Best 5 History Book Reads of 2013


1.   Introduction

This summer I started a combination weight-loss, nature hike, and reading program that I refer to as the Izaak Walton Book Club.    There’s only one member, and that is myself.    The title of this post is kind of a misnomer, because these five books are, in fact, the ONLY five history books I have read or am currently reading this year.   Also, they were not written in 2013, but rather are books that I read in 2013.    With all those disclaimers out of the way, let me explain why I wrote this post.

After I moved from LA to Homewood, one of the South Suburbs of Chicago, back in May of this year, I found out that the western entrance to the Izaak Walton Nature Preserve was only three blocks away from my house.    I decided to become a member and walked its 3+ miles of paths around the lakes and through the woods at least once every other day.

To motivate myself to walk such long distances, I went to the wonderful Homewood library, and downloaded the history book Nixonland by Richard Perlstein, which it drew me into the narrative of Nixon’s ascendancy to the Presidency.    Soon after finishing that book, I decided that, rather than reading about the fracturing Republic that America had become, I wanted to read about America when our country was brand new.     I listened to the audiobook version of 1776 by David McCullough.    Soon that led me to go to the Goodreads website and to pick the best history books of all time, starting with John Adams, a biography of one of the key Founding Fathers by the same David McCullough who had written 1776.    I found out from the Goodreads list that the #1 and #2 history books as voted for by the Goodreads readers were John Adams and 1776.

Having finished John Adams, I am now currently listening to The Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.   I wanted to read alternate or what some call “revisionist” histories of the United States, so I read Lies by Teacher Told Me by James Loewen (#14 on the Goodreads list).

I found that the simple experience of a captivating history, namely Nixonland, sparked a passion for history reading that promises to grow in the coming year.    After talking about the five history books I have read or am currently reading, I will list the 10 books I want to read in 2014.

2.   The 5 Best History Book Reads of 2013

a.  Nixonland

The full title is Nixonland:  The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.    Nixon was a very fearful, some may say, even paranoid personality.   In his political life, this became a blessing as well as a liability, because his personality made him attuned to the fears and paranoias on the Right that were engendered by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the attendant social upheavals that took place in the 1960s.

He was one of the first of the Republican politicians who exploited the potentials of the Southern Strategy, the strategy of courting the disaffected white Southern politicians who had been Democrats, the so-called Dixiecrats, and bringing them into the fold of the Republican Party.    He also spoke for the so-called Silent Majority of those who supported the war in Vietnam, mainly those whose patriotism was forged in the memories of the struggles of World War II and who could not fathom that the war in Vietnam was a totally different type of war against a different kind of foe than the US had fought back in the 1940s.  

Just like the movie Nixon, however, the reading of history through the lens of the Nixon presidency also made me appreciate some of his positive qualities, i.e., the fact that his childhood poverty left him some empathy for populist sentiments, like those that led him to create the Environmental Protection Agency over the objection of the oil and auto industries.   Also, he had such a firm grasp on the geopolitics of the time, that he foresaw the possibility that the conflicts between the Soviet Union and China could be exploited.   In addition, he foresaw the fact that the US economy would run into competition from its former enemies from World War II, Germany and Japan, because their economies which the US had helped rebuild were now growing at a pace that outstripped that of the US.    

It’s too bad that his paranoia got him into trouble in the Watergate era as the levers of power were used not to further policy goals, but to eliminate political enemies.    This reminds me of an apocryphal quote from Henry Kissinger about his former boss, “when everybody actually does hate you, you are not being paranoid.”

Like it or not, we live in the political divide that was engendered by Nixon’s political schemes and you must read this book to understand its origins.

b.  1776

This book had me riveted from the very beginning, as it describes the military maneuverings that occurred in the one year period that marked the birth of our nation with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.    It follows George Washington and both the military successes and failures that he encountered, and how he gradually learned from the latter.    However, it also showed the exploits of those military leaders under him, such as Nathaniel Greene, a Quaker from New England who was made a general at 33, and became one of the best disciplined and well-read generals in military history under Washington.    Then there is the tale of Henry Knox, who had the tenacity to take his seemingly hare-brained scheme of hauling the cannons abandoned at Fort Ticonderoga overland across frozen rivers, woods and hills all the way to Boston, and turning it into a success, one that forced the British out of Boston altogether, to set up their military headquarters in New York.

The disastrous encounter of Washington’s troops against the British on Long Island almost led to the capture of Washington’s army.    The retreat from Long Island was carried out in such a spectacularly success fashion that it has to be listed as a “successful failure”, that is, a retreat that prevented the capture of the remnants of Washington’s army and allowed them to live to fight another day, which they certainly did.    Washington’s plan of turning the retreat into a symbolic victory at the Battle of Trenton is told in stunning detail, and this bold move provided a desperately needed morale boost to an army that had been close to collapse earlier that year after the disastrous Battle of Long Island.

On a personal level, I found it fascinating to see how George Washington grew visibly as a leader in the course of the year.    He has been idolized by generations after the Revolutionary War, but he did have certain deficits compared to the generals that he was facing on the British side, namely in terms of military experience and acumen.   But he had considerable positives, including his ability to learn from his past experiences, and a willingness to take the advice of others who had superior knowledge of military tactics and strategy (such as Nathaniel Greene), that these, taken together with his impressive physical bearing and his ability to keep his mind tightly focused during battle, were what brought victory finally to that ragtag band of farmer, merchants, and other citizen-soldiers that made the Continental Army.

c.   John Adams

1776 focuses on the military side of the Revolutionary War; for the political side, you need to turn to the biography of John Adams to understand it.   John Adams was a person who, like Benjamin Franklin, was one of the true geniuses of the time that ended up contributing monumentally to the cause of the American Revolution.    John Adams was one of the few who predicted that the Revolutionary War would last closer to 10 years than the 1 year or less that most others had predicted.    He also predicted that the Revolutionary War would, if successful, ignite other revolutions in Europe.

His keen understanding of political theory led him to support a Republican form of government in the colonies independent from that of Great Britain.   He understood that rapprochement with the British was impossible because of the drive of the British government to exploit the resources from the colonies came at the cost of both the livelihoods and the political liberties of the colonists themselves.

On a personal level, I found his relationship to Abigail Adams to be very moving, not just in emotional terms, but on an intellectual level, as she reminded him of the hypocrisy of talk about the rights of white men while advocating the slavery of black men, something which John Adams agreed with.    Where she was ahead of even her forward-thinking husband was the insistence that the Constitution also speak to the rights of women.

d.   Lies My Teacher Told Me

I saw this book on a display at the Homewood Library of interesting historical books, and I picked it up and was captivated immediately.    It talks about the way that American history is taught to high school students, where the promulgation of mindless patriotism takes precedence over teaching critical thinking skills.    The reason why I was captivated by this book was because my Master’s Degree thesis in Asian Studies consisted of an analysis comparing the way that the subject of World War II was taught in high school textbooks in a) Japan, b) Germany and c) the United States.    The United States focused more on the military rather than economic origins of the war, Japan was the other way around, and it turns out that Germany had the most balanced approach in terms of teaching their own schoolchildren the origins of the war.

Some surprises are in store for anybody who is not a professional historian and whose history education is limited to memories of classes in High School.    For example, the biography of Helen Keller, a beloved figure for many schoolchildren, is taught with a focus on her personal struggles over blindness and deafness, but pretty much stops there.    When she studied the distribution of blindness among children in the United States, she found that it pretty well correlated with the economic class that these children belonged to.   This academic finding led her on the path to socialism.    Because socialism is such a charged political topic in this rightward-leaning age, this political leaning of Helen Keller’s is totally cut out of any biography that children may learn of this heroic woman.

On the other side of the ledger, the totally laudatory treatment that Woodrow Wilson gets in American high school textbooks is counteracted by the fact that, despite Woodrow Wilson’s championing of the rights of nations after World War I, he was against the rights of women and of blacks in his own country.    He was dead set against the idea of votes for women, and he was responsible for the biggest setback of civil rights since the Reconstruction era by the institution of segregation in Federal Government employment and the support of the so-called Jim Crow laws in the Southern states.    It took the civil rights movement of the 1960s to undo the damage he did to African-Americans in the course of his presidency.

These are just two of the subjects that are discussed in James Loewen’s book.   It is one of the most enlightening history books you will ever read, because you will realize that, as the title says, history is one of the greatest sources of propaganda that the educational system has ever produced.     But on the positive side, the fully-rounded portraits of various figures in American History emerge and it makes you realize that history can be an  interesting subject if taught in a way that respects the subject as well as the person you are teaching it to.

e.   A Team of Rivals

This book is the one that the much-acclaimed movie Lincoln was based on.   It’s a political biography that shows how President Lincoln took all of those who lost the Republican nomination for the presidency back in 1860 and, rather than shun them as political rivals, he incorporated their opposing viewpoints into his own administration by giving them all cabinet posts of one sort or another.

From the very beginning, the author of this wonderful history, Doris Kearns Goodman, is at pains to rectify the popular notion that it was just chance that led President Lincoln to be nominated for president, and shows that even before his presidency, his political shrewdness, and even his gift at storytelling proved to be elements that won him the nomination over his rivals.   But it was his ability to use their conflicting opinions as a palette upon which he painted the outlines of his political strategies that takes him from the realm of mere competency to that of being a true political genius.

She also dispels the notion that he, like his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, suffered from depression.   He had a melancholy temperament, to be sure, but rather than paralyzing him, like depression can often do, it led him to action, action that was decisive enough to bear the brunt of criticism from his “Team of Rivals.”

I think anyone who wants to learn not just about that crucial period of American History, but also about the nature of leadership and its attendant skills of conflict resolution, negotiation, and articulation of vision, will find this a fascinating book

3.   History Books to Read in 2014

I am using the following lists of books to compile the list of history books I want to read in 2014:

  • Goodreads Best History Books (of all time)
  • Goodreads Best History and Biography Books of 2013
  • Economist’s Best Books of 2013
  • Harold Bloom’s Great Books of the Theocratic Age (from Western Canon)

Here are the 10 books I want to read in 2014, not in any particular order, together with the category of history to which they belong.

1)  The Great War by Peter Hart (Modern European History)

2)  The Histories by Herodotus (Ancient History)

3) Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Hillbrick (American History)

4)  The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (Modern World History)

5) A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman (Medieval World History)

6) Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Modern Middle East History)

7) Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (Ancient Middle East History/Religion)

8) The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox (Ancient Middle East History)

9) The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (Ancient History)

10) Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson (US History, Civil War)

The works 4, 5, and 10 are from the Goodreads History Books of all Times, 2 and 9 are from the Great Books series by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 is from the Economist Best Books of 2013, and 3, 6, 7 and 8 are from the Goodreads History/Biography Books of 2013.

They may not be the most interesting books to all readers, but they follow either on interested I had already established (for example, Lawrence in Arabia is a good follow-up to the biography of Lawrence called Hero that I read in 2012), or interests that have developed this year (such as my interest in the Civil War era sparked by Team of Rivals.

My goal is to learn more about history while reading books that, rather than putting the living to sleep, make the dead come alive and speak to us in urgent tones about problems of past ages that may indeed have things to teach us in dealing with the problems of our own age.

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