The Books Briefing: The Lesser-Known Details of the American Experiment

O say can you read: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Charlie Riedel / AP

Despite the cheery social schedule of barbecues and fireworks that it brings, Independence Day in the U.S. can be bittersweet for many. Familiar stories of patriotic heroism and idealism might prompt feelings of pride, but also of frustration, whether with the current state of the nation or with what those stories leave out. The lesser-known details of American history can be at once inspiring and sobering.

The historians Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts recount how black Americans claimed the July 4 holiday to celebrate their newly won freedom after the Civil War—until racist laws and violence quashed those gatherings. Books by Jane Kamensky and Alan Taylor explore American political divisions during the Revolutionary War, bringing to life historical figures and the moral quandaries they faced. And the historian Peter Martin explains how one young 18th-century American—now a household name—set out to solidify the nation’s independence by codifying its language.

The novelist Harry Turtledove’s “alternative histories” imagine what life would be like in an America that lost the Revolutionary War. And the political theorist Eric Nelson proposes an unconventional reading of American history: that the framers of the U.S. Constitution enshrined the principles of a traditional monarchy in the document.

Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.

Check out past issues here. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

What We’re Reading

How the Constitution caused America’s dysfunctional government
“What if this gridlock is not the result of abandoning the Constitution, but the product of flaws inherent in its design?”

📚 The Royalist Revolution, by Eric Nelson

Many colonial Americans weren’t as patriotic as you might think
“Read two [recent] books on the Revolution … and you may be surprised to find that you don’t know whom you’re rooting for. Which is to say, you’ll feel like a typical colonist in the revolutionary era, filled with doubt and suspicious of both sides.”

📚 A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley, by Jane Kamensky
📚 American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804, by Alan Taylor

The philosophy behind the first American dictionary
Now is the time, and this the country … Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government.”

📚The Dictionary Wars, by Peter Martin
📚 Dissertations on the English Language, by Noah Webster
📚 A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings, by Noah Webster

When the Fourth of July was a black holiday
“The Fourth became an almost exclusively African American holiday in the states of the former Confederacy—until white Southerners, after violently reasserting their dominance of the region, snuffed these black commemorations out.”

📚 Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts

What if America had lost the Revolutionary War?
“Alternate history isn’t really about the world you’re creating … It’s about the world in which you live, and gives you and your readers a funhouse mirror in which to see the real world.”

📚 The Disunited States of America, by Harry Turtledove
📚 The Two Georges, by Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove
📚 The United States of Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove
📚 “He Walked Around the Horses,” by H. Beam Piper

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

This week’s question comes from Caitlin, who requests “books one can read while in a postpartum daze—nursing, not getting enough sleep, but still needing to feel like a human being.”

My mom, who spent a lot of time reading on bed rest before I was born, swears that I absorbed Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses through her bloodstream. It’s a slightly gentler, more hopeful story than the bleak work the author is best known for, with an engrossing adventure plot sure to transport you. The prose can be dense, though. If your sleep-deprived brain just needs something light and fun, Jasmine Guillory writes sweet, smart romantic comedies where the gender dynamics won’t make you cringe. I’d also recommend a personal favorite: The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver’s poignant and funny first novel, about, among other things, two very relatable women figuring out how to be moms.

Write to the Books Briefing team at or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Rosa Inocencio Smith. She’s currently trying to decipher the margin notes in her copy of Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf.

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