Friday, August 5, 2011

Guest Review: Don't Know Much About History

Summary: Here, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its debut as a New York Times bestseller, is the revised, updated, and expanded edition of the classic anti-textbook that changed the way we look at history. 

First published two decades ago, when the "closing of the American mind" was in the headlines, Don't Know Much About® History proved Americans don't hate history—just the dull version that was dished out in school. With wit and irreverence, in question-and-answer form, Don't Know Much About® History took readers on a rollicking ride through more than five hundred years of American history, from Columbus's voyages to recent events. The book became an instant classic and has sold more than 1.6 million copies. 

Now Davis has brought his groundbreaking work up to the present, including the history of an "Era of Broken Trust," from the end of the Clinton administration through the recent Great Recession. This additional material covers the horrific events of 9/11 and the rise of conspiracy theorists, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the New Orleans levees, the global financial meltdown, the election of Barack Obama, and the national controversy of same-sex marriage.

For history buffs and history-phobes alike, for longtime fans who need a refresher course, and for a new generation of Americans who are still in the dark about America's past, Davis shows once more why People magazine said, "Reading him is like returning to the classroom of the best teacher you ever had." -- Harper

Today, I'm so glad to welcome my dad to Booking Mama. He recently read (yes read!) the entire book DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY, ANNIVERSARY EDITION by Kenneth C. Davis. I told him he could just skim it and use it as a reference book, but he decided to read it anyway. While I did hand this one over to him as soon as I received it, I probably should have read it myself. Goodness knows, I could learn a thing or two from a history book like this one!

Here are his thoughts:

This third edition of DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AMERICAN HISTORY BUT NEVER LEARNED is the twentieth anniversary edition of this book originally written by Kenneth C. Davis in 1990. The latest edition picks up where the 2002 edition left off and includes among other topics Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the meltdown of the global economy and the election of Barack Obama and his first 1.5 years in office. According to the Preface it also amplified on material presented in the prior edition.

The 696 page tome is organized chronologically starting with the discovery of America and moving through historical events such as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression to more recent events such as the Gulf Wars and Obama’s election. The format of each of the nine chapters is broken down into subheadings in the form of questions which are then answered in the text. Additionally each chapter includes “American Voices” which are relevant quotes on the subject matter and “Must Read” which are recommended readings on the subject matter. It also includes a lengthy Appendix covering such things as the Bill of Rights and the Constitutional Amendments, a discussion of the Electoral College and a list of the U.S. Presidents and their administrations.

DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY is in general a good characterization of American history and the author does debunk many of the myths we all have been exposed to. Davis effectively shows the human side of our American heroes like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. The author also does a good job of telling the stories of influential blacks such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Subject matter such as Pocahontas and John Smith, Betsy Ross and the flag, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, President Johnson’s impeachment, sinking of the Lusitania, the Teapot Dome scandal, Sputnik, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Contract with America reflect interesting historical moments that most of us have not reflected on in a long time.

My one criticism of the book is that I thought Kenneth Davis was not always objective in presenting his material. For example I thought he was very opinionated in his presentation of among other issues the Regan presidency, the 2000 presidential election, and the Viet Nam and Iraqi wars. He vilified industrialists such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford and Morgan without acknowledging that they also made significant contributions. In reading the text I felt the author was a little light on highlighting American accomplishments and a little heavy-handed in exposing America’s faults. This lack of objectivity can casts doubts on what is presented.

True to his purpose in writing the book, Kenneth Davis does make history interesting and presents the material in an entertaining, simple and effective manner. Additionally the format lends itself well to reading only those topics that are of interest to the reader at any given time. Anyone who reads the book will learn something new about American history. Contrary to the title it does not present “everything you need to know about American history and never learned” and should not be used as a sole source of American history facts.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in American history with the caveat that the reader must be cautious of the author’s effort to simplify a complex subject like history.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy and to Booking Pap Pap for his review.


Julie @ Read Handed said...

I have Davis' Don't Know Much about the Bible book, but I haven't read this one. I'd really like to because I love history (especially American history). I would agree though that it is frustrating when an author is obviously biased. As long as the reader recognizes the bias and takes the words with a grain of salt, it won't do too much damage. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love Kenneth Davis for the car. He is great for short vignettes when you run errands!

bermudaonion said...

This does sound interesting, but I'm not sure I like the fact that the author seems to have inserted his opinion in parts of the book. Having said that, I do think the format sounds like one that would work for me for nonfiction.

Karlie said...

Nice review Pap Pap :)