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America: From the Outside, Looking In

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ANTHOLOGIES of quotes, anecdotes, and aphorisms seem made for the 1990s. Who, after all, has time to read the authors' works in their entirety? Better to enjoy the bons mots harvested by some poor soul who's slogged his way through the originals to find the morsels worth savoring. Such people deserve credit. There's an art in selecting a good passage from a longer work. First, it must stand on its own, read as though written just for those of us who enjoy our reading in bite-sized portions. Second, it must make its point at one jab, evoking humor, pathos, insight, or wit.

Perhaps a good anecdote shares a quality with the short poem. We bring to the tidbit our own experience and automatically sketch in the missing elements. We imagine we know all of what the writer intended. And since the experience is ours, not the writer's, who's to say we're wrong?

What more fertile field could there be for an anecdote-gatherer than Americans themselves? Particularly now, at a corner in history, when the last lonely superpower is (yet again) in search of its identity. The fact that trying to sum up America in any text, short or long, is impossible doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile. Reading the passages on this page consecutively produces the effect of echo upon echo, each building on the last until a meaningful sound is heard, perhaps short of understanding, but still, I think, rewarding.

The excerpts below are a sample from the book ``Americans: The View From Abroad.'' To me, they read like postcards from America's friends and skeptics around the world.

British journalist Alistair Cooke on the Grand Canyon:

We walked out onto a terrace, and there it was: the biggest hole on earth, thirteen miles from rim to rim, two miles deep, down a hellish immensity to a trickling river. And a silence as absolute as death.... Travel writers usually announce that something is indescribable and then proceed to writhe through inadequate descriptions. I won't be caught in this trap. No matter how many home movies you've seen of it, or colored centerfolds, the thing itself is beyond human experience.... We marched a mile or two along the rim and watched the sun go over, and the mile-long shadows shifting across layer after layer of red and purple and yellow mesas the size of cities.... When all the empires are dust, it will be there, with the little hawks and the big buzzards wheeling and gliding to the end of time.

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