With the 4th of July this weekend, we’re sure to see a ton of book lists focused on American independence and hisory. While we know those lists will have some merit, we wanted to talk a bit about the parts of our past that can get pushed aside.
Years of teaching American history through approved curriculum has made it very clear to me what tends to be completely glossed over for most of us. So, while I think it’s great to celebrate independence and the good things about our country, I can’t help but think about books that shed light on the truth so many of us miss. Books like James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States are so great at showing the other side. (As a sidenote, I worked with the new AP US History curriculum before it was released and was SO excited about the changes that shift a little in this direction…only to see it receive HEAPS of backlash. Of course.)
I love A People’s History of the United States!
Howard Zinn is a personal hero of mine. A People’s History should be required reading for all Americans. Books that speak to the truth are ones that we should all be clamoring for. I tend to like facts, not maybes.
I should say that I love a good tongue-in-cheek book about our nation. Stephen Colbert’s I am America (And so can You!) is a riot. If you’re looking for an excellent parody of a textbook look no further than Jon Stewart’s America.
I’m also a big fan of nonfiction that sheds some real, albeit controversial, light on our Founding Fathers. Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek is one of my favorites.
Ah, Jefferson. One of the finest nonfiction reading experiences I’ve ever had was Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. The man was endlessly fascinating. A walking contradiction if there ever was one.
I liked Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates (for the most part) for its enthusiasm for telling the stories of our past, and its attention to correcting many myths (and blatant false teachings) surrounding the Puritans. I don’t think people who believe “America is God’s country” will like it very much, though. 😉
Another title that has been on my mind this week is Azar Nafisi’s memoir The Republic of Imagination. Seeing those American novels through the perspective of someone who came to the United States as an immigrant was very powerful. It’s a cliché to say “we take so much for granted” but wow, we really do. That book helped me to appreciate our classics on a deeper level.
If you’re looking for a harrowing anti-war novel, I don’t think it’s necessary to look any further than Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo – about a soldier that loses all of his limbs, his entire face and is left without any way to communicate – trapping him in his own mind. While this book feels very modern, Vietnam Era, at least, it was actually published in 1939 and is about a soldier who was serving in WWI. It’s difficult, but very very good.
I read that book in the 90’s. Do I have to admit that I only heard of it due to Metallica’s song One? Anyway, April is right. It’s an amazing book.
It doesn’t really have anything to do with American history, but to bring us back to the holiday itself, I’m throwing out a vote for Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek because it’s amazing and the name gives me a free pass.
Tell us, readers, what are your favorite unconventional American history books? Are there any novels that you think best tell the story of America? If you’re not from the US, which American history books have been the best at shedding some light on our strange land?