You've got to hand it to Thomas C. Foster — he has managed to do something that more than a few of his literary colleagues have found impossible. He has made the critical analysis of literature both interesting and accessible. Twenty- Five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity is a fast-paced irreverent look at some of the major landmarks of American literature, with an eye to explaining their importance to what has become the idea of America. Each of the 25 anointed tomes gets its own short chapter, usually under 10 pages; Foster, unlike his verbose brethren, never goes on at length. He understands how quickly literary critique can turn off the popular audience. He makes his points about individual works, places them in the context of the American experience and moves on. Some of what he says is new and radical, some fairly conventional, but predictable or original, and whatever he has to say is sure to be said with wit, brio and panache (if indeed these are not just three ways of saying the same thing).
Let's begin with the choosing of the books. Twenty-five is more or less an arbitrary number. Clearly it could just as easily have been 26, 27 or 31. Twenty-five is a small enough number to suggest major significance, and not so large as to suggest that everyone gets a trophy. Moreover, as Foster points out in the introduction, it's easy to include everything, winnowing the field down to the "fit though few" is both a difficult and a worthy task. Next there must be some criteria by which to do the winnowing. Foster explains that he is not trying to elect the 25 best American books, the 25 most important American books, not the 25 most influential American books. He is not trying to describe "the" 25 anything. These are not the 25; these are 25. There are, as he points out at the start and again at the end, many others for which excellent cases can be made. These are his 25; readers are free to choose any others they like and make cases for them.