What does it take to be a good American? And who gets to decide? Journalist Jess McHugh examines thirteen seemingly innocuous, mega-bestselling reference books, guidebooks, and self-help books that have become blueprints for core American values and shaped our national story.
The concept behind Americanon is nothing short of brilliant, and journalist Jess McHugh delivers on her inspired premise with insight and aplomb ... Some of the most astute observations in this penetrating history are about how these books’ creators did not always live by the same rules they imposed upon their rank-and-file readers. McHugh’s book is essential reading—illuminating, engaging and absorbing. You’ll never look at the dictionary or cookbook on your shelf in quite the same way.
... belongs to a critical strategy of attacking current inequities in American life by attacking prior representations of those inequities. This is an entry in the new culture wars ... Given her thesis, it’s a little strange that one of McHugh’s most frequent epithets, in criticizing these books, is ]arbitrary.' She accuses Emily Post and David Reuben and even Noah Webster of arbitrarily imposing their own norms on their users. But, as she herself points out repeatedly, every book in her canon was one of many just like it being published around the same time ... McHugh ends her discussion of every book in her canon with this criticism, and the reader comes to approach those pages with dread, knowing that the mighty hammer of diversity will soon come crashing down. This is a very predictable book ... Still, who can argue with the thesis? Even if her books only reflect the unequal social dispensation out of which they arose, they also project that dispensation back. Within a world in which success was defined mainly in terms of what white male Protestants had achieved, and manners and mores mainly in terms of how middle-class heterosexuals behaved, these books can be read as telling their millions of readers, This is normal. Other ways of doing things are not.
... at its best when Ms. McHugh is doing actual reporting ... But the high points are relatively rare, and when she ventures from the particular to the general the book suffers. The biggest problem, perhaps, is her overall lack of familiarity with the immense body of scholarship about many of the books and individuals and all of the themes she writes about. A basic principle of writing is that the more you know about a subject, the stronger your prose. Americanon shows the inverse to be true as well ... The clearest indication of her lack of assurance is her astonishing overuse of qualifiers ... Another principle of good writing is attentiveness to what you have written. Not being mindful leads to clunky rhythm, dodgy wording, cliches and mixed metaphors. Ms. McHugh is prone to all four but especially the last ... Any proficient editor could and should have red-flagged all those sentences and most of those 'arguably's, and I think it’s terrible that a first-time author has been left hanging out to dry in this way ... The question behind Americanon is valid and intriguing...But the legitimacy of the idea only makes the shortcomings of the writing more frustrating.