What are the essentials for understanding American culture today? A new book aims to break it down into bite-size chunks. Something the Swiss publisher felt was a gap in the market.
'Abc 4 USA: Amerika verstehen' (Abc 4 USA: Understanding America) is a sort of encyclopedia with short personal entries on 300 topics, ranging from Martin Luther King to the exclamation “great!”, compiled by Arthur Honegger, chief US correspondent for Swiss public television, SRF.
Most of what people in Switzerland know – or think they know – about the US is based on television and movies, says Honegger in the book’s introduction. “But if you stay there a few months, or a few years, you realise with time that the USA you think you know is not the real USA.”
The myth of the US
Ronald Eyermannexternal link, co-director of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, agrees. American culture “is something manufactured and produced”, he says. “How accurately do TV and movies portray American culture? I don’t think they portray American culture; they try to make American culture, and it’s made from a very particular point of view.”
The view of the United States from the outside is also often distorted.
Eyermann, an American who spends half of the year living in Sweden, reads Swedish commentary on American culture and on American media. “It’s an odd feeling,” he says, “because the things that you get through the Swedish media about America are pretty scary. And so I’m usually nervous when I come back, thinking that I’m going to be shot on the street. That it’s a very dangerous place and I have to watch out. And it’s just not true.”
What’s it really like?
Arthur Honegger agrees. “You get the headlines, you get the news, and they are covering exceptional circumstances. And quite often it’s negative news,” he told swissinfo.ch. “I thought it would be a good idea to write something that gives a little more background, that shows America from a different perspective.”
In his book, Honegger set out to answer the questions that many people asked him after he moved from Zurich to New York and then to Washington. What makes the US tick? And why is the US the way it is?
“America is not a condition; America is a process,” Honegger writes. It is a country with ambitions, forged by immigrants “from every corner of the planet”, and the American Dream “only functions as long as the citizens are dreamers”. Everything that is possible is attempted at some point, he says, “sometimes with sensational and sometimes with disastrous consequences.”
What to include?
There was no shortage of things for Honegger to write about. He started working on the book at the end of 2012, after the US presidential elections. With the help of his Finnish wife and his Twitter followers (currently numbering 5,578), he came up with a list of around 500 topics, then winnowed it down to 300 that present various aspects of society, culture and history.
Half a page is devoted to “Great!”, highlighting Americans’ love of the superlative.
“Great is a universal adjective that can be used to describe any situation,” Honegger writes. “Good lost favour long ago. It’s gotten to the point where, if you describe your vacation as ‘good’, it’s assumed that you must have had an altogether horrible time.”
Among the more serious entries on historical themes, ‘Nine-Eleven’ recalls the 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil. Honegger compares the event to the assassination of the young President John F. Kennedy in 1963. “Like Kennedy, the country beamed and waved to the world, self-assured and at the same time naïve with regard to its personal security. And then both were surprised by the unfathomable, and nothing was as it was before.”
The reliable author
How reliable is a text on historical and societal issues by an author who is not a historian?
It doesn’t necessarily matter, says Yale’s Eyermann. It’s “a sociological contention or claim that you may learn more truth from fiction than from someone who is just trying to present fact. So you can get something from both popular culture and also from a factual history.”
Honegger says he didn’t set out to write a history book, but rather to provide a “multifaceted insight into what I consider to be the most fascinating country in the world”.
In November, Honegger tweeted a photo showing his new book on his bookshelf: "Yay! Now I have a copy of Abc4USA as well, after more than two years of work. The book has already found some friends."
The fact that Honegger is a political reporter for Swiss television gives him an edge as an author, says Charlotte Krähenbühl, marketing director for the book’s publisher, the Bern-based Stämpfli Verlagexternal link.
“People know him, and see him almost daily on television,” she says. “He has a high level of believability. You know that he knows what he’s talking about and has solid knowledge of topics like history and politics.”
To be found in translation?
“America is always a theme,” says Krähenbühl. “You hear about America daily in the news. It’s a popular travel destination. You go to the cinema and watch American films. It’s a theme that speaks to a lot of people.”
And although there are countless books about America, on all kinds of different themes, “we didn’t find a book in a form like this,” says Krähenbühl, “and the approach appealed to us.”
For the moment, Honegger’s insight is limited to readers who can understand German.
“Would that German-language book get translated into English, and why? This would be a really interesting sociological question,” notes sociologist Eyermann.
Who decides, “‘hey, this is an interesting perspective on the US that we should have in English so that Americans could see that?’ … And on what criteria?”