Reading History

As I grow older, I am finding that I read nonfiction more often. I have begun to take a new interest in the people who have affected historical events. Maybe it’s because I wonder about what my place in the world will be.

I prefer history that is readable and appealing. Barbara W. Tuchman was the first author I remember reading that made history compelling and unlike a school assignment.  A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century (Knopf, 1984) and Guns of August (Macmillan, 1988) are two of her titles that immediately come to mind.

Other readable authors include Robert K. Massie, Jon Meacham, and Stacy Schiff.

But my favorite of all is David G. McCullough. As I have mentioned to you before, John Adams (Simon & Schuster, 2001) ranks as one of my all-time favorite books. John and Abigail Adams come alive so vividly, that the story of America takes on a new and fresh meaning. Despite hardship and separation, they lived their lives fully and helped to found a great nation along the way.

In all of his books, McCullough deeply engages the reader in the social milieu and personal stories of the people living through historical times.

Truman (Simon & Schuster, 1992), and Mornings on Horseback (Simon & Schuster, 1981) sparked my interest in these important men, providing a better understanding of early events that formed their characters. Harry S. Truman, who came from modest surroundings, led the country during historically significant times. In contrast, young Theodore Roosevelt, born to a socially prominent family, was determined to overcome his frail constitution and live up to his father’s standards.

McCullough’s books document the human endeavor behind visionary projects. The Great Bridge: the Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (Simon & Schuster, 2001) describes the building of the longest suspension bridge in the world, requiring feats of engineering and the loss of many lives. Similarly, The Path Between the Seas: the Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (Simon & Schuster, 1977) emphasizes the enormous commitment of many people to achieve completion of the canal. The Johnstown Flood (Simon & Schuster, 1968) is more of a cautionary tale about projects gone awry. In May 1889, a dam burst in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, killing 2000 people downstream. It was a national scandal. The dam, built to form a lake for the enjoyment of the wealthy, was allowed to deteriorate despite warnings of possible danger. As in his other books, McCullough quotes from diaries and written accounts, giving immediacy to the story.

 1776 (Simon & Schuster, 2005) is a downright stirring story telling of individuals from all walks of life who marched with General Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence. It should be required reading for all Americans, especially in today’s fractured society.

His recent book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon and Schuster, 2011), describes Americans who traveled to, lived in, and were changed by Paris during Victorian times. Paris was indeed the center of the civilized world.

These books are available from your local library and from Parnassus Books, Nashville.

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