If you could name one book that more than any other affected your life, what would it be?

Forty years ago, while waiting for the cashier in Levine's stationery store on Tulip Avenue in Floral Park, I noticed for sale on the counter by the register two bright, hard-cover volumes wrapped in clear plastic. This was unusual. Levine's was not in the business of selling books.

It was, and still is, your basic stationery store -- newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, small gifts and other novelties. But these volumes, for some reason, caught my eye, and closer inspection revealed the title: "The Glory and the Dream, A Narrative History of the United States, 1932-1972," by William Manchester.

I was 19 and had not been much of a reader, and I can't recall the price for the two volumes, but whatever it was, I was not prepared to pay it. Instead, I walked a few blocks to the village library, where I was advised that the books were not yet available. But a friendly librarian took my phone number and several weeks later, I received a message that they had arrived. Both volumes combined for 1,600-plus pages -- for me, at the time, an intimidating undertaking.

What followed was a journey through 1930s, '40s '50s and '60s America. Played out before me were the hopes and dreams, failures and successes, tragedies and joys of the two generations before me. Music, box office hits and popular radio programs played as much a part as war and politics.

"There is a school of historians," Manchester observed, "which holds that great events may tell us less about the past than the trivia accumulated by ordinary people -- the letters, pressed flowers, prom programs, cherished toys and the like saved by those who loved them and could not bear to throw them away."

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Manchester was a gifted writer who could shift, seamlessly, from the jungles of Guadalcanal to the songs of the Andrews Sisters. So with the substance came the flavor. And many passages, such as accounts of the 1938 Long Island hurricane and the detonation of the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, are the finest and most searing descriptions I have ever encountered. For most adults, I realized at the time, these volumes provided a trip down memory lane, but for me they were a window into the world of my parents and grandparents.

In the 1970s, a single-volume paperback in fine print was released, and this time I unhesitatingly plunked down the required sum. I remember taking it with me everywhere, reading it to and from work, between classes at college, on store lines. So that when I probably should have been reading my "Money and Banking" textbook, or working out some problem in calculus, I was instead engrossed in "The Glory and the Dream." Never again would I be intimidated by the length of a book.

Some years ago, while browsing at a used-book sale, I happened upon a hardcover, two-volume first edition. Like running into an old, long-lost friend, I could hardly believe my luck. I gave my old dog-eared paperback to a friend and added the hardcovers to a bookcase, where they remain. Recently, in a nostalgic nod to the 40th anniversary of that discovery in Levine's, I began rereading "The Glory and the Dream," cover to cover. Once again, it proved irresistible. But this time there was an advantage -- the experience of the 40 years since I first read it, which leaves me with a perspective I then lacked.

For what strikes me now is how much the past 40 years resembled the 40 years that preceded them -- national triumphs and tragedies, economic booms and reversals, periods of war and peace, conquests and retreats, existential threats, dire warnings about the future, crises of national confidence, social unrest, fractious and often mean politics, hopes gloriously achieved and others ignominiously scrapped. Yes, the generations before us had them, too. Yet somehow our nation has survived and prospered, though few of us would deny that there remain some dreams still unfulfilled.

So, as we enter yet another contentious political season, perhaps we would do well to remember, in the words of writer John Brooks, whom Manchester quotes in concluding his masterpiece, that "America has an old habit of regretting a dream just lost, and resolving to capture it next time." In the end, that is the legacy of "The Glory and the Dream" -- and our legacy as well.

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