Arts & Culture

Professor Picks: Arnold Weinstein

Weinstein praises George Packer’s new historical text, which was a New York Times best seller

Staff Writer
Friday, October 4, 2013

Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein, celebrated on College Hill for his insight into the seminal works of Faulkner and Proust, did not name a novel as his favorite book of 2013.

Instead, he praised political journalist George Packer’s “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.” But he warned, “reading it is like catching a flu.”

Published in May, Packer’s work tells the story of America over the past three decades. The book, which became a New York Times best seller, is for sale at the Brown Bookstore. “The Unwinding” is written as a narrative history, a style Packer has employed before — in 2005, Packer wrote critically acclaimed “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq,” which describes the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

Weinstein said he picked up the book not only because it was written by Packer, but because of its compelling title and great reviews.

“Anybody who has half a brain knows we’re in trouble,” he said. “I happen to be just as disenchanted as (Packer) is about this country,” he added.

Packer begins his book somberly:  “No one can say when the unwinding began — when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.”

In “The Unwinding,” Packer explains how America’s national fabric is unraveling through the undoing of the unspoken social contract between Americans. Using interweaving accounts of the opposing lifestyles of three Americans,  he portrays America as a country in danger of self-destruction.

“Reading it wasn’t very pleasurable except that it was beautifully written,” Weinstein said, alluding to the disillusionment evident throughout the book.

Packer intersperses the stories of the three ordinary Americans with profiles of contemporary political and social icons and relevant news pieces to provide a sense of the great forces, movers and shakers that shape society. The lives he chronicles speak for themselves about the financial, political and social culture of America, Weinstein said.

“Packer rarely comes out and says what he thinks,” the New York Times’ David Brooks wrote in his review of Packer’s book. “This is a book of nearly pure narrative, and his meanings are embedded in the way he portrays people, those he likes (outsiders) and those he doesn’t (bankers, the political class).”

“To the extent that Packer offers a framework, it is that the nation’s elites have failed,” Brooks wrote.

Overall, the book is partially an autopsy of American society, and partially a story of the resilient American, Weinstein said. What makes the book readable is that the common people “have a native sense of can-do-ism,” he added. In a landscape characterized by America’s massive failure, each comes to terms with reality in different ways and finds their own ways to be resilient.

“It was more compelling than reading new literature,” Weinstein said. “History is what literature is all about.”

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