The winners of the national book awards will be announced at the end of this month. The lists of the five finalists in each of the categories are instructive exercises in current examples of literary excellence in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature.
One of the nominees for excellence in nonfiction is a book called “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” by George Packer. One critic said it “may stand as the defining book of our time.”
Packer’s book is not polemical nor does it promote any specific ideology. In fact, it feels more like literature than nonfiction.
Using a very unique format, “The Unwinding” tells the stories of four individuals and a community affected by the current economic downturn, and it tells a much more epic tale of the American journey from the late 1950s until now.
Through extensive interviews, Packer charts the individual journeys of a tobacco farmer-turned-bio-fuels entrepreneur in North Carolina; an assembly line worker-turned-community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio; a disillusioned Wall Street and Washington insider; a Silicon Valley billionaire and the City of Tampa, Fla.
In brief chapters interspersed throughout the book, he also tells the stories of more well-known individuals whose stories illuminate the great transition that America is experiencing. People like Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey and even entertainer Jay-Z.
Packer also includes word montages and illustrates them with quotes, news headlines and song lyrics the zeitgeist of specific, pivotal years along the trajectory. The common thread is how individuals, and cities, as well, are working to find their way in an America that is very different from the one in which our grandparents grew up.
Tampa was hit especially hard in the great recession as the housing bubble burst and left scores of families in homes that were almost instantly worth less than what was still owed on their respective mortgages. Flight to suburban developments that popped up virtually overnight during the boom left a downtown area frighteningly empty and feeling like a ghost town.
The book chronicles Tampa’s ongoing efforts to restore its central core. Tampa’s is a cautionary tale that begs the question as to what constitutes a community in 21st Century America. One of the answers might very well be Puyallup.
The future of America is in cities like ours. Puyallup is still a community where neighborhoods are laid out in a way that neighbors can get to know each other. Puyallup is a walkable, bikeable city with a core civic center that includes city hall, the pavilion, the Senior Activities Center, the police department headquarters and, of course, the public library.
Downtown is a hub of activity, all centered on downtown businesses, the farmers’ market, and our distinctive community parades and celebrations, like the Daffodil Festival.
Packer said the format of “The Unwinding” was inspired by a work of fiction, the U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos, comprised of three novels, which, as Packer says in his acknowledgements, are definitely due for revival.
In his preface to the trilogy, Dos Passos describes what America is in a very lyrical, almost poetic way. One of his definitions of the U.S.A. is that it is “a public library full of old newspapers and dog-eared history books with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil.”
Of course, along with our historic newspaper collection, the Puyallup Public Library now has brand-new newspapers, which we hope will become dog-eared with heavy use. We don’t encourage our patrons to write in the margins, but it sometimes happens.
Dos Passos ends his preface in a deeply moving way. The U.S.A., he says, “is the world’s greatest river valley fringed with mountains and hills ... U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”
And where is the speech of the people better preserved and disseminated than in the public library?
In essence, Dos Passos is saying America is an amalgam of a whole lot of things, a tapestry of immigrants and native peoples. It is lovely that public libraries have always been at the center of the fabric that makes up this country, preserving how we express ourselves through stories.
As we move into our second hundred years, the Puyallup Public Library hopes to continue to be the heart of the community and the doorway to the world.Tim Wadham is the director of the Puyallup Public Library. He can be reached at 253-841-5452 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.