ATG Book of the Week: Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books

by | Jun 3, 2021 | 0 comments


Title: Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books
Author: Jess McHugh
Hardcover: ISBN 9781524746636, $28; eBook: ISBN 9781524746650, $14.99; Audiobook download: ISBN 9780593409404, $20
Imprint: New York: Penguin Random House, 2021

“Surprising and delightfully engrossing, Americanon explores the true history of thirteen of the nation’s most popular books. Overlooked for centuries, our simple dictionaries, spellers, almanacs, and how-to manuals are the unexamined touchstones for American cultures and customs. These books sold tens of millions of copies and set out specific archetypes for the ideal American, from the self-made entrepreneur to the humble farmer…

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Webster’s Dictionary, Emily Post’s EtiquetteAmericanon looks at how these ubiquitous books have updated and reemphasized potent American ideals—about meritocracy, patriotism, or individualism—at crucial moments in history. Old favorites like the Old Farmer’s Almanac and Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book are seen in this new way—not just as popular books but as foundational texts that shaped our understanding of the American story...

“Taken together, these books help us understand how their authors, most of them part of a powerful minority, attempted to construct meaning for the majority. Their beliefs and quirks—as well as personal interests, prejudices, and often strange personalities—informed the values and habits of millions of Americans, woven into our cultural DNA over generations of reading and dog-earing. Yet their influence remains uninvestigated. Until now…


Journalist McHugh examines a long bookshelf of didactic books by which Americans have self-educated… A worthy, capably told look at a small canon of works demonstrating how to do well by doing good.”—Kirkus

“Journalist McHugh’s appealing cultural history dissects the American character through a close examination of ‘ordinary, instructional books that average Americans have consulted every day’… Brisk publication histories and author profiles enrich the cultural analysis, which is consistently on-point. This lucid survey entertains and enlightens.”Publishers Weekly

“In a work spanning literary criticism and history, journalist McHugh explores a series of popular nonfiction books that fostered stereotypical American values, such as entrepreneurship, individualism, or fealty to family and community, and also conveyed practical knowledge… McHugh’s work is distinctive and engaging as it describes American social history through the lens of mainstream nonfiction advice books, and explores how they define or redefine us.”—Library Journal

An elegant, meticulously-researched and eminently readable history of the books that define us as Americans.  For history buffs and book-lovers alike, McHugh offers us a precious gift.”—Jake HalpernPulitzer Prize Winner and New York Times Bestselling author

“With her usual eye for detail and knack for smart storytelling, Jess McHugh takes a savvy and sensitive look at the ‘secret origins’ of the books that made and defined us.  As McHugh shows, much of our American canon has to do largely with axe-grinding, reputation, redemption, and, often, who is permitted to tell the story—and you won’t want to miss a one moment of it.”—Brian Jay Jones, author of Becoming Dr. Seuss and the New York Times Bestselling Jim Henson


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