Wednesday, May 21, 2008


The Book: Kenneth C. Davis, DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY: Everything You Need to Know about American History but Never Learned. Avon trade paperback, 1991 (16th printing). Very good condition; pages show some age-related browning, cover is slightly discolored.
First read: 1992
Owned since: 1991

One Sunday when I was five or six years old, I was fidgeting on a kneeler in church and looking at the date on a hymnal, which was some year before I was born. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that the world had existed before I did -- that St. Leo's and my parents and all sorts of things had been in operation before I arrived, and that there had been a time when I did not exist. The thought of it made me dizzy. I closed my eyes and saw black-and-yellow checks behind my eyelids (so vivid that I still remember what they looked like).

After church, I asked my mother where I had been before I was born. "In the mind of God," she said.

That's all very well from a theological point of view, but I've never been able to shake the feeling that I walked into the party late, and still need to catch up on everything that happened before I got here.

I like lists, I like trivia, and -- as my research clients know -- I like timelines. This book combines all three of those things, so no wonder I used a gift certificate I got for Christmas 1991 to buy this.

Kenneth C. Davis is a "serious" historian who decided to put the essential information about the United States' founding and growth into a book anyone could pick up and read -- a book you might even keep in the bathroom, as it's written in short, entertaining question-and-answer chunks. This was the first of his "Don't Know Much About" books; he went on to turn it into a franchise that covers everything from mythology to astronomy.

This book strikes a nice balance, dispelling conventional wisdom without having any particular axe to grind. Davis, for example, gives the Comte de Rochambeau the credit he deserves for coordinating the naval confrontation that forced the British surrender at Yorktown; he notes the many mutinies among George Washington's soldiers, but also salutes Washington as a survivor who inspired loyalty among his officers. He dishes gossip (always the heart of history), explaining the reasons for the Jefferson-Hamilton feud but taking no sides on the question of Jefferson's alleged affair with Sally Hemings.

Last night's pub quiz was a good time -- for me, at least -- and I was relieved that the quiz seemed to be neither too easy nor too hard. If you'd like a copy of the quiz (without answers), send me an e-mail, and I'll send it to you.

Five Random Songs

"Piano Fighter," Warren Zevon. Another song off Mutineer. I saw him perform this live at the late, lamented Bayou in Georgetown, just him on the keyboard; this version is a little over-produced, with vibraphone and harmonium.

"Come Together," The Beatles. The shuffle function is so random; it feels like months since it's given me any Beatles, and I have a lot of Beatles in my music library.

"Of Missing Persons," Jackson Browne. A song written for Lowell George's daughter, after his death. "And you can sing this song/On July the fourth/From the sunny south to the frozen north/It's a day of loss, it's a day of birth/Does it take a death to learn what a life is worth?"

"Not About Love," Fiona Apple. From Extraordinary Machine, a CD I like a lot.

"Add It Up," Violent Femmes. I love the Violent Femmes. I love Gordon Gano. I do not care that he's a foot shorter than I am. This is a live version of the song off their compilation, Add It Up (1981-1993). I own a t-shirt from this tour... I wonder where it is.

1 comment:

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

"I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was."

From In the Waiting Room by Elizabeth Bishop.