Select one of the keywords
Holiday Reading 2003 : History
By David Pitt

Maybe it's just an impression I'm getting, but lately there seem to be more books about history published for the general reader than there used to be.

Here, for example, is Reagan: A Life in Letters (Free Press), edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson. It is what it says it is: Ronald Reagan's life story, told in his own words via letters he wrote to friends, relatives, colleagues, and others. They cover the period 1922-1994, and reveal aspects of the former U.S. president's personal and professional life that we might never have suspected existed. My own quibble is that the book is organized thematically, rather than chronologically (a letter written in 1983 appears is immediately followed by a letter written three years earlier), and it's difficult to get a sense of intellectual trends, to see how Reagan's philosophies and opinions developed over time. I understand why the editors did it this way -- there's a lot of ground to cover, here -- but I wish, at least, that each of the book's sections was arranged in chronological order. Still, for fans of American politics, this one's indispensable.

So is The Boys on the Bus (Random House), Timothy Crouse's classic account of his adventures as a member of the press corps covering the Nixon and McGovern presidential campaigns. First published thirty years ago, and reissued with a new foreword by Hunter Thompson, the book is as biting, insightful, and enlightening now as it was then. I'm not sure whether it's a good thing, or a bad thing, that the observations Crouse made about a presidential campaign three decades ago are just as valid today. I'm just saying, is all.

On the subject of American presidents, there's Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind (Free Press), a new biography of Thomas Jefferson by Michael Knox Beran. It's new in a couple of ways, actually: it's just been published, and it offers fresh insights into the man who is, let's face it, mostly known as the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was a lawyer, too, of course, and a congressman, and a governor, and an ambassador, and a president. He was also, Beran suggests, a man whose own intellect was his worst enemy. Jefferson was inflicted by 'demons,' manifestations of an intellectual restlessness so profound that it gave him headaches, and fits of apathy and dejection.

In 1784 Jefferson was sent off to Paris, as an ambassador, and this is where the book veers off into uncharted territory. Beran follows him on his odyssey across Europe, learning about ancient philosophies and religions -- learning, through the literature of Greece and Rome, to work with his demons, and not against them. His return to the United States, Beran tells us, was the beginning of a period of unprecedented creativity and productivity. (The intellectual demons were his friends, now, not his enemies.) The phrase 'revisionist history' is usually reserved for books we want to scoff at, but this one is revisionist without being the least bit ridiculous.

In these days of terrorism and unrest, it's good that some people are still finding a little optimism to share with the rest of us. Edited by noted historian and journalist David Halberstam, Defining a Nation: Our America and the Sources of Its Strength (National Geographic) features essays by a wide variety of contributors, from Russell Baker to Ben Bradlee, Janet Maslin to Robert NacNeil, Bill Geist to Cynthia Gorney. It's a celebration of all the bits and pieces that make up America: immigrants, automobiles, newsmen, the movies, inventors, food, suburbia, war, peace. From moving to serious to lightly silly (Geist, best known for his humor writing, gives us a funny look at Americans' relationship to their cars), the essays touch us in different ways, but, ultimately, they all say the same thing: this is a good country to live in, and we ought to realize that a little more often. The book is so well written, and so honestly felt, that only a devout cynic would even think to use the word 'jingoistic.'

Let's move away from the North American continent, now. Craze (Random House), by Jessica Warner, is subtitled 'Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason,' and it's one of those books that picks a very specific subject and shows us how broad the subject really is. Gin, for example, is, well, it's gin, right? An alcoholic beverage. Good for mixed drinks. So what? Well, did you know that gin -- we're talking about cheap gin sold to the working classes in early eighteenth-century England -- was the first real drug craze? Did you know whole industries existed merely to feed the general public's addition to the stuff? Did you know that gin sent the British economy into turmoil, threatened to destroy its society, and helped line the pockets of shady politicians? Written in a lively, entertaining style, this is popular history as its most enjoyable. Gives you something to think about next time you're pouring a G & T.

Here's one you should check out, if for no other reason than its clever packaging. Tilt (Simon & Schuster), Nicholas Shrady's history of the Tower of Pisa, is actually cut on an angle. If you stand it up, it leans forward, just like the tower itself. While we know a lot about the Tower (which was designed to be a campanile, or bell tower), like its height and weight and the degree to which it's leaning, there are some things we don't know. Like who designed it, for instance: the identity of the Tower's architect is, as they say, shrouded in mystery. We also don't know exactly how it has managed to stay upright all these years (construction was completed in 1370, two centuries after it was begun, and the Tower has never once been completely vertical), or how to keep the Tower from meeting its inevitable fate, as a pile of rubble. I like a book that takes something we all recognize, like the Tower of Pisa, and then educates us about it. I like this book very much.

Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet (Phoenix) is a biography of the groundbreaking cartographer by Nicholas Crane. Like Shrady and Warner, Crane's taken something familiar to all of us -- who doesn't remember their Mercator projection maps from geography class? -- and expanded upon it, given it depth and breadth and historical significance. For Mercator wasn't just a guy who made a different kind of map; he was a guy who figured out how to put a three-dimensional image of a globe onto a two-dimensional piece of paper, and if you think that wasn't an event of momentous importance you really need to read this book. Mercator also coined the term 'atlas,' survived the bubonic plague, served as personal instrument maker to an emperor, and revolutionized the art of cartography -- turned it into science, brought it, virtually single-handedly, into the modern era. And he did this, let us not forget, nearly five centuries ago. A remarkable man, and a remarkably good biography.

Finally, here's The Greatest Stories Never Told: 100 Tales From History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stupefy (HarperCollins), by Rick Beyer. Based on those little snippets you see on the History channel, the ones with Sam Waterston, the book is full of things you never knew (Joseph Guillotin didn't actually invent the guillotine), and people you never heard of (like Phineas Gage, the railroad foreman who, after a bizarre accident, underwent a complete shift in his personality). The stories are short, only a few paragraphs each, and the book has nearly as many illustrations as it has words, but that's okay. The things we learn (like the origin of the word boycott) are well worth the price of admission.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series on for holiday gifts and holiday reading. Find more suggestions in our Holiday Columns.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.