I‘ve been reading Don’t Know Much About History, one of those (your subject here)-for-dummies books that condenses the entire American experience into about 600 pages. Normally, this is not the kind of book I would buy, and neither would the wife, but Barnes & Noble had a two-for-one sale going and so she grabbed this while the clerk waited. We both like history.
And, not to brag, but we do know something about it. It’s been interesting to compare this fast-forward presentation with the more sedate and heavily footnoted stuff I’ve read about the same events. Having just spent four months plodding through the 50 years between Thomas Jefferson and Zachary Taylor, covering the same span in about 60 pages is like a ride in a fast car.
That’s not a bad thing. I think most Americans are proudly ignorant of the past, and a fleeting exposure to the nation’s history has to be better than none at all. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement might benefit from this book — the part about the Know-Nothing party, for example. The only problem I have with Kenneth C. Davis’ for-dummies approach is that he tends to cast every landmark as a monument to some uniquely American strain of greed and corruption.
Yes, there’s a lot of that in our history, and it continues today. I think most of us will agree that nothing straight can ever be made from crooked timber — but that’s not an American thing; it’s a mankind thing. Blind self-loathing is just as bad as blind patriotism. You’ve got to take a global view.
Apart from that, Don’t Know Much About History is a pretty good recap of where we’ve been. And — if you believe Shakespeare’s line “what’s past is prologue” — where we’re headed.