American Nations [Book Review]

Quick background story on how I started reading this book:

When you go the rock climbing gym 3-5 times/week, you get to know and befriend the staff there (while they prowl around for “noobs” and making sure no one falls to their deaths). Turns out that working at the gym is quite social, so many typically prefer isolated activities outside of work, including reading.

This is actually the opposite problem I have; I want to get out more and socialize. Unfortunately, this is harder to do than convincing your book to be read…..

So while I talked about Antifragile, one of the staff mentioned this book as an enjoyable read. So I bought it online that night and started reading in two days. Bet you can’t guess where I bought it from…….

Needless to say ………….. I got tricked into reading a history book.

But it’s a very engaging read, at least for the first hundred or so pages. There’s this subtle transition as it goes from “theory” to “detail” where I started finding myself glossing over the subsequent paragraphs hunting for gems knowledge that I found plentiful shallow to the cover’s surface. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

American Nations. As you can tell, it talks about the nations in America, specifically in North America. While most people would think these nations are Canada, the USA, and Mexico, that’s actually false due to the technical definition of nation (for those in the social sciences). The United States is a “state,” a political entity with a government, a flag, a postal code….you get the idea. In contrast, a “nation” is an area with a sense of culture and social identity. And these nations can cross “state” borders, with the strong example being the American-Hispanic culture found along both sides of the US-Mexico border.

The author, Colin Woodard, writes about the main nations that are present in North America. He sections the continent off into 11 different zones, each with cultural cores and levels of diffusion between each other. While you can find individuals in each nation that don’t represent these descriptions, he argues that the area as a whole plays a larger role on the nation’s identity, goals, and actions. And despite the massive waves of immigration that the continent has undergone over the last five centuries, these nations are strongly influenced by the initial settlers for each region. When new settlers arrive in an already founded nation, they assimilate to their new local culture instead of altering it.

Thus, when one argues about how our current political system is gridlocked between two completely different arguing parties, we must do what us Americans are really good at doing. Blaming someone else!

And in this case, it’s our ancestors.

Over half of these nations were taking root by the late 18th century. The Spanish Armada had infiltrated Central America and spread northward into Texas, New Mexico, and California. Settlers from Barbados have invested in their traditional southern farming lifestyles in South Carolina and Georgia. Noble Englishmen with their aristocratic nature started sporting the wilds in Virginia and growing tobacco. The Quakers initially started in Pennsylvania and soon spread westward with their strong background in farm land management. The Dutch founded a major trading post, New Amsterdam (now New York City), and stayed near the ocean. The Irish skipped the coastline altogether and went straight into the mountains to live in isolation. And the “Yankees” landed in the Boston area after landing the Mayflower around Cape Cod, MA.

These nations are currently known as El Norte, the Deep South, Tidewater, the Midlands, New Netherlands, Greater Appalachia, and Yakeedom respectively. While they are all in close proximity to one another, the cultures that inhabited them all had strongly contrasting ideas on how life for everyone should be lived. The Deep South comes from a background of brutal slave lords, which believed in strong caste systems and selective individual superiority. Yankeedom forced governmental regulations which enforce personal sacrifices (mostly taxes) for the greater good of the entire society. And the Midlands and Greater Appalachia….. kind of just wanted to be left alone, with the latter group being a lot more resentful and trigger-happy towards acts of violence.

As the US spread westward as a state, each nation also had a desire to expand their beliefs and, as a result, their influence on the state’s governmental actions. The book goes into more detail on how each nation reacted during the revolution, the US civil war, the numerous US/Mexico conflicts, and the industrial revolution.

In particular, the industrial revolution opened up the Far West and the Left Coast nations and accelerated their own sense of identity. The Left Coast was a hybrid between El Norte and Yankeedom that occurred due to the isolation present from the original colonies thanks to the inhabitable Far West region that wasn’t efficiently inhabited until the invention of the rail road. Any image that pictures the Wild West is a close approximation to the development of the Far West nation.

For visual reference, a nice map of the current regions can be found in the link below:

I found myself going through a lot of “Oh…..that’s why!” moments while reading this book. For example, New York City is the bustling commerce/fashion hub it is today because it was The Original multi-cultural trading port of the western world that embraced a strong level of diversity acceptance and tolerance from the very start of the nation.

Additionally, the first quarter of the book was completely about the people, their lifestyles and hardships, and the cultural ideals they wanted to live. Unless you were poor and desperate, one needed a strong sense of mental strength to drag their family halfway around the world and settle in an unknown territory, possibly full of harmful locals, Native and European descents alike. But for those that persevered, their sense of cultural identity stuck!

But in order to fill up the last 3/4 of the book, it involves filling you in on what happened between then and now. And with each nation being involved in all of the continents struggles one way or another, the author has to bounce back and forth between these nations one-paragraph-at-a-time. This by itself can be a little jostling at times for the reader.

Personally, I think I could have been fine without the multiple pages worth of quotes from each nation’s locals and political leaders. I find the use of names of individuals mentally disengaging, especially if they are only going to appear once or twice in the entire novel. It’s one thing to associate multiple items and events to a single person (like a biography). In contrast, you get nothing when you describe an event with a bunch of names.

One of the main reason why people in general are bad at remembering names is because names don’t mean anything by themselves. They have to be tied to a mental idea or emotion to have value. Unless they are found very attractive, people have no unconscious motivation to remember the names of people they just met.  So when George Cabot comes into the picture……..why would I care what he says?!

Bottom line. Skip the quotes. Turn them in more engaging sentences and cite them later.

And yes, I know Colin already does this in his novel. And it’s actually done quite well! So all I would have preferred is to just cut the excess. That way, my mind doesn’t have to filter through the book for what I really enjoy reading.

Even if the book would have been shorter, sometimes less (physically) is more (appealing). Kind of like body weight; there’s a healthy medium that an author should strive to achieve.

Bottom line #2: Good book. The first half of the book was well worth the $15 I spent on this soft cover novel. I just wish the second half the book was just as addicting as the first section.