When Gatha Snowmoss, roving photojournalist, spent some time with the band in Memphis this spring, she showed her appreciation (no other reporter has been afforded the kind of no holds barred inside look at the Pigs that she got) by giving each of us a book -- a pig-related book, of course. Each one perfectly tuned (or so it seemed to me) to our individual personalities. I'm sure her ability to size her subjects up so quickly accounts for much of her recent success.
I'll leave the others to comment on their own books, but for me it was The Pig and the Skyscraper (Chicago: A history of our future) by Marco d'Eramo. I've been reading it over the last couple of weeks and enjoying it tremendously. D'Eramo is an Italian sociologist and the book was published in Italy in 1999 (translated into English in 2002). So reading it is like eavesdropping on an Italian professor trying to explain America (through the lens focused on Chicago) to an Italian audience.
I wonder, as I'm reading it, if Europeans, reading books about Europe written by Americans, have the same sort of reaction that I'm having -- some of it is wonderfully perceptive, but some of it just seems so bone-headedly wrong, like the anthropologist coming across a "primitive" culture and devising all sorts of esoteric explanations for what he or she sees, while the ostensible subjects are laughing behind their hands at the foolish scientists. (Remember the Margaret Mead controversy of a couple of years ago?)
The fact that so much housing stock in the US is wood fascinates d'Eramo and he gives it great significance in explaining the American character -- in Europe wood is apparently seldom used. He makes much of the American invention of the suburb, and exaggerates the social/cultural divides that occur in many parts of the States. His description of race relations is extremely one-dimensional and diminishes the actual complexities that the country wrestles with. In the America that he describes, Obama's ascendancy would simply not be possible. There is always truth in his observations, and yet there is also a clear skewing of facts and interpretations in order to hammer home his rhetorical truths. D'Eramo comes from a decidedly Marxist bent, and this lens opens up some wonderful observations, but also seems to blind him to some obvious contradictions between what he claims and what seems to me to be obviously the case.
At any rate, it is a great fun provocative and challenging read and perfect for these last few days before I spend a week in Chicago. And it is another stark reminder that the way the rest of the world views us in the States is not necessarily the way that we see (or would like to see) ourselves.