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American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution [Kindle Edition]

Garrett Epps
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

In 1987, E.L. Doctorow celebrated the Constitution's bicentennial by reading it. "It is five thousand words long but reads like fifty thousand," he said. Distinguished legal scholar Garrett Epps--himself an award-winning novelist--disagrees. It's about 7,500 words. And Doctorow "missed a good deal of high rhetoric, many literary tropes, and even a trace of, if not wit, at least irony," he writes. Americans may venerate the Constitution, "but all too seldom is it read." In American Epic, Epps takes us through a complete reading of the Constitution--even the "boring" parts--to achieve an appreciation of its power and a holistic understanding of what it says. In this book he seeks not to provide a definitive interpretation, but to listen to the language and ponder its meaning. He draws on four modes of reading: scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic. The Constitution's first three words, for example, sound spiritual--but Epps finds them to be more aspirational than prayer-like. "Prayers are addressed to someone . . . either an earthly king or a divine lord, and great care is taken to name the addressee. . . . This does the reverse. The speaker is 'the people,' the words addressed to the world at large." He turns the Second Amendment into a poem to illuminate its ambiguity. He notices oddities and omissions. The Constitution lays out rules for presidential appointment of officers, for example, but not removal. Should the Senate approve each firing? Can it withdraw its "advice and consent" and force a resignation? And he challenges himself, as seen in his surprising discussion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in light of Article 4, which orders states to give "full faith and credit" to the acts of other states. Wry, original, and surprising, American Epic is a scholarly and literary tour de force.


Editorial Reviews

Review

"Garrett Epps has done the impossible. He's made reading every Article in the United States Constitution fun and exciting."--Phillip Margolin, New York Times bestselling author of Sleight of Hand

"This is an astonishing, revelatory book. By reading the constitution line-by-line, Garrett Epps shows what it actually says and doesn't say--and in the process strips away two centuries of imputed 'meaning.' His mastery of history, literary analysis, and the law make American Epic an unforgettable book. The reader comes away as if from a first encounter with our constitution--with a new sense of what the founders said and meant."--David Ignatius, Washington Post columnist and author of Bloodmoney

"The best tour guides love the journeys on which they take their charges, and Garrett Epps loves the Constitution of the United States. American Epic makes it clear that Epps was a novelist before he was a law professor--not because he makes stuff up, but because he appreciates the scriptural, lyrical and, of course, epic readings of the document no less than the legal. Learning about our Constitution with Epps turns an honorable civic duty into an act of sheer joy."--E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent

"Garrett Epps--law professor, journalist, novelist, and poet--surrounds the Constitution of the United States with all four of his vocations. He moves seamlessly between them in his close reading of the text. The result is not so much an interpretation as poignant recognition of the puzzles that make the country's formative document a lasting work of art."--Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor of Law, Literature, and Criticism, Columbia University, author of Alone in America and The Trial in American Life

"With American Epic, Epps has written another masterpiece. Epps takes us on a wondrous journey through the Constitution, exploring every word of the remarkable document that so many venerate but few actually read. Even the most devoted student of the Constitution will find much to learn. American Epic is a revealing, thought-provoking, and wonderfully written examination of America's foundational text. "--Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law, author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America


"Epps has created the ideal study guide for civics and political science classes, an intelligent and provocative tour through the fascinatingly complicated, vitally important blueprint of the United States." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)


From the Inside Flap

Americans may venerate the Constitution, but all too seldom do they read it. In American Epic, distinguished legal scholar and award-winning novelist Garrett Epps takes us through a complete reading of the Constitution--even the "boring" parts--to achieve an appreciation of its power and a holistic understanding of what it says. He seeks not to provide a definitive interpretation, but to listen to the language and ponder its meaning as revealed through its use of high rhetoric, literary tropes, and even occasional irony. Drawing on literary traditions from the Bible and Homer to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, he outlines four modes of reading: scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic. For instance, the Constitution's famous first three words, "We the people", may sound spiritual, but Epps finds them to be more aspirational in their attempt to define the speaker to the world. He turns the Second Amendment into a poem to illuminate its ambiguity. He notices oddities and omissions. The Constitution lays out rules for presidential appointment of officers, for example, but not removal. Should the Senate approve each firing? Can it withdraw its "advice and consent" and force a resignation? And he challenges his own interpretations, as seen in his surprising discussion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in light of Article 4, which orders states to give "full faith and credit" to the acts of other states.  Wry, original, and surprising, American Epic is a scholarly and literary

Product Details

  • File Size: 960 KB
  • Print Length: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 12, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00DW70FAS
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #339,663 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
(9)
4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Epps does it differently. June 8, 2014
Format:Hardcover
The night I finished this book, I only gave it four stars. Why? Because early in the book, while going over the main body of the Constitution, I found myself bored in a couple places. That said, once he got into the Amendments, it was hard to put it down.

Why did I change my rating from "like it" to "LOVE it"? Because this should be required reading. Epps does it differently. While he gives you his interpretation of what the various articles and amendments mean, he also provides examples of alternative interpretations, both current ones and historical ones.

Few writers and scholars have the self-confidence to present their views alongside conflicting views for your consideration.

Three cheers for Garrett Epps.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Critical thinking but an easy read March 25, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this as a mandatory textbook for my Political Science class but ended up reading the entire book for pleasure. Reading about the Constitution doesn't really sound fun but the way Epps writes is understandable and relatable. This isn't a book about what the Constitution means; it's a book that pulls examples of the many uses of certain articles and amendments throughout history allowing for YOU to make your own interpretation.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars honest appraisal February 21, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Great read. He puts a modern twist on the Constitution. Love the history. Gives the material context and really helps to understand our founding document.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible take on the Constitution January 29, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I'm not totally finished (I'm only up to the 22nd Amendment), but it has already given me a new appreciation and understanding of our Constitution. The author uses a literary point-of-view, as well as a legal one and this adds to the reader's interest.

This is a book I would recommend to my friends -- those who are liberal, conservative or not interested in politics at all.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional Guided Tour January 10, 2015
Format:Hardcover
Like an atom, the USA is held together by tension among opposing, if not repelling forces. This natural state of affairs is dealt with in the constitution, which recognizes three such conflicts: between the federal and state governments, between Congress and the president, and between government and the people. Along the way it attempts to clarify all kinds of situations, but the imprecision of the framers making it up as a they went along and the very nature and imprecision of language itself necessitates a guide to talk us through it. Epps conducts this tour with verve, style, hints of cynicism and sarcasm, and a lot of direct experience.

Many of us have read the constitution, and find it fairly clear. But when it is challenged, the nuances of the words, the syntax and the punctuation take on grave significance beyond their heft. Epps offers context, giving us the many sides of arguments, and with the backstory of the challenges – social, legislative and judicial – that forced the issues. He usually doesn’t take sides, and calls himself out when he does. He likes to compare the writing style to poetry, and divides the modes of reading the constitution into four: scriptural, lyric, legal and epic. This is not something the average American would consider when reading the Bill of Rights, but then they wouldn’t normally be guided by a constitutional lawyer and scholar. It makes the world of difference.

Epps calls this fine parsing, and that manages to understate the case.
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