stuff every american should know

Happy Declatution of America Day!

The long Fourth of July Weekend feels like a good time to run this essay, which Denise and I wrote for Newsday back in 2012.

The problem with American history is that Americans keep making more of it. Citizens can't really be expected to know it all, right?

At least, grown-ups can't. 

It seems clear that Americans expect young people to know the fine points of U.S. history and civics, or else no one would get so up in arms when yet another embarrassing study reveals how few American youngsters know, say, the number of stripes on the U.S. flag. And Americans righteously sneer when Miss USA candidates fail to identify the vice president of the United States. 

So, our list is growing: Kids and beauty-pageant contestants should have a good grasp of American history and civics.

And public officials, right? Certainly those who would deign to represent We the People in Congress should know some elementary points regarding American government.

Which is why elected officials, would-be officeholders on both sides of the aisle, and even the media who cover them, who confuse the words of the Declaration of Independence for the U.S. Constitution ought to be ashamed of themselves. (When this happens, we like to say that the person has made a “Declatution” error.)

But Americans tend to go easy on the rest of the populace who aren't children, politicians, bombasts or beauty-pageant contestants. After all, one might argue, in a nation of immigrants, who or what decides what citizens should know about being American?

Well, in no small part, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, does. Each year, the hundreds of thousands of people -- 694,193 in 2011 alone -- who are sworn in as new Americans are required to take a citizenship test. To prepare, they feverishly cram down 100 factoids. Of those 100, applicants will be asked 10 in an oral exam. To pass, citizen-applicants must answer six correctly.

The questions are challenging. We dare say most "natural born Citizens" -- who, according to Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution are eligible for the presidency -- wouldn't be able to answer most of them without a refresher course. The questions include: What's the "rule of law"? Name one of the authors of The Federalist Papers. Name two Cabinet-level positions. (Answers: Everyone must obey the law; James Madison, Alexander Hamilton or John Jay; anything from the secretary of Agriculture to the secretary of Labor or the attorney general.)

The resulting irony of the great American citizenship test is that new Americans are often better educated about certain aspects of American-ness than those of us who came by our citizenship the easy way.

Does that matter? Some people would describe such questions as trivia -- good for board games but not really critical for day-to-day participation in American life. And doesn't lobbing trivia at each other kind of, um, trivialize the greatness of the American experience?

Yes and no.

When we do book signings these days, the most enthusiastic visitors to our table are not adults but kids who gleefully announce that they've read our "grown-up" books on the founders and they're excited to know a thing or two about William Floyd or Button Gwinnett or John Morton or Stephen Hopkins, all of whom are largely forgotten signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The parents of these children stand proudly and awkwardly by as we and their progeny talk about how cool it is that the real birthday of United States is July 2, not July 4. How cool is it that George Washington was "president" of the Constitutional Convention, which wrote the framework for our government, and then went on to become the "real" president? The passion of those kids delights us, just as the parting shots of their parents sadden us: "He/she puts me to shame."

We hear you, mom and dad. Once you were that little kid. You dug citizenship, you dug America, but somewhere along the line, it became not so compelling. You, like so many of us, decided that it wasn't important to know the little stuff, anyway. It was more important to get the gist, the broad strokes. When politicians argue about the Constitution, no one expects you to follow them word for word, letter by letter, article by article, right? Isn't it enough to just "sort of" know what they mean and, by extension, to trust that they do? 

We beg to differ. As the elections in November near, a lot of insufferable people are going to be telling you what it means to be an American. Don't take their word for it. Arm yourself. It always helps to get out, learn what you can, think for yourself and thus be more properly prepared to peg a blowhard when you hear one.

And in a lot of ways that starts with the geeky stuff. Like, why do we have an Electoral College? And what are the salient differences between our founding documents?

Yes, we know: History is complex, and those deckle-edged books in libraries look so long and tedious. And yes, it takes time to grasp the often complex underlying themes of American history, and to parse the multitude of different interpretations -- but it's always OK to start with the fun stuff. As kids and thousands of new Americans would tell you, what appears to be trivia isn't always trivial. Sometimes, it can be a gateway to deeper learning. It pays to take some time to get to know your nation a little better, from the Charters of Freedom to the Purple Mountains Majesty.

So if we may, some suggestions:

Commit to that lifelong learning this Independence Day. Make it fun. When you're slapping burgers on the grill or hoisting a brew, you can be quizzing your brother-in-law on the origins of our bicameral legislature. If you need help finding appropriate materials, let your librarian, local bookseller or your kids guide you. Our great national summer holidays can be a jumping-off point, too: What are the origins of Memorial Day? The Fourth? Labor Day? When do we celebrate Constitution Day? (Yes, people do.)

If nothing else, a commitment to learning about American history will serve you in good stead this election season. 

The next time you hear a politician quote from the hallowed Declatution -- "We the people, who hold these truths to be self-evident, as we form a more perfect union to establish life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . " -- instead of thinking to yourself, "Yeah, I sort of get what you mean," you'll think, "Nice try, buddy -- you sort of won't get my vote until you work harder."

Huzzah! My July 4th Book Is On Sale!

Fourth of July is coming up, so it's a good time to let people know about my three popular history titles from Philly's own Quirk Books. One's on the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Another's about the signers of the U.S. Constitution. And the title of the last one says it all: Stuff Every American Should Know. All these books are available through the usual suspects, which you can find below. The Kindle ebook version of the Declaration book, Signing Their Lives Away, is on sale right now for $3.99 on Amazon. I don't know how long that sale's running, so you'd better grab it soon if you're at all curious. The book is a light-hearted, witty look at the men behind the founding document of the USA.

If you're in the market for a Ben Franklin or Tom Jefferson T-shirt, look no further.

If you want an autographed copy, contact my local bookstore, Malaprop's.

Good morrow to you all, good sires and ladies. Enjoy the Fourth.




Amazon's emailing my friends and readers

The Mesmerist by Joseph D'Agnese

This week I got four emails from readers and friends who reported that they’d gotten an email from Amazon alerting them that I had a new book coming out. This is the first time I’ve ever experienced this from Amazon, so I thought it was worth trying to analyze what’s going on.

First, the book in question is a small, stocking-stuffer-sized book published by Quirk Books, entitled Stuff Every American Should Know.

The Stuff Every…Should Know series sells well for Quirk, and they asked my wife/co-author and me to contribute a book of U.S. history trivia, as a result of our series for Quirk on the signers of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration. The signers books sell well in historic site gift shops, and Quirk thought it might be smart to do a “Stuff” history title. The book is really short—10,000 words—and lists for $9.99. The print edition is out June 5; the Kindle edition is already out. 

But look at what Amazon’s been sending to my readers. All of these emails were sent between 6:30 AM and 7:00 AM of the days in question.

On May 22, Reader #1, who has only bought my (traditionally published) children’s book—in other words, none of my history titles are in this person’s purchasing history—received this:

Amazon promo for Stuff Every American Should Know

Notice that the ad features the new book but also has room for four more titles, in this case my book for freelancers (Random House); a history title (Quirk); my children’s history title (Scholastic); and my weeks-old, self-published novel, The Mesmerist. (Bang drums, blow trumpets here.)

On May 24, Reader #2, who has only ever bought one of my self-published books, The Scientist and the Sociopath, reported receiving this email:

Amazon promo for Stuff Every American Should Know

In this case, Amazon dropped The Mesmerist and added my children’s book about the mathematician Fibonacci, traditionally published by Holt.

On May 25, Reader #3, who has bought my signer titles in the past as gifts, reported receiving this ad. Notice that it displays yet a different permutation of my titles. Clearly, the system omits from the ad any book which it knows the person has already has bought.

Amazon promo for Stuff Every American Should Know

My wife heard from a fourth reader who has only bought our freelancer title. Reader #4’s ad promotes the same Stuff title but touts it as my wife’s book. This makes sense; my wife’s byline comes first on our freelancer title in Amazon’s system. 

I have no idea how many of these ads went out this week. My contact at the publisher confirms that this is a “new” thing Amazon is trying, but she didn’t know if it’s only for certain titles or authors. It’s also not clear if this ad went out to people who had bought books similar to the Stuff” title.

I was excited to get some attention for not one, but two of my most recent books. The big question here is what impact have all these ads had on sales of all of my titles? I’d say, Meh. Judging from the ranks of the “older” books that have appeared in the ad, I’d say not much. I can tell you that the ads had virtually no impact on The Mesmerist, which is the title I was most curious about. 

For about two seconds I wondered if they’d ever send out something like this to announce the arrival of one of my self-pubbed titles, but I think it’s clear that this is aimed at drumming up pre-orders and self-pubbed titles don’t get logged into the system the same way as traditionally published titles, which have on-sale dates. But the system does use sales data from self-pubbed books and isn’t above promoting self-pubbed books in the “more” section.

As for Stuff Americans Should Know, it is now solidly in the five-figure rank range, a far cry from the deep six-figures it was a week ago. In fact, on May 23, when I checked the hardcover book’s rank, I saw that it had hit three lists:

Screen Shot 2012-05-23 at 7.08.33 PM.jpg

I just checked the title and the rank is slightly better and it’s still on the same three lists—all without racking up any reviews. I don’t expect this bounce to last long without the reviews.

So I guess we can say that the ad did its intended job, which was to drive sales and pre-orders for Stuff. I intend to check the sales figures of all the books that have appeared in this ad this week and report back if/when I learn anything interesting.

Some other news:

I’m looking into some other blog options because it’s becoming apparent that people actually do stop by to read this and I’d like the chance to interact with you in a manner better than this iWeb blog will allow. More on that as soon as I make a decision on platform.

I was surprised/delighted that The Mesmerist has picked up some reviews already from people I don’t actually know, which is gratifying. The most substantive review is here.

Both of my novels could still use some reviews, so I’m continuing my offer: If you’d like a free copy of either Jersey Heat or The Mesmerist in exchange for your honest review on Amazon and anywhere else you’d like to post, kindly contact me via my contact page and I’ll send you a file for your device. If you want to participate but don’t “do” devices, write me anyway and I’ll hook you up with a tidy PDF version. (Paperbacks coming soon; I promise.) And no, I’m not afraid that you might hate the books. I need reviews of all kinds, good and bad.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!