This book is a nice way to enter into the great American conversation, the great American experiment, hopes and fears, modes of thought, movements, tragedies, and great people. If you don't get a chance to read these books--Of Plymouth Plantation, The Federalist Papers, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Walden, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Souls of Black Folk, The Promised Land, On the Road, Feminine Mystique--then I especially recommend reading this overview of them. For each book, Parini gives a brief section on the history of the books publication, the author, what the book is about, and it's lasting impression on America. Very readable, and the themes flow together in an amazing way.
We start with a small band of pilgrims landing on the coast of America, a great new experiment! then three "anonymous" Founders arguing for the existence of a federal government; then the amazing accomplishments of Franklin, a real Enlightenment, dabling in everything, pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps man; then Manifest Destiny; then escaping to the woods to reclaim your identity and get rid of your stuff; then the horrors of slavery brought to light; then Twain unleashes his writing genuis; then black folk are not in chains, but still not free; then mass immigration and the promise of American freedom; then the Beat Poet's re-finding meaning in a world of destruction; and finally the "second wave" of women's rights, women who can vote but are chained to the home.
Also check the back of the book for 100 more reading ideas (Common Sense, Democracy in America, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Nature, Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, Up from Slavery, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible Man, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions...to name a few).