BookBrowse Reviews The Unwinding by George Packer

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Unwinding

An Inner History of the New America

by George Packer

The Unwinding by George Packer
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2013, 448 pages
    Mar 2014, 448 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

Buy This Book

About this Book



By focusing on the lives of a few Americans across a broad socio-economic spectrum, George Packer attempts a sweeping analysis of how the United States has reached its current state of "unwinding"

In The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer looks at the current state of the US – the decline of our economy, the effects of technological advancements on both industry and individuals, our failing political system, the rise of certain superstars – and how we got here.

What makes this book so unique is the way Packer presents his information. Rather than providing a singular history from an omniscient point of view (as you might expect), he summarizes the life story of a handful of people over multiple chapters: Dean Price, a born-again entrepreneur who helps popularize biofuel in the US; Tammy Thomas, an African American factory worker struggling to raise her family in impoverished Ohio; Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire and co-founder of PayPal; and Jeff Connaughton, an idealistic Washington lobbyist who packs it in and pens The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. Packer shows how the changing times shaped their decisions and actions, and contextualizes really well. He provides family histories, looking back generations to their parents and grandparents, and he explores their personal fears and motivations. He also gives shorter glimpses into the lives of highly influential Americans – Newt Gingrich, Raymond Carver, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Warren, Jay-Z, Sam Walton, to name a few.

From the very beginning, it's clear that Packer conducted extensive research for this project. (He provides an abridged bibliography, which is very useful. In particular, I enjoyed looking at the online companion to his chapter openings, which are collages of headlines, advertisements, pop culture references, and songs from a given year). Working with this quantity of material couldn't have been easy, and Packer is able to capture and summarize the information with great craftsmanship. Though very different, his characters' stories echo each other in subtle ways, and it's fascinating to see what ingenuity, determination, fear, greed, and freedom can produce across different socio-economic classes.

However, the author's journalistic style – reporting facts but not commenting on or analyzing what happens – was somewhat disappointing. I was hoping to get more of his professional assessment, to have his reflections act as the thread that holds everything together. He doesn't explain so much as observe, and at times I felt excluded from the conversation. I think a lot of readers will be interested in this book because they're looking to make sense of this chaotic, often frustrating time in our country's history, and they are trying to understand something about their own lives – how they relate to the "new America" - but (outside of the two-page prologue) I didn't get that from the material he presented. I also felt like the title wasn't entirely appropriate. Packer doesn't over-idealize the past; his book doesn't imply that all was once good in the United States or that it's terrible now. His work highlights the organic, simultaneous growth and deterioration of this country and its people. The title, however, hints at the opposite, that what is now "unwinding" was once "wound," that the "new America" is a static and unchanging product of history, rather than a simultaneously evolving and devolving country.

Overall, George Packer's The Unwinding takes an ingenious approach to interpreting today's America. His way of considering the whole via its parts is intimate and insightful, and he allows readers to watch the events of the last 30 years unfold like a science experiment. Though I don't feel that I walked away with a deeper understanding of my place in this "unwinding," Packer has given me plenty to think about. Without being dogmatic or overly depressing (though I wouldn't call the end result optimistic), the author tells the story of people who are, in many ways, different as different can be, but he also highlights their sense of the American spirit. He writes:

"Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion. The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before – freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again."

For an interview with George Packer on The Daily Show, please click video below:


Reviewed by Elena Spagnolie

This review is from the July 10, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Dean Price and Biodiesel

One-Month Free Membership

Discover your next great read here

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Goodbye Days
    Goodbye Days
    by Jeff Zentner
    Guilt can be a heavy burden for anyone to manage, but it's especially difficult for teenagers. ...
  • Book Jacket: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
    The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
    by Hannah Tinti
    Hannah Tinti follows her spectacular 2008 debut, The Good Thief, with a novel of uncommon ...
  • Book Jacket: Music of the Ghosts
    Music of the Ghosts
    by Vaddey Ratner
    Music of the Ghosts is about healing and forgiveness, but it is also about identity and the revival ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Nest
by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

A funny and acutely perceptive debut about four siblings and the fate of their shared inheritance.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    No One Is Coming to Save Us
    by Stephanie Powell Watts

    One of Entertainment Weekly, Nylon and Elle's most anticipated books of 2017.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Manderley Forever
    by Tatiana de Rosnay

    Bestselling author Tatiana de Rosnay pays homage to Daphne du Maurier.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

Courage - a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a mental willingness to endure it.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

Y S M B, I'll S Y

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

Modal popup -