July 2008

We the people

By Jennifer Erwitt
By George F. Will
By Jim Noles
By Lonn Taylor
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Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt have created coffee-table books that resonate with Americans, from A Day in the Life of America to Passage to Vietnam. The husband-and-wife duo's latest, America at Home: A Close-up Look at How We Live, sticks to the winning formula: large color photos (by pros and amateurs alike) with short, evocative captions. Thoughtful essays consider what home means: "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening ponders our "weird, mysterious connection" with home, tech writer David Pogue muses about home-as-workplace and novelist Amy Tan writes about her husband, their pets and their home life. All sorts of Americans are represented – from different states, age groups, ethnicities and lifestyles – and the concept of home is broad. America at Home visits a yurt, houseboats and comedian Rich Little's in-home theater, to name a few, and offers statistics on everything from homelessness to adoption rates. The book is fun to flip through, pore over or share.

The prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning George F. Will offers his impressions of America's culture via a cross-country chronicling of the people, places and traditions that inform our national identity. In One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation, the longtime Newsweek columnist writes about Hugh Hefner, Ronald Reagan, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and baseball. He also peers through the lens of his own experience to question what is accepted vs. what is right. In an essay about his son Jon, born with Down syndrome, Will bemoans "today's entitlement mentality—every parent's 'right' to a perfect baby." He also questions whether "green" companies are as eco-conscious as they claim, and rhapsodizes about his beloved baseball. The book is a mixed bag and, ultimately, an invitation to look at America in a skeptical but hopeful way.

Numismatists, history buffs and schoolchildren alike will enjoy A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America – One State Quarter at a Time. Jim Noles explores the meaning of what's shown on the coins, such as the Statue of Liberty, a cow, the Space Shuttle and Helen Keller. He reveals how the U.S. Mint came up with the idea (they were inspired by a Canadian program), and notes that, in some states, the governor chose the design, while others had citizens weigh in. Also interesting: thanks to recent legislation, Washington, D.C., and the five U.S. territories will get quarters, too. There's a lot to be learned here, but the quarter-by-quarter approach keeps the information manageable. It's clear, as Noles writes, "that new spare change jangling in our pockets . . . celebrates change and the history of change."

You may already know the Betsy Ross story has been consigned to myth, but did you know that, since 1998, the Smithsonian has been working to preserve the Star-Spangled Banner? The museum reopens this month, and visitors may enter the new flag room and see the American icon in all its dramatic, tattered glory. The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon by Lonn Taylor, Kathleen M. Kendrick and Jeffrey L. Brodie serves as a nice preview or alternative: it takes readers through the flag's history and considers its role as a symbol of American unity and democracy. The book covers a range of topics, from the day in 1814 when Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the national anthem to a biographical sketch of the woman who made the flag from linen, cotton and wool. There are plenty of photos, including the historic (raising the flag at Iwo Jima) and the pop cultural (images of '60s-era items adorned with stars and stripes).

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