Friday, July 09, 2010

Don't Know Much About History, by Kenneth C. Davis

Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned, by Kenneth C. Davis

With the subtitle Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned this book has a high target, and largely succeeds in hitting it. I quite enjoyed the unique question and answer format Davis employs, as it gave me the chance to decide if I knew the answer or not before reading. Some are fairly straightforward such as “Who were the witches of Salem?” and “What happened at the Bay of Pigs?” but others were much more obscure (to me, anyway) like “Why is there a statue of Benedict Arnold’s boot?” or “What was the Cross of Gold?” A sense of sly irreverence is often evident as well, such as the section on FBI successes and failures in the last twenty years titled, “Where is Fox Mulder when we need him?”

George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When reading a book with the breadth and scope of this one, stretching from Columbus’ voyage in 1492 to 9/11, seeing the cyclical nature of history validates Santayana’s quote many times over. While not exactly a “doomed to repeat it” scenario, the most striking parallel I found was in a discussion about who elected George Washington president: “Political parties were not only absent at this time, but were considered contemptible.” Sadly the party system seems to be firmly embedded in the political bedrock of today, but I know of very few people that don’t consider the situation contemptible.

History with its predisposition to dates, names, and places can be very dry, but Davis does an excellent job of keeping the various anecdotes enthralling. He writes in the introduction, “The only way to make history and politics interesting, I have long believed, is by telling stories of real people doing real things.” All I can say to that is, “Well done.”

First Sentence:
Few eras in American history are shrouded in as much myth and mystery as the long period covering America’s discovery and settlement.

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