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Twenty-five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity

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From the author of the New York Times bestselling How to Read Literature Like a Professor comes a highly entertaining and informative new book on the twenty-five works of literature that have most shaped the American character. Foster applies his much-loved combination of wit, know-how, and analysis to explain how each work has shaped our very existence as readers, student From the author of the New York Times bestselling How to Read Literature Like a Professor comes a highly entertaining and informative new book on the twenty-five works of literature that have most shaped the American character. Foster applies his much-loved combination of wit, know-how, and analysis to explain how each work has shaped our very existence as readers, students, teachers, and Americans.Foster illuminates how books such as The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, My Ántonia, The Great Gatsby, The Maltese Falcon, Their Eyes Were Watching God, On the Road, The Crying of Lot 49, and others captured an American moment, how they influenced our perception of nationhood and citizenship, and what about them endures in the American character. Twenty-five Books That Shaped America is a fun and enriching guide to America through its literature.


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From the author of the New York Times bestselling How to Read Literature Like a Professor comes a highly entertaining and informative new book on the twenty-five works of literature that have most shaped the American character. Foster applies his much-loved combination of wit, know-how, and analysis to explain how each work has shaped our very existence as readers, student From the author of the New York Times bestselling How to Read Literature Like a Professor comes a highly entertaining and informative new book on the twenty-five works of literature that have most shaped the American character. Foster applies his much-loved combination of wit, know-how, and analysis to explain how each work has shaped our very existence as readers, students, teachers, and Americans.Foster illuminates how books such as The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, My Ántonia, The Great Gatsby, The Maltese Falcon, Their Eyes Were Watching God, On the Road, The Crying of Lot 49, and others captured an American moment, how they influenced our perception of nationhood and citizenship, and what about them endures in the American character. Twenty-five Books That Shaped America is a fun and enriching guide to America through its literature.

30 review for Twenty-five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lillian

    Readers love books about books and this one is a gem. Foster makes it clear that this is not 'the' list of 25 books that shaped America, but 'a' list. Some of his favorites are Moby Dick, The Maltese Falcon, The Great Gatsby (mine as well) and others while significant are not. His least favorites include The Last of the Mohicans and The Scarlet Letter. Other additional titles he includes are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, My Antonia, The Adventures of Augie March, The Cat in the Hat, Song o Readers love books about books and this one is a gem. Foster makes it clear that this is not 'the' list of 25 books that shaped America, but 'a' list. Some of his favorites are Moby Dick, The Maltese Falcon, The Great Gatsby (mine as well) and others while significant are not. His least favorites include The Last of the Mohicans and The Scarlet Letter. Other additional titles he includes are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, My Antonia, The Adventures of Augie March, The Cat in the Hat, Song of Solomon and Love Medicine. Foster's delight in elucidating their significance, whether well written or not is contagious. He is very adept at describing why they are so influential. My favorite is his discussion of how Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon spawned numerous detectives; Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Spenser, Easy Rawlins, Travis McGee, Jack Reacher, Carlotta Carlisle, Kinsey Mulhone, and VI Warshawski. Clearly, hard boiled detectives come in both genders. Many film and television adaptations found their basis in Sam Spade as well, like Dirty Harry Callahan, Peter Gunn, Jim Rockford, Magnum PI and Harry Orwell to name a few. Each chapter is cleverly titled. 'I've Been Working on the Whale-Road' for Moby Dick, 'The Bird is the Word' for The Maltese Falcon and 'Girls Gone Mild' for Little Women. You have to love Foster's sardonic prose and his authentic assessment of exactly what constitutes the GAN (Great American Novel). As this is not the definitive list, he offers 15 overlooked GAN's some of which are; Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Red Badge of Courage, The Age of Innocence, Catcher in the Rye, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The House on Mango Street. This is a book you'll want in your own personal library as a valuable resource and an enjoyable read.

  2. 5 out of 5

    K. Elizabeth

    2/5 First off, I didn't read the whole book. I was only required to read a few sections for class - and the few sections that I did read, well, they weren't too good... His writing doesn't grab my attention. His sections are informative, yes. But not necessarily a "new" perspective on anything he's talking about. Therefore, I didn't think it was great. Honestly, it was pretty much a waste of my time to read about things I already knew. Sorry, Foster. 2/5 First off, I didn't read the whole book. I was only required to read a few sections for class - and the few sections that I did read, well, they weren't too good... His writing doesn't grab my attention. His sections are informative, yes. But not necessarily a "new" perspective on anything he's talking about. Therefore, I didn't think it was great. Honestly, it was pretty much a waste of my time to read about things I already knew. Sorry, Foster.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Hoogerhyde

    Foster has done it again: written an engaging book that will appeal to anyone who likes good fiction. His expressed intent here is not to list the best books written by Americans, but those that had a hand in shaping who we are as a country and a culture. Consequently, the books he choses are "illustrative, not definitive." He also warns that "not every excellent book is here, but the books here are excellent." So, you can expect to see the oft-discussed classics: The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, T Foster has done it again: written an engaging book that will appeal to anyone who likes good fiction. His expressed intent here is not to list the best books written by Americans, but those that had a hand in shaping who we are as a country and a culture. Consequently, the books he choses are "illustrative, not definitive." He also warns that "not every excellent book is here, but the books here are excellent." So, you can expect to see the oft-discussed classics: The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and To Kill A Mockingbird, to name a few. You will also find poetry (Whitman's Leaves of Grass), a book not so well known as the movie based on it (Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, chosen because Sam Spade is the model for all subsequent detectives), and a children's book (The Cat in the Hat, chosen because it changed reading for the younger ones in a huge way). Some of the books he choses are from well-known authors, but are not necessarily those that are most often thought of as the author's best or greatest. For Hemingway, he chooses The Sun Also Rises, not For Whom the Bells Toll. For Faulkner, he chooses Go Down, Moses, not The Sound and the Fury. And for Toni Morrison, he chose The Song of Solomon, not Beloved. Foster is an excellent travel companion and guide through the literary landscape. I enjoyed his perspective on the books, and purchased a few that I had not read because of his review (full disclosure: I had previously read 10 of the 25). Some of his reviews convinced me that I really have no desire to read a particular author's work (I'm looking at you, Thomas Pynchon). He also addresses the question: which, or what, is the Great American Novel? Recommended not only for those who love American literature, but also for those who are interested in the development of the American culture and character.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Christine Boyer

    I liked it. Thought it would be too dry and boring, but not at all. Wish this guy had been MY literature professor! This was a funny, lighthearted approach to examining and analyzing some great American authors and their works. He starts with Ben Franklin's autobiography (1791) and ends with Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine (1984). Mr. Foster stresses in his introduction that this is NOT a "best of" compilation or a "top selling" list. It is a look at books - well, actually, a look at WRITERS who I liked it. Thought it would be too dry and boring, but not at all. Wish this guy had been MY literature professor! This was a funny, lighthearted approach to examining and analyzing some great American authors and their works. He starts with Ben Franklin's autobiography (1791) and ends with Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine (1984). Mr. Foster stresses in his introduction that this is NOT a "best of" compilation or a "top selling" list. It is a look at books - well, actually, a look at WRITERS who changed writing and/or changed the way we read novels, plays, and poems throughout the years. A must-read for anyone who likes to discuss and analyze literature. PS: I read some G.R. reviews where folks were upset that the author tells the plot of the stories. I would have assumed people would have guessed that that might happen, but okay, spoiler alert: You WILL learn what happens to Hester Prynne, Jo March, Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Jake Barnes, and Scout Finch!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jan C

    It is, for the most part, a decent list of books that may have helped shape America. I read 13 of them, 6 of them for school. Of course, he may have persuaded me not to read one of them which is currently on my shelf, The Crying of Lot 49. Reminded me that I have been lax in my re-reading of Moby-Dick or, the Whale - started a year or two ago and am only on page 35, they haven't even left port yet. I was going to argue with the list but looking at it now - not sure what I would remove from it. T It is, for the most part, a decent list of books that may have helped shape America. I read 13 of them, 6 of them for school. Of course, he may have persuaded me not to read one of them which is currently on my shelf, The Crying of Lot 49. Reminded me that I have been lax in my re-reading of Moby-Dick or, the Whale - started a year or two ago and am only on page 35, they haven't even left port yet. I was going to argue with the list but looking at it now - not sure what I would remove from it. There is one Native writer and two African-Americans. Otherwise, it does look pretty white bread. But how can you argue with a list that includes Dr. Seuss with the only book of his that I am sure that I read - The Cat in the Hat! As a little girl, I even had this book. Also has some favorites - Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Hammett - it drove me to finish a short biography I had of his early years (The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett), Steinbeck (on my re-read of The Grapes of Wrath I only have about 10% to go), Faulkner (but not one I have read, Go Down, Moses), and others. Even he doesn't really want to talk about The Scarlet Letter and I'm not sure he was that enthused about Moby Dick. The one that surprised me was Jack Kerouac's On the Road which I didn't like at all. But thinking of the title of the book I can see why he included it. I'm thinking that maybe I came to Kerouac at the wrong time. My brother and sister were wild for him in the '60s. But I didn't give him a try until MY 60s. It included Harper Lee but no Salinger, not even an honorable mention. His name only even came up in a discussion about Pynchon's reclusiveness. But you can't include everybody. This book was probably actually 3 1/2 stars but I bumped it up.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kris

    I love Foster's writing. It's like a chummy brilliant English professor rambling at you. Lots of English major love right here. I love Foster's writing. It's like a chummy brilliant English professor rambling at you. Lots of English major love right here.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. Generally I don't like list books, for the reason that I usually disagree with the list and want my own favorites to make an appearance, but he's smart (and humble) enough in the beginning to say that his list is not remotely definitive, and that he reserves the right to write and break the rules. Which is fair enough. Any objective criteria applied to this endeavor would be idiotic. A few thoughts: It seemed, a number of times, that he was less fo I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. Generally I don't like list books, for the reason that I usually disagree with the list and want my own favorites to make an appearance, but he's smart (and humble) enough in the beginning to say that his list is not remotely definitive, and that he reserves the right to write and break the rules. Which is fair enough. Any objective criteria applied to this endeavor would be idiotic. A few thoughts: It seemed, a number of times, that he was less focused on a book as much as an author. It seemed like "Go Down Moses," "Song of Solomon," and "The Sun Also Rises" were all chosen more because he wanted an appearance by Faulkner, Morrison, and Hemingway, rather than he thought these books legitimately shaped our collective identity. Other times, he makes the right choice in that regard (Huck Finn, On the Road), without bowing to an author he particularly liked. Not to say that Hemingway wasn't incredibly influential on American writing, just that it seems like he picked The Sun Also Rises because it was Hemingway's first, rather than its individual impact (I think A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea could all beat out his first in that regard). And I'm doing what I promised myself I wouldn't do: naming my choices instead. The only other thing I'll note for the time being is that this guy is obviously an English professor, so what you get from him is going to be very literary. Popular books don't make as much of an appearance: it's mostly serious literature - with the exception of The Cat in the Hat - so don't expect anything that wouldn't be on a required reading list.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    Foster has written several "Literature for Dummies" type of books, so the tone is presumably carefully calibrated by him and his editors to seem non-threatening. By the time the third occurrence of the word "verisimilitude" was accompanied by a clause reminding you of its meaning, I got the picture. The explanations of metric feet do not even pretend you remember whatever you learned in school. I'm sure Foster is an engaging teacher and popular with his students, but in print the endless popspea Foster has written several "Literature for Dummies" type of books, so the tone is presumably carefully calibrated by him and his editors to seem non-threatening. By the time the third occurrence of the word "verisimilitude" was accompanied by a clause reminding you of its meaning, I got the picture. The explanations of metric feet do not even pretend you remember whatever you learned in school. I'm sure Foster is an engaging teacher and popular with his students, but in print the endless popspeak colloquialisms, needlessly dramatic three-word sentences, cultural cliches (the French eat snails!) are a bit wearying. However, they eventually give way to what strikes me as quite excellent criticism and insights into books that one should indeed have read. In addition to the 25 featured books, there's an appendix of 15 more, so those, like me, who like to measure their literary accomplishment against lists have a useful benchmark!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Allison

    This book is perfect for a project my AP students do, which is why I picked it up. It was interesting--but the book cover says these are the books that helped shape our national identity, so I was more than a little disappointed that he didn't talk about that. At all. When discussing any of the books. Yes, he talked about the "American-ness" of the books. Some he explained how they shaped future writers. But he never tackled what he promised--a discussion of how specifically each book created th This book is perfect for a project my AP students do, which is why I picked it up. It was interesting--but the book cover says these are the books that helped shape our national identity, so I was more than a little disappointed that he didn't talk about that. At all. When discussing any of the books. Yes, he talked about the "American-ness" of the books. Some he explained how they shaped future writers. But he never tackled what he promised--a discussion of how specifically each book created the myth of America and shaped our collective consciousness/identity. His essay on The Cat in the Hat came closest with its discussion of how Seuss shaped American childhood education and literacy. But that's hardly an identity. Since that's what I was specifically looking for--to use as potential models for my students--I was a little let down.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    Interesting to listen to while walking dogs, but not a book I'd recommend for reading. Read the actual books discussed instead. Be forewarned, if you haven't read the books being discussed, the entire plot is revealed for each book. Interesting to listen to while walking dogs, but not a book I'd recommend for reading. Read the actual books discussed instead. Be forewarned, if you haven't read the books being discussed, the entire plot is revealed for each book.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Loralee

    He's really fun to read. He's really fun to read.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Joey

    This list is actually 26 books (two Robert Frost collections are merged as one entry) and 15 additional suggestions in the afterward. Foster's intro tries to define criteria for his system. He states, "A book is the end point of the efforts of a great many people, only one of whom typically gets a name on the title page." (vii) In the "business of the myth," Foster is that person according to his definition. It's quite the catch 22. Foster notes A Million Little Pieces fooled Oprah. Andre Dubus II This list is actually 26 books (two Robert Frost collections are merged as one entry) and 15 additional suggestions in the afterward. Foster's intro tries to define criteria for his system. He states, "A book is the end point of the efforts of a great many people, only one of whom typically gets a name on the title page." (vii) In the "business of the myth," Foster is that person according to his definition. It's quite the catch 22. Foster notes A Million Little Pieces fooled Oprah. Andre Dubus III has also gone on record to suggest never to fabricate memoir via A Million Little Pieces (dually noted). Reflecting on HDT, Foster writes, "One can hardly imagine what he would have made of Facebook or Twitter or the objects that make them possible." (44) When writing about Huck Finn as a literary pioneer, Foster concludes, "One of the great accomplishments of the novel is freeing writers to make use of dialect and colloquial expression in the pursuit of 'serious writing '" (104) I guess some of the elites were late bloomers: "Robert Frost was no enfant terrible when he published his first books of poetry. Born in 1874, he was thirty-nine years old the year A Boy's Will was published in 1913." (109) On the green light and Gatsby, Foster writes, "Daisy is simply not worth the effort Gatsby makes to win her over, nor are his successes anything to write home about." (143) This was a fresh slap of reality to the face. The chapter on To Kill A Mockingbird raised several personal questions. Would you be content writing only one great and financially successful book? Absolutely. As long as I can pay off that student loan debt and reach equilibrium. How do ethics play into fiction and memoir? Who decides what is "right"? Someone should write a book called, The Ethics of Jihad. There is complaint about Lee's lack of follow up work, but I'm pretty sure Go Set a Watchman (even as an original draft to Mockingbird) is a fairly recent publication. Dill was modeled after Truman Capote, which I never knew. Lastly, Foster writes, "Is Beloved really better than Moby Dick?" (322) I firmly disagree.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mike Briggs

    Of the 25 works included in the book, there were the expected ones, like Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huck Finn, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Walt Whitman's The Leaves of Grass, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, The Maltese Falcon, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Frost, the unexpected but known (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Cat in the Hat, Kerouac's On the Road), and severa Of the 25 works included in the book, there were the expected ones, like Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huck Finn, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Walt Whitman's The Leaves of Grass, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, The Maltese Falcon, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Frost, the unexpected but known (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Cat in the Hat, Kerouac's On the Road), and several that I had never before heard before (Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine). I noticed one common theme in the choice selection, maybe something that wasn't really there, but one that I seemed to pick up on, is that the author, Foster, prefers the loose, plot-less books & short story collections which he prefers to call novels. The most entertaining reads were the chapters on The Cat in the Hat and To Kill a Mockingbird. I also found, with some exceptions, that the chapters that contained books I had read were easier and or more enjoyable reads than those chapters about works I had never heard of before. As mentioned, there are exceptions.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Naftoli

    Incisive, witty, literary, and, at times, apothegmatic, Foster's "Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America," is absolutely a joy and a delight to read. He writes with the knowledge and authority of a professor yet he captures the humor and irony of the American novels he presents. With a clever turn-of-phrase and a legion of relevant allusions, he tenaciously holds the reader's interest from one analysis to the next. Whether or not one has read the books he critiques is immaterial; his reviews are Incisive, witty, literary, and, at times, apothegmatic, Foster's "Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America," is absolutely a joy and a delight to read. He writes with the knowledge and authority of a professor yet he captures the humor and irony of the American novels he presents. With a clever turn-of-phrase and a legion of relevant allusions, he tenaciously holds the reader's interest from one analysis to the next. Whether or not one has read the books he critiques is immaterial; his reviews are sassy and sanguine, thrilling and thrashing, and surprisingly sublime. I am biting at the bit to read his other two books!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

    This may be a book only English majors and teachers would want to read. The author freely admits that his choice of 25 books (novels and poetry) is arbitrary, but he does a very good job of submitting his reasons, offering plot synopsis and character analysis, and expounding on how that book or volume of poetry did influence subsequent writers as well as shape societal views. Is it deep literary theory and social commentary? No. But neither is it light. Foster not only knows his material, but he This may be a book only English majors and teachers would want to read. The author freely admits that his choice of 25 books (novels and poetry) is arbitrary, but he does a very good job of submitting his reasons, offering plot synopsis and character analysis, and expounding on how that book or volume of poetry did influence subsequent writers as well as shape societal views. Is it deep literary theory and social commentary? No. But neither is it light. Foster not only knows his material, but he presents what could be deadly dull with humor, and his book made me realize I need to revisit some of these classics as well as read those I have missed.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Terrie

    Foster claims this is not THE top 25 books, only 25 of the many. I really enjoyed the chapters on the books I had read, especially HUCK FINN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,and THE CAT IN THE HAT. My favorite chapter was the one on THE MALTESE FALCON, which I have not read. It was interesting to hear the reason why, for that book, it is the standard form of all mysteries. Other books I had never heard of, which makes me feel plain stupid. I immediately read MY ANTOINA after reading that chapter. This is Foster claims this is not THE top 25 books, only 25 of the many. I really enjoyed the chapters on the books I had read, especially HUCK FINN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,and THE CAT IN THE HAT. My favorite chapter was the one on THE MALTESE FALCON, which I have not read. It was interesting to hear the reason why, for that book, it is the standard form of all mysteries. Other books I had never heard of, which makes me feel plain stupid. I immediately read MY ANTOINA after reading that chapter. This is a great addition for my personal library.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Tom Quinn

    As a former English teacher who spent a good long while exposed to American lit in an academic setting, this one appealed to me a little bit more than it might for others. 3.5 stars out of 5. An above average example of intertextual literary criticism and much more fun and accessible than I'd expected. This is a fine way to drum up a few talking points on some of the great American books and will be appreciated by bookworms, I'm sure, but I'd bet that if you haven't already read these books you' As a former English teacher who spent a good long while exposed to American lit in an academic setting, this one appealed to me a little bit more than it might for others. 3.5 stars out of 5. An above average example of intertextual literary criticism and much more fun and accessible than I'd expected. This is a fine way to drum up a few talking points on some of the great American books and will be appreciated by bookworms, I'm sure, but I'd bet that if you haven't already read these books you'll want to pass and return to this one later.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Melody

    Very enjoyable essays about 25 books which Foster thinks contribute to the US's national identity. It's hard to argue his point, especially when one is laughing so hard. Perhaps my favorite line in the whole book was in Foster's discussion of Little Women, where he says, "And who isn't ready for a lesson when the canary dies?" Some of his selections stuck me as odd, and some have long been on my TBR list but most of them were old friends. Well worth reading. Very enjoyable essays about 25 books which Foster thinks contribute to the US's national identity. It's hard to argue his point, especially when one is laughing so hard. Perhaps my favorite line in the whole book was in Foster's discussion of Little Women, where he says, "And who isn't ready for a lesson when the canary dies?" Some of his selections stuck me as odd, and some have long been on my TBR list but most of them were old friends. Well worth reading.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Becky Hoffman

    It was an okay book. Some of the information was really interesting, but after taking about 5 Lit classes in college, I was able to build my own opinion about some of the classics and didn't really agree with Foster on most of them. I liked his other books (How to read Literature like a Professor, and How to Read a Novel Like a Professor) but this one was kind of a let down. It was an okay book. Some of the information was really interesting, but after taking about 5 Lit classes in college, I was able to build my own opinion about some of the classics and didn't really agree with Foster on most of them. I liked his other books (How to read Literature like a Professor, and How to Read a Novel Like a Professor) but this one was kind of a let down.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Vincent

    Of the 25 books, I have read 13. I own another 8 on my Shelf of Constant Reproach, and four I don't own - Song of Solomon, USA, Little Women and The Weary Blues (although I may have the e-read on the latter two). I skipped the plot summaries of some of the 8 books I plan to read sooner than later. Of the 25 books, I have read 13. I own another 8 on my Shelf of Constant Reproach, and four I don't own - Song of Solomon, USA, Little Women and The Weary Blues (although I may have the e-read on the latter two). I skipped the plot summaries of some of the 8 books I plan to read sooner than later.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mark Hiser

    Though I enjoyed the book, I wanted more analysis and less plot summary. To be fair, I had read the majority of the books he chose for his twenty-five. I, however, do think the book would be a good one for somebody starting his or her own study of important American novels.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

    Witty, entertaining and refreshingly irreverant. It will make you think about the books you have read and all the books you want to read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Moonkiszt

    Enjoyed. . .but it got dry toward the end. Thought it would nudge me to read the ones I haven't yet read. . . But no. I'll go with what he said. . . . Enjoyed. . .but it got dry toward the end. Thought it would nudge me to read the ones I haven't yet read. . . But no. I'll go with what he said. . . .

  24. 4 out of 5

    Shaun

    American literature is an often fraught subject. It is a literature of as much problems as promise, though sometimes even our worst impulses are written of as bolstering the national character. From the beginnings of our literary republic to 19th century classics to mid-20th century novels of difference, Thomas C. Foster traces the legacy, and more importantly the character, of that American literary canon. Foster is not claiming a comprehensive view of American literary culture. He states outri American literature is an often fraught subject. It is a literature of as much problems as promise, though sometimes even our worst impulses are written of as bolstering the national character. From the beginnings of our literary republic to 19th century classics to mid-20th century novels of difference, Thomas C. Foster traces the legacy, and more importantly the character, of that American literary canon. Foster is not claiming a comprehensive view of American literary culture. He states outright that this discussion of 25(ish) books will not provide a full picture of American literature, nor are these the only books to read if one wishes to understand American literature. With an eye to the multiplicity and layered nature of American literature, Foster lights out to explore how these works of literature shaped the American national consciousness, and what these books have to say about the American spirit. Amazingly, the book doesn't come off as a propping up of the notion of "American excellence," at least not remotely. Foster does not take the opening to disparage the faults of these novels, and the faults they represent in the American character either, preferring an involved analysis that looks at how these books exist in dialogue with one another. Indeed, that dialogue is at the heart of Foster's book, as he insists that not only do these authors and books learn from one another, but that they speak back to one another and influence the reception of previous works. From Walt Whitman spreads a web of answers that sing "I, Too" speak for America. Though the book is linear, the referentiality of the book forms more of a web of American experiences. One can find as much Whitman in Langston Hughes as in Thoreau sometimes. The insistence on dialogue shows how we continue to respond, and continue to deal with major issues of our times. Race relations, national sovereignty, democracy, experiencing the wilderness, disregard or suspicion of external authority, the mythic in the everyday; all of these pervade these texts in one version or another, sometimes to a greater or lesser extent. Foster never quite covers any one in detail, as the study is more general, but he provides an excellent overview of the ways in which these questions are broached by some of America's finest authors. My major criticism of Foster's work is its middle of the road approach. There are very commendable parts of American literature, but I feel he fails to sufficiently convey how often American literature fails to live up to the national ideals it espouses. Books like The Scarlet Letter show American's ugly tendency to ostracize based on a petty morality, especially women rather than men, and Foster acknowledges this, but overall paints a rosier picture of these texts. The brutality of American life can be left on the wayside in favor of praising famous men. I don't wish to be misunderstood, these books are on the whole excellent, Foster has carefully chosen them for this purpose, but they are also texts filled with problems and contradictions for the American ideals they embody. I felt these problems were only addressed occasionally, and not with enough force to provide a full understanding of the history of literature in American. The romanticism of this book is not to be underestimated, even as Foster seems to be playing it neutral. The upside of the book is it provides an accessible, often very fun look at American literature and its quirks, questions, and overall trajectory. I really think this is a great way to get into American literature, especially if you find some of the more difficult works to be incomprehensible. Foster is a good guide to the various themes of each text, and the book proves insightful for both beginners and long-time enthusiasts like myself. Overall, I think this book is worth a shot, especially for those just getting into American literature. It gives you a new reading list to explore for yourself, and offers a bit of humor along the way.

  25. 5 out of 5

    LuAnn

    Wow, he highlights some American novels that resonate now in 2017—Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston whose subject would be labeled the intersectionality of being black and female. Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues with “I, too, sing America./ I am the darker brother./ They send me to eat in the kitchen/ When company comes,/ But I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong./ Tomorrow,/ I’ll be at the table/ When company comes. / Nobody’ll dare/ Say to me,/ “Eat in the kitchen,”/ Then. Wow, he highlights some American novels that resonate now in 2017—Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston whose subject would be labeled the intersectionality of being black and female. Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues with “I, too, sing America./ I am the darker brother./ They send me to eat in the kitchen/ When company comes,/ But I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong./ Tomorrow,/ I’ll be at the table/ When company comes. / Nobody’ll dare/ Say to me,/ “Eat in the kitchen,”/ Then.// Besides,/ They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed—// I, too, am America.” And the oh so appropriate “Who But the Lord” with it’s searing lines: “Now, I do not understand/ Why God don’t protect a man/ From police brutality.” John Steinbeck epic of economic and physical displacement, corporate callousness and environmental catastrophe, The Grapes of Wrath. And the one that in my mind especially strikes a chord, buddy caper Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain ridiculing “the dimwittedness of the great mass of people, racial attitudes in the middle of the country, hucksters and con men with their victims, the system of social castes, …. organized religion, received morality, and rules…less moral than Huck’s transgression of them.” That one’s been added to my reading list! Of course, he has standards like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby and the brilliant Moby Dick, but because his criteria includes influence on the myth of America—shaping the story of who we are—he has some surprises like Little Women, The Maltese Falcon and The Cat in the Hat and builds a solid case for them. Foster’s humor makes this readable, though it feels like overdosing at times. I appreciate his insight and reasoning and especially for exposing me to works I wouldn’t otherwise have known about.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Alexis Voelker

    This book was not what I thought. I was expecting it to be a bit dry, perhaps bit political, and about how books shaped policies and people’s thinking. Instead, I would say this is like a take home version of your very favorite English Lit class. His passion and knowledge practically jumps off the page and I can imagine he is an absolute hoot at professor parties. Since I enjoy reading, the chapters felt like being in on a nerdy inside joke. But even for me, some of it was hard to follow. He ass This book was not what I thought. I was expecting it to be a bit dry, perhaps bit political, and about how books shaped policies and people’s thinking. Instead, I would say this is like a take home version of your very favorite English Lit class. His passion and knowledge practically jumps off the page and I can imagine he is an absolute hoot at professor parties. Since I enjoy reading, the chapters felt like being in on a nerdy inside joke. But even for me, some of it was hard to follow. He assumes you have read each of the books he lists and know all about the authors and their friends. For example, I’ve never read Moby Dick but he immediately starts off with referencing its iconic first sentence but doesn’t say what that first sentence was for like two pages. But he did give a lot of fun history and why it impacted America (ex: Moby Dick was written when whaling was popular which I did not realize it was ever popular or they that was what people used for oil instead of petroleum or even vegetable oil. At least I think that’s what he was saying? Because he was making some inside jokes in this chapter and writing like how Melville wrote which is very detailed and superfluous). Overall, I enjoyed this book and it was a fun read. I’d recommend if you are nerdy like me and just want a delightful academic-esque read, but not if you are looking for a serious book on how writing changed the world.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    These books are reflective of American culture though I’m not sure they shaped much of anything beyond the literary realm (I do make exception for Cat in the Hat. Classics all and in the canon. I’ve read 11 of the 25 and am familiar with most from high school librarian days. I paid more attention when I’d already read the work under discussion. Nothing Foster wrote, though always entertaining, makes me want to read any that I haven’t already. Some of the titles I actively dislike (Cather and Hem These books are reflective of American culture though I’m not sure they shaped much of anything beyond the literary realm (I do make exception for Cat in the Hat. Classics all and in the canon. I’ve read 11 of the 25 and am familiar with most from high school librarian days. I paid more attention when I’d already read the work under discussion. Nothing Foster wrote, though always entertaining, makes me want to read any that I haven’t already. Some of the titles I actively dislike (Cather and Hemingway) so it’s instructive to learn of their relevance. Foster’s musings on James Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne resulted in deletions from my to-read list but I will always want to reread Gatsby, Mockingbird, and Huck Finn.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Vahle

    This was fun - Foster embarks on a jaunt through foundational American novels on a quest to see how literature stretches, shapes, and responds to our national identity. What I liked most was that Foster doesn't try to summarize the books much (beyond what you need), but instead looks at HOW the novel shifted the landscape and changed the game. Even chapters on books that I hadn't read were fascinating. It definitely includes books you would guess, but some fun twists too (since he is not looking This was fun - Foster embarks on a jaunt through foundational American novels on a quest to see how literature stretches, shapes, and responds to our national identity. What I liked most was that Foster doesn't try to summarize the books much (beyond what you need), but instead looks at HOW the novel shifted the landscape and changed the game. Even chapters on books that I hadn't read were fascinating. It definitely includes books you would guess, but some fun twists too (since he is not looking at the BEST novels but simply the most FORMATIVE novels.) I could see using this in my American Lit class.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Audrey

    Pros: got me wanting to read a whole lot of American novels, and reminded me why I loved so many of the ones I already read (Mockingbird, Gatsby, Scarlet Letter, The Sun Also Rises). He gives a summary of each book, then explains why he chose it. The novels contribute the idea of an American myth (a body of work/stories that matter). I like that uniting theme. Con: It's just that by #18, the book felt long and I was trying to just get through it. Overall, I'd recommend it! I like his writing sty Pros: got me wanting to read a whole lot of American novels, and reminded me why I loved so many of the ones I already read (Mockingbird, Gatsby, Scarlet Letter, The Sun Also Rises). He gives a summary of each book, then explains why he chose it. The novels contribute the idea of an American myth (a body of work/stories that matter). I like that uniting theme. Con: It's just that by #18, the book felt long and I was trying to just get through it. Overall, I'd recommend it! I like his writing style and his making great literature accessible to a wide audience.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jan Brooks

    Chapter titles, in themselves, are good enough to warrant perusing this book: "The Allegory Man Cometh: The Scarlet Letter. A Man, A Plan, A Flintlock: The Last of the Mohicans Girls Gone Mild: Little Women. A Whole Heap of Ashes: The Great Gatsby..." ...you get the idea. That and the explanation that we shouldn't be searching for the Great American Novel, because we have so many of them. This book was enjoyed over the course of many drowsy afternoons with many other things to do hovering over my he Chapter titles, in themselves, are good enough to warrant perusing this book: "The Allegory Man Cometh: The Scarlet Letter. A Man, A Plan, A Flintlock: The Last of the Mohicans Girls Gone Mild: Little Women. A Whole Heap of Ashes: The Great Gatsby..." ...you get the idea. That and the explanation that we shouldn't be searching for the Great American Novel, because we have so many of them. This book was enjoyed over the course of many drowsy afternoons with many other things to do hovering over my head.

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