Book Club – Review

I didn’t write this. A friend of mine from graduate school, who first turned me on to this book, wrote it.

I imagine a common criticism of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is that it’s painfully dense. I don’t disagree, and in fact have to admit that I had a hard time getting into the book. I love history, but I think a bit of disservice is done to the vast number of topics that Zinn talks about by trying to cram them all into a consumable package. The nature of the beast of a book like this is that there is so much history to attempt to condense, but still attempting to give enough detail to carry through on your point. Overall it’s a good book and I understand why it’s such a popular read – even by high school students – but I still found myself skimming through many parts.

A fan of early American history as well as contemporary American history (if contemporary history isn’t too oxymoronic), I found myself most interested in the chapters at the beginning and the end of the book. I find it interesting the range of opinions and stories of how early settlers came to the New World and treated the indigenous peoples. Zinn is no different, and I think takes a very eye-opening walk through the violent tendencies of Christopher Columbus in his quest for fame. I’ve heard stories of these activities from several sources, and always find it interesting how long it takes me to reconcile this view of Columbus (and other historic figures) with the mythic view of these men that we get in grade school. I find it far more plausible that these were ruthless and fiercely ambitious men, but it never ceases to amaze me how much I struggle to accept these stories each time I read them. Zinn does an excellent – albeit lengthy – job of chronicling these events and presenting them in a very believable argument.

The same goes for the stories Zinn gives of the Founding Fathers. While I do not doubt these were calculating men, many of whom had the idea of independence in their plans from the early days of tensions between the colonies and England, I question the length to which Zinn goes to argue that some Founding Fathers actually encouraged and were anxious for tensions to reach a violent stage so as to further their cause. I’ve read these arguments before, although in seemingly less credible sources. I remain unconvinced whether reading the same seemingly extremist view of their actions in such a good book lends more weight to the arguments, or takes away from the credibility of Zinn’s work. I tend to fall more into the camp of McCullough’s John Adams and his view of the sentiments of the Founding Fathers.

Also – I really enjoyed reading the chapter about social movements in the later half of the 20th century and how they fell largely out of view of those in power, as well as the general public. I couldn’t help thinking of Sarah Palin reading this book (ha!) and nodding fiercely about the “mainstream media” ignoring these important causes. While the events Zinn discusses aren’t necessarily ones that Palin would care about… or maybe even know about… I found Zinn’s take on the movements and the reasons they went largely ignored quite interesting. Many I had heard before – Reagan and the AIDS crisis – but many of the others and the context behind them were quite intriguing and very fun to read. I think it was one of his better-written sections and I wasn’t able to put it down. Perhaps it was because I was so engrossed in the topic, but I found it much easier to trudge through than many other sections of the book.

Overall it was a good book. It’s really hard to write an engaging historical non-fiction book, and the task must be immensely harder when you endeavor to cover such a large period of time. Given that Zinn did a great job. I found it hard to wade through at times and just didn’t care about some of the minute detail he would go into on some topics, but there were far more areas of the book that I found quite interesting.

Discussion on this book will happen over at Merda D’Artista. Please join!

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