The Books Briefing: The Works That Changed Our Understanding of America

Exploring the ideas that shape our national life: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A boy reads a book, with artwork for 'The Experiment' in the background
Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Getty / The Atlantic

A government of the people, by the people, and for the people: That was the idea behind the American experiment. But there has always been tension between the idea and the reality.

Inspired by great works of American inquiry, The Atlantic and WNYC Studios earlier this month launched a new podcast, The Experiment: stories from an unfinished country. Literary works such as a speech from Eleanor Holmes Norton, the poetry of Audre Lorde, the analysis of James Baldwin, and the speeches of Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped staff make sense of this moment in history—and the stories told in each episode. Through the life of his mother, Marylin, Vann R. Newkirk II shows how American democracy is younger, and more fragile, than we’ve been taught. Another episode explores how a loophole in the Constitution could allow someone to get away with murder in a remote area of Yellowstone National Park—and what our failure to correct it suggests about the response to the pandemic. And even our cultural disdain for sweatpants reveals something about American values, Amanda Mull argues.

To mark the launch of The Experiment, I asked our staff working on the podcast to share some of the works that have shaped their view of American life.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton