n the past three weeks, Americans have become understandably
about the future. In response, our customers have been
eager to learn as much as possible about Islam, the
Central Asia, terrorism, and myriad related subjects.
it's next to (though not
to find a book on any of these topics.
Yet perhaps a book about Osama bin Laden isn't the
to start anyway. If, as Heraclitus believed,
fate," then maybe the outcome of the coming months
determined more by who we are than by what we
Which of course begs the question.
But who we are is notoriously difficult to pin down. Universities have
entire departments devoted to the question. Powell's has aisles of books
on the subject. With so many titles to choose from, though, it can be
difficult to know what to read. The following three titles by no means
present a comprehensive overview of the American psyche. They do, though,
offer a place to start.
Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by
No other American has had as significant a role in
American values as the man who drafted the most
in American history: "We hold these truths to be
that all men are created equal, that they are endowed
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Thomas Jefferson has attained mythic status in the
As an icon of Freedom, Liberty, and Democracy, he is
invoked by advocates of all creeds and political
left, right, religious, scientific, etc.
But Jefferson, the man, is more troubling, one of the
personalities in our history. The same man who believed
in the fundamental right of every individual to
own fate owned more than two hundred slaves. The same
most eloquently declared the fundamental equality of
an elitist spendthrift. The same man who was a staunch
of racial integration had a long term sexual
one of his black slaves.
Brilliant but self-deluded, idealistic but
passionate but undisciplined — Thomas Jefferson, in
respects, embodied the paradoxical nature of the
found. And like America, he tends to be either lionized
However, for readers interested in a less polemical,
view, Joseph Ellis's prize-winning biography presents a
evenhanded appraisal of the relationship between
man and Jefferson the icon.
One of the most celebrated biographies of recent years, American
Sphinx is eminently readable both in the elegance of its prose and
the modesty of its length. In less than 400 pages (a small miracle in
itself, given the current penchant for exhaustive, exhausting 1,500-page
biographies) the reader is given an efficient tour of Thomas Jefferson's
life as well as a balanced and inspiring appraisal of his legacy. Ellis
never shies away from the perplexing conundrums of Jefferson's character.
Yet he also demonstrates eloquently that greatness and human weakness
are not mutually exclusive.
in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
It's appropriate to think of Thomas Jefferson as a
father." Like a parent, he helped create and
new nation, and his influence on the American psyche
fundamental. But once the young republic had left the
to speak, it also began to redefine itself according to
The most insightful, comprehensive, and relevant book
about the American character was first published less
years after Jefferson's death in 1826. Yet the country
in Alexis de Tocqueville's classic Democracy in
had already diverged significantly from the path set by
In the early nineteenth century, under the influence of
Democrats, Americans modified their understanding of
that had inspired the revolution: equality, freedom,
In contrast to Jefferson's aristocratic views, Americans now equated
equality with freedom, and democracy with liberty. For a French aristocrat
this was an odd way to perceive these ideas. Tocqueville felt that being
equal was not the same as being free, and that majority rule actually
subverted personal liberty. But he also realized that these values animated
the American democracy he visited, and with remarkable insight detailed
how they influenced, for better or worse, every aspect of American life.
His analysis has remained pertinent precisely because these ideas have
continued to remain fundamental to Americans ever since his visit 170
Democracy in America is particularly fascinating today because
so many of the strengths and weaknesses that Tocqueville identified
in the American system persist to this day, and so many of his predictions
for the future of the American democracy have proven accurate. Take
÷ ÷ ÷
I wanted to conclude my trio of books about the American character
with something contemporary, but I had a hard time deciding on a title.
I thought of former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham's
memoir, Personal History, because Graham embodied so many of the best aspects
of the American character. I considered recommending a couple of inspiring
biographies of great Americans: perhaps Blanche Wiesen Cook's excellent
Eleanor Roosevelt (too long) or Stephen B. Oates's authoritative
biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Let the Trumpet Sound. Maybe a Great American Novel or two — it would
have been appropriate to pair one from each of our two living Nobel
laureates, say, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
But in the end, though these are all excellent choices, I felt the
list as a whole would ring false. This is, after all, America.
No matter how idealistic, how powerful, how "complex,"
this is also the country that produced Rush Limbaugh, Ken Kesey,
the Unibomber, and all four Marx brothers. There are more than
a few loose screws rattling around in the bottom of America's
toolbox. And thank God. It gives us personality. So I've made
my third book a classic satire from our most brilliant madman.
and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the
Heart of the
American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a romp through the mind of
a lunatic's lunatic, a specialist. Thompson is both a journalist and
a drug fiend. He is also one of the sharpest observers we have of contemporary
When Thompson and his Samoan lawyer leave LA and head
Vegas to cover a motorcycle race for a sports magazine,
with them a weekend's supply of drugs:
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of
five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt
of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers,
screamers, laughers....Also a quart of tequila, a
a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two
They begin ingesting these drugs as though engaged in a Herculean labor.
Naturally, they do a less thorough job covering the "Mint 400."
It doesn't really matter. Thompson is interested in a journalism of
a very different sort. He's not interested in reporting on motorcycle
races, but in penetrating into the heart of America itself.
As his title implies, what he finds isn't pretty. It is, though, very
entertaining. Thompson is a brilliant satirist, so Fear and Loathing
in Las Vegas is as hilarious as it is horrifying, a picaresque romp
through hell. But in Thompson's Inferno, Virgil is guzzling rum,
dropping acid, and going out of his frickin' mind.
÷ ÷ ÷
It's hard to imagine that Thomas Jefferson would have liked Hunter
Thompson much. It's easy enough, though, to find a connection between
the two. Jefferson was an effective advocate for individual freedom
and a dogged enemy of governmental intrusion in citizens' lives. Two
hundred years later, Thompson has taken these values to such an extreme
he makes Jefferson look like a Redcoat. Ironically though, if Tocqueville
was right, the greatest danger to our individual freedoms may be democracy
No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic
country....War does not always give over democratic communities to
military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase
the powers of civil governmnet; it must almost compulsorily concentrate
the direction of all men and the management of all things in the hands
of the administration. If it lead not to despotism by sudden violence,
it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All those who
seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know
that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it.
a list of titles relevant to the
hijackings, please click