemy in the House," and working on a biography about Jim Garrison, the late New Orleans prosecutor. She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Alien: Do not be misled by reading our mainstream media, which for more than 30 years overwhelmingly has subscribed to the view that the assassination of President Kennedy was an anomalous event that produced no effect on the fragile democracy of this Republic. Read Jim Garrison's "On the Trail of the Assassins" and consider the possibility that you have landed in a "national security state," one ostensibly with a representative government yet which in fact is ruled by a military-industrial-intelligence complex. Could the murder of the American president in 1963 have been a coup d'etat?

Benjamin L. Cardin represents the third congressional district of Maryland and has served in United States Congress since 1987.

I recommend "Profiles in Courage" by John F. Kennedy. To understand our political system, one must understand that it is dependent on the moral courage of individual people. In "Profiles in Courage," John Kennedy used the political careers of four Americans to illustrate how courage and leadership can shape history.

M. Dion Thompson is a features writer at The Sun. He has also worked as assistant bureau chief in the Anne Arundel bureau. He has been writing for newspapers for 12 years. In addition to The Sun, he has worked at the Miami Herald and the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

"Bonfire of the Vanities," by Tom Wolfe. Why: You see all these billionaires and millionaires on Wall Street, the political/racial theater going on from coast to coast, the stratifications of race and class, and the dizzying love of celebrity? Well, here's a tale from the days when all that exploded on us, and it comes with a few laughs included.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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