Laura tells me that you folks can’t wait for my picks for the year. Well, I hope the wait is worth it, because this year was a great one; I had a really hard time coming up with five books to recommend. So many top-notch works out there; I’ve done my best to select those which may appeal to the general, educated reader (that means YOU!).
This year is a bit unusual because three of the five are primary source materials. You’ll also notice that I went on a US history bender. This is perhaps the first year with no Classical stuff. Why, you may ask? Probably because this year our fair land made so little sense that I had to hunt the beasts lurking deep within our collective subconscious psyche. What the hell is going on down there? You kids shut up and go to bed! Unfashionably Jungian, I know, but I needed understanding.
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
The best book I’ve read this year, and that says a lot, considering the strength of this year’s set. You can thank Laura’s father for this one; he highly recommended it to me, and I pass that recommendation to you.
I never had all that much interest in early 19th century US history (funny clothes and goofy hats, runnin’ around barefoot and drunk all the time, fightin’ and praisin’; fifteen miles on the Erie Canal and so on). True that, but so much more. This was an era of social, economic, and political revolution, all accelerated by world-historical technological change. Swap telegraphs and railroads for computers and the internet, and you realize that plus ça change . . . Religious revival, political agitation, anti-immigrant feeling, an unpopular and legally questionable war, regional politics, politicized media,the debate over the federal role in internal development and the national economy. And of course, overshadowing it all is the most wrenching issue in US history: slavery. You see what’s on the horizon, and it’s not pretty.
Prof. Howe is a superb and imaginative writer as well as an outstanding historian.Yes, a historian is a product of his times, and his argument may be subconsciously rooted in the recent past, but he does not deliberately draw parallels between then and now (I only caught one off hand reference to the Iraq War). Five stars. You won’t regret this one.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life
As thorough a biography of George Washington as you will ever read. The more I learn about this man, the more amazed at our splendid good fortune to have him in charge during the Revolution. I’m not sure that you could call him modest or humble,but he certainly had the awareness and understanding that events were much bigger than he, and that he had awesome responsibilities to shoulder. Lesser men would have succumbed to temptation or descended into pettiness; Washington had his flaws and Chernow doesn’t hesitate to point them out. Many at the time did succumb to one of more of the deadly sins, but many more did not, which is all the more astounding. Puts some perspective on our present lot of leading Americans.
Grant, Ulysses S. Grant. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters
An American Caesar without the Caesar. In other words, masterly writing from the mind of a career soldier, but without any acknowledgement of his great accomplishments. Grant’s writing is clear and concise, each sentence to-the-point, each paragraph crafted logically, each chapter leading the reader to the obvious and well-known destination. The entire work is lucid and self-deprecating, describing his first-hand experiences in the Mexican and Civil Wars without the political spin. Don’t get me wrong; he is as fervent a Republican (as in the Party of Lincoln) as one could find, but what is most amazing about Grant is that he is extraordinarily magnanimous. He does not have an unkind word for anyone. Again, puts our present crop in an unflattering light.
Sledge, E. B. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
Narrating his experiences in another brutal war is E. B. Sledge. In 2010 HBO broadcast The Pacific, a mini-series following three young Marines across the Pacific,hopping from one nasty island to the next, fighting tenacious Japanese soldiers and slowly devolving into savagery. Horrible tales. So after viewing the series, I turned to the memoirs. E. B. Sledge is a fine writer with a keen eye for detail, a talent for describing unusual characters, and intelligent and observant enough to have thoughtful opinions on his situation. The image of the old marine scrubbing his privates in the shower with a wire brush sums up all we need to know about the Marine Corp. A heroic yet modest figure who did what was expected of him and tried to retain his sense of decency and humanity in extremely difficult circumstances.
de Castaneda de Najera, Pedro. Narrative of the Coronado Expedition.
I rediscovered this one last year: a first person account of Coronado’s expedition in 1540 to Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. In search of the Seven Cities of Cibola, Coronado and his men explore difficult terrain and make contact with the natives of the region, with predictable results. I first read this account years ago for a history course on early modern Latin American history. I spent days with this book in my right hand and an atlas in my left. Fascinating reading and truly a first-class historical document, written by an average Joe on an extraordinary journey.
Believe it or not, I liberated this from somebody’s desk at the firm. The poor fellow was no longer with us (or “pursuing other opportunities”, as we are told), and this book was destined for the trash heap. His neighbors shrugged their shoulders, not caring about the great importance of this work. I tried hard to convince them but my arguments fell upon deaf ears. Philistines more interested in the call of the Horn of Mammon! If they read this book they would realize that it’s all a fantasy!
I’m a popular guy at the firm.
So, I hope you enjoy this year’s readings. For bonus points, I suggest you checkout Alan Taylor’s The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies and Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff. More good stuff, and makes me realize that I don’t know enough about the Great White North. Canada and the U.S. have always seen each other as alternatives to each other, going back to the Revolution and further defined by the War of 1812. And honorable mention goes to a jolly fun book, Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (which I didn’t finish because I lost it on the bus. Arrgh.)