What it Means to be American

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What it Means to be American

This eclectic mix of books features different genres, perspectives, and approaches to answer the question: "What does it mean to be an American?" Some are memoirs, some are histories, some social science and poetry thrown in for good measure. While none of these books by themselves or even as a collection completely answer the complex question, they do begin to describe the multiple facets of what it means to call oneself an American.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good by Colin Woodard
American Nations is a book that will change your life and the way you see America. Drawing on other's historical and social research, Woodard wrote a short, accessible book that explains why throughout history and up to the present different areas of our country have answered questions about liberty, citizenship and how we structure society so differently. In an era in which we often talk past each other and fail to understand those we disagree with, this book will open your eyes to other points of view and help you articulate what you believe. American Character is Woodard's follow up, which focuses more on the current political situation, though he does cover some of the same historical ground as American Nations. Not quite as compelling, his framework of the central question of America being about individual liberty versus the common good is an important insight.

Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman's Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim by Sabeeha Rehman
This memoir considers both what it means to be an immigrant and to be a Muslim in America today. Rehman traces her changing identity as she moves across the world and adapts to her new country, and as she ages from a young bride to a grandmother. Active in the New York City Muslim community, she considers questions of assimilation and what it means to be part of a multicultural America.

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For by David McCullough
This is a new collection of essays and speeches by historian McCullough. Given over his long career, they were selected to try and identify common American values and ideas across our nation's various regions, political ideologies and cultures. The book is supposed to help prompt self reflection about our national character and what we hold most dear.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
Vowell, an essayist and frequent NPR contributor, has written many books reflecting on America and it's history. This 2002 title is the one that most directly considers what it means for her to be an American, her interactions with the complicated history of America's promise versus reality, and her interactions with other Americans she barely understands. Vowell is hilarious and has a great sense of both the beautiful and the absurd. This book is an easy, enjoyable read but also asks difficult questions about our national character.

Good Poems, American Places selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor
One of several collections of poems which Prairie Home Companion star Keillor has put out, this one is focused around the themes of America's landscape and character. Keillor does a good job selecting poems from a diverse set of Americans, across time, cultures, and regions. Even for people who don't read poetry regularly, this volume is accessible and enjoyable.