TERRY GROSS, host:
Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has put together a different kind of gift book list because, she says, the season this year is so extraordinary. It's not just that the financial crisis has put a Scrooge-like damper on spending. It's also that the holidays this year serve as a prelude to the inauguration of our first African-American president. In recognition of both the financial millstone and this historic milestone, Maureen offers an economical holiday list that reflects many dimensions of the nature of America.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: This year, I'm recommending some terrific books that would help anyone, whatever his or her politics, gain a deeper understanding of what we've come through, what we're still struggling through as a country to have reached this milestone moment. And yes, in recognition also of the fact that many of us are humming, "We Ain't Got a Barrel of Money" more often than we're singing Christmas carols. Almost all the gift books I'm recommending are paperbacks.
There was once an extraordinary writer for the Village Voice named Paul Cowan. Cowan covered everything from a miner's strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, to school busing battles in Boston. Cowan died at age 48 of leukemia, but surely few who read his pieces or his autobiography, "An Orphan in History," about rediscovering his Jewish roots, ever forgot his voice. A collection of Cowan's finest reportage from the Village Voice has just been reissued. It's called "The Tribes of America," and although these pieces are from the 1970s, the early culture-war tensions they chronicle are as illuminating as ever.
Historian Rick Perlstein says in his new introduction to this collection that Cowan was a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind. And how many of us dare to do that? Certainly, in 1974, when Cowan went to West Virginia, where a traditional rural community was fending off radical new grammar school textbooks, you'd assume he'd have been on the side of modernity. But here's what Cowan said about that and similar experiences.
The stories I wrote about turned out to be dialogues with my own private dissatisfactions. As a whole, they left me with a profound respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life, of customs I'd once regarded as old-fashioned and bourgeois. How can one embrace them and still be a political progressive?
A haunting question, and one that Richard Rodriguez confronts even more personally in his classic 1982 memoir, "Hunger of Memory." Rodriguez hails from one of those tribes that Cowan questioned yet respected. Rodriguez's parents emigrated from Mexico to California. Spanish was his first language as a child. In "Hunger of Memory," Rodriguez recalls the process through which he acquired the gift of what he terms "a public identity" by learning English in school, a skill that carried him all the way through to a Ph.D. in literature and inevitably tore him away from his family.
When Rodriguez's memoir first came out, it gained him notoriety for its anti-affirmative action, anti-bilingual education views. The book's power to provoke is undiminished, as is its atmosphere of solitude and yearning.
The questions of American identity that Rodriguez and his critics wrestled with are at the center of Gary Gerstle's fascinating 2002 work of history called "American Crucible." Starting with Teddy Roosevelt's presidency and proceeding through the harsh immigration legislation of the 1920s, FDR's New Deal, the civil rights movement, the Reagan era and the rise of multiculturalism, Gerstle explores how our country has contended with two contradictory ideas of itself: a selective racial nationalism that conceived of America as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government, and a more inclusive civic nationalism, in which the melting-pot promise of full citizenship is open to all.
If I had to recommend one engrossing book that would give readers an informed awareness of this new civic moment in American history that we're all living through, it would be Gerstle's "American Crucible." And for an unabashedly loopy but beguiling appreciation of how this mishigas miracle of a country ever got off the ground in the first place, I recommend Sarah Vowell's really entertaining new book about our Pilgrim ancestors, "The Wordy Shipmates."
Vowell loves to think about the Pilgrims. Her book is full of anecdotes and sometimes overly cute pop culture references and many quotes, including a speech made to his fellow Pilgrims by Governor John Winthrop in 1630, which amounts to what Vowell says was a declaration of dependence. I leave you with Vowell's favorite sentence of that speech as a benediction for the days to come: "We must delight in each other, make other's condition our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body."
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. To read excerpts of the books she recommended, go to our Web site, freshair.npr.org. You'll also find a list of her top five mystery novels of the year, as well as a link to the best books of 2008 as chosen by other NPR critics.