Choice Review of The Cult of Individualism

Choice, a publication of the American Library Association, publishes ‘postcard reviews’ for use by academic libraries. The point is to give a quick overview of the book, an idea of the appropriate audience, and a sense of whether the book can be useful to any particular library. I write reviews for Choice and love doing so, even with its limitations in size and purpose. The word limit, for example, prevents grandstanding by a reviewer and forces her or him to aim for a succinct description. Taking to heart the old saw, best expressed by Mark Twain as “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” reviewers are

expected to put time and care into these pieces, not just dash them off.

What I like best, however, is that Choice surprises me each time a book arrives. Each has related to my areas of experience and expertise, certainly, but none has been a book I would likely pick up on my own. I don’t have to accept any assignment–if a book is just too awful, I can simply ask to be excused–but I have never had to do so. In each case, I have learned something; in one case, I ended up using the book as a source in a book of my own.

The latest issue of Choice contains its review of that book, The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. It is by an emeritus professor of history at Brooklyn College named Robert Muccigrosso and, for me, it creates a model of what a Choice review should be, a model I hope my own reviews live up to.

Muccigrosso begins by referring to Rodney Dangerfield’s “I can’t get no respect” as an apt description of my subject, the Scots-Irish “Borderers.” He writes:

Despised and derided both in the Old World and the New, these mostly poor and uneducated uprooted Protestants brought with them their anger, a serious distrust of authority, and an abiding sense of the strength of individual endeavor.

That’s it, as it should be, in a nutshell. Muccigrosso ends with this:

This book provides a sensible plea to include the Borderer experience more fully into the national heritage for the benefit of all.

If that ever happens–and happens in small part because of my book–I will be extremely happy.

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