Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books by Jess McHugh

With a snappy title and an earnest heart, Americanon, by journalist Jess McHugh, looks at 13 “American bibles,” influential books spanning American history “that ostensibly taught readers one subject, all the while instructing them about their role in society.”

Eschewing fiction, whose Hucks and Uncle Toms and March sisters might face conflicts all too obviously plucked from the tapestry of American history, the canny and erudite McHugh selects plotless but far better-selling instructional volumes—Webster’s Dictionary, for goodness sake! McGuffey Readers!—and shows how these books reveal the inner objectives of striving Americans while at the same time helping their achievement.