“Alistair Cooke's America” is a book derived from an eponymous 13-part television series about the United States of America and its history. If you are even vaguely familiar with the history of the USA, this is the book that can provide great perspectives on the events that shaped the country and wonderful insights into the character of its people.
If you find yourself wondering just how the country was able to achieve so much progress in the 20th century or how it became a military super-power or why its people appear so oblivious to the affairs of the rest of the world or even how Chicago came to be the centre of the world trade in commodities, this is the book for you. It was written by a long-time correspondent for the BBC who came to the country before the Second World War, fell in love with it and settled there. For several decades, his weekly radio programme “Letter from America” about life in America was popular with audiences in Britain and elsewhere - it ran for 58 years with only three interruptions in between.
The book is lavishly illustrated with pictures and paintings that provide a peek into the lives of the Americans in the days gone by. I liked one illustration in particular, a Nystrom relief map of the USA, for the way it gives an immediate sense of the vastness of the country quite unlike any other map of the country that I have seen so far. The other thing that struck me about the country by looking at the map was the sheer number of rivers flowing through it. Unfortunately the publishers scaled the map to fit the pages of the book in such a way that many of the names have become illegible due to the low resolution used to print the image. Some of the paintings and sketches are also rather crudely done and could have been omitted entirely.
The book assumes that the reader is already familiar, even if vaguely, with the main events in American history. It excels in illustrating the background for these events and their aftermath. It also draws attention to the little events and facts that are normally glossed over, but that provide valuable insights and perspective. While it does not delve into everything that foreigners find odd or surprising about America, it provides sufficient fodder for you to arrive at a reasonable guess at the probable cause.
The book was published in 1973, more than three decades ago, when the country was in the middle of its Cold War with the Soviet Union. While it talks about the influence of the early immigrants from Europe and the slaves from Africa, it does not talk about the Chinese, Indian or Hispanic immigrants who have adopted the country in large numbers in the decades since. For the same reason, it also does not talk about America's involvement in the Middle East and the consequent hatred it engendered in some people, the effect of the attacks on the World Trade Center on the American people, etc.
Despite its age and omissions, the book is still surprisingly insightful and quite readable. Whether you love America or hate it, you owe it to yourself to check this book out.