Four Decades of Reading

Birthdays often lead to reflection… 41 years have passed and reflection reveals a life devoted to the study of history.  A career in education has shown how rare academic commitment can be…. all I have ever wanted to do is history.  These books inspired, taught, and frustrated me along the journey. ..

Civil War chess master

Civil War chess master

  • American Heritage History of the Civil War-Narrative by Bruce Catton.  Little more than a coffee table dust collector in most homes, the copy in my parents’ home was well worn.  Richly illustrated with historic photos and informative maps, it was the perfect introductory course in Civil War studies.  Luckily, video game consoles weren’t available during the early days spent reading Catton’s crystal clear prose.
  • Band of Brothers- by Stephen Ambrose.  WW2 stories from my Grandfather inspired me to learn more about the greatest generation.  Ambrose showed me the power of primary sources- there are hundreds utilized in this harrowing tale of Easy Company’s combat experience.  All of the vitriol aimed at Ambrose (much of it jealousy) causes us to forget what a great storyteller he was.
Uncle Steve and Maj. Dick Winters

Uncle Steve and Maj. Dick Winters

  • Red, White, and Black- by Gary Nash.  The book that deconstructed the mediocre history education I received in high school, Nash’s study opened my eyes to New Left historiography.  The colonization of North America was more complicated than Pilgrims, John Smith, and Ponce Deleon; Nash’s vision challenges the cereal box standard that passes for history in many high schools.
  •   The Killer Angels- by Michael Shaara.  Historical fiction at its very best, Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the battle of Gettysburg is steeped in history.  Shaara exposes us to the battle through the eyes of its key participants, a riveting format often imitated, but never equaled.  Growing up just an hour from the battlefield, this novel helped bring it to life better than any audio tour.
  • Lincoln’s Virtues-by William Lee Miller.  An “ethical biography” of our greatest President, Miller departs from the typical Lincoln canon.  Rather than recounting Lincoln’s deeds, Miller attempts to explain the actions by examining the history of his belief structure.  This book is essential in understanding the man behind the myths.
  • The Radicalism of the American Revolution- by Gordon Wood.  Spend enough time in college history courses and you’ll get the impression that the American Revolution was stale, conservative, and not all that revolutionary.  Wood sets the record straight in a compelling study that makes a brilliant counter to the anti-Americanism of Howard Zinn.  The work of Wood is so much more valuable than a passing quip by Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.”
Don't believe anything Matt Damon says

Don’t believe anything Matt Damon says

  • Gettysburg: The Second Day- by Harry Pfanz.  Richly detailed tactical study of the crucial day at the battle of Gettysburg that is essential reading to students of the battle.  Pfanz does more than explain the complicated troop movements; he brings the battle to life with the memories of the men who were there.  I spent many a Summer afternoon tramping the field with a well worn copy of Pfanz’s masterpiece in my hands.
  • The American Mind- by Henry Steele Commager.  Trying to explain the central American consciousness seemed an impossible task, but Commager’s signature study managed to frustrate a generation of history students.  He should be admired for valuing stories above statistics, personalities over presumption, and a firm belief in American exceptionalism.
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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Four Decades of Reading

  1. NEO

    All excellent choices.

    But Catton, especially. At about 7 or 8, I discovered it in my (much older) sister’s bookcase. It started my only life long love, American military history, in all its glory and pathos. I practically wore out her copy, before I got my own, which suffered the same fate. I would add that as his Centennial History came out, I was more excited than I have ever been since, and he’s one author that never wrote a book that even slightly disappointed me.

    And, you know, Stephan Ambrose is another.

    How do you create history teacher’s, historians, and buffs? By writing about it as these men did.

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