You know the old story: wee George Washington chopped down a cherry tree but could not tell a lie.
Columbus sailed the ocean blue….
Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag…..
The Civil War was fought over slavery…..
They are all just that: stories. Too often, a complex series of events that lead to major historical change are tidied up, and by virtue of being published in a history textbook, mythology becomes reality. (“History became legend. Legend became myth” and that sort of thing.)
As we enter a reality where citizens can choose their reality based on their biases, understanding history is even more important for placing the world in context. Here are some books that offer unique and accurate explanations of historical events.
Connections by James Burke – What does a power outage in the NYC subway have to do with the plow? Everything, it turns out. Connections is based on Burke’s 10-part documentary series of the same name. It literally changed how I view history and how I understand that “Change” happens in the world. There are few straight lines; events which affect us deeply may have begun by accident. You might want to read this after watching the series or vice versa, but read it. You’ll never look at the world the same way again.hi
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard – A lot of my reading time happens while my toddler takes a bath. I tell you this because I got so into SPQR that for that month, my son took a lot of baths. I let him play in bins full of dirt so we would need to bathe and I would get to read. It’s long and not easy to read when you’re tired, so I’m still working on it. This is not your 4th period History textbook chapter on The Roman Empire. She begins by dissecting the mythology and possible truth behind Rome’s origin story of the two wolves Romulus and Remus. From there, you’re taken on an exciting journey that also illuminates how important Rome’s story is to our modern life.
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell – When my father handed me this book, he said you have to hear Vowell’s signature voice to fully grasp her intent. It helps if you’re familiar with her segments on This American Life or as Violet in The Incredibles, but it’s not necessary. She is a full blown history junkie, and her journey to artifacts and monuments surrounding presidential assassinations tells us quite a bit about our country. I dare you to read this book and not want to make a trip to see a piece of Lincoln’s brain. In our current political climate, however, I wouldn’t suggest reading it in public. In fact, buy it in person at The Last Bookstore so no one can trace it back to you. Better safe than sorry and all that.
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn – This is one of those books I always thought about reading but never actually bought. Well, I walked into the library last week and there it was, on the table with the sign “I like big books and I cannot lie.” What better way to kick off a two week holiday break? Zinn’s controversial re-telling is from the perspective of America’s majority working class. At least, that’s what the internets tell me. I’ll let you know more in 2017.
Balkan Ghosts: a Journey Through History by Robert D. Kaplan – I picked up this book in 1999 before I traveled to Eastern Europe, to get a sense of the environment and people I was about to meet. I certainly learned much more from the trip itself, being lucky enough to work directly with artists in Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, but Balkan Ghosts offered a first person account of cultures who barely exist except as a footnote — or enemy — in history books, if they’re lucky. If you want an understanding of how terrorism becomes policy and ethnic warfare exists in daily lives, pick up this book.
Big Girls Don’t Cry by Rebecca Traister – Now that we’ve been through two more since the historic 2008 election of Obama, it’s even more important to read about recent history. Traister was a political columnist for Salon at the time, and personally shifted her support from John Edwards to Hillary Clinton. Her intent in writing the book, as reported in The Christian Science Monitor, is to “think about the history that we all made and we all witnessed. I really want those of us who were pained by it or who were exhausted by it to understand the way that living through that election changed our country. Because I believe it did.” I can’t wait for Traister to take on 2016.
Voices From Chernobyl by Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich – Oh, this book. If you had asked me about Chernobyl before I read this book of interviews, I may have mumbled “…nuclear something?” I certainly would not think people were still affected and influenced by it today. Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by Chernobyl ten years after the accident in 1996, when many of them just began to connect their health issues with the accident at the nuclear power plant. Patriotism, propaganda and radionuclides collide through the words of those barely living through it. Some interviews are pages and pages long while others are just one paragraph. Soldiers and mothers and politicians and children all have their say. Not for the faint of heart.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi – Have you seen or read Persepolis, the memoir of a young woman growing up during Iran’s revolution? I learned more history from that movie and graphic novel than I ever heard in school. I cannot imagine the strength needed to stand up to that kind of regime, never mind try to read books like Lolita in a time when women are treated like objects. I can think of no better way to learn about a culture than how they deal with an incredible change. Seeing it through the lens of Western “classic” literature gives the American reader a personal rosetta stone of sorts.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – “I won’t be in the history books anyway, only you. Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse – conducted the entire revolution by themselves.” – (the character of) John Adams* in 1776, The Musical
Poor Hamilton hardly makes it into the history books except when it comes to the infamous duel where Burr shot him, and even then it is more to illuminate Burr’s involvement rather than anything about Hamilton himself. The birth of America as a sovereign nation is one of the most simplified parts of our history. The guy who created our entire financial system out of nothing? He was killed in a duel. Chernow takes us from Hamilton the immigrant to the end of his journey, the only part of Hamilton’s life I honestly remembered before the musical. I bet Chernow never believed that his book would be a best-seller among either the musical theatre or hip hop crowd, never mind both.
*If you aren’t familiar with Hamilton, it has one of the absolute best John Adams burns I’ve ever heard: