Keep me from repeating mistakes I should know about....
June 28, 2011 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Book suggestion filter! I need to catch up on all the 20th century history I missed because of childhood.....

I really liked "The Nine" by Jeffrey Toobin. I especially liked the way that he laid out the historical shift in the Republican party from political / legal conservatives to an emphasis on social issues by the Moral Majority and so forth.

I didn't really follow the news in the 80s and 90s because I was watching Punky Brewster. Please recommend books that will fill me in on the last 30-40 years of political and legal "history" so that I can figure out why things are the way they are now and get some perspective. Thanks!

(Assume I was raised in a cave. Suggestions can cover anything from 1770 to the present and don't fear you'll insult me with a high school level reading list.)
posted by motsque to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Biographies are a great way to pick up history, because the focus on an individual life provides a novel-like narrative, but then you get all the background stuff. I really liked American Prometheus, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, which will give you lots of info about WWII and the Cold War.
posted by yarly at 6:37 AM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

It probably will be recommended to death here, but I really enjoyed Nixonland:
The author's thesis is that Richard Nixon manipulated the political and social events between 1965 and 1972 in a way that shaped the political divisions of the present day. The author frames the divisions of the 1960s as between the "Franklins" and the "Orthogonians", names taken from two social clubs at Nixon's alma mater of Whittier College; the Franklins were the privileged elite, and the Orthogonians the social strivers. The author casts Nixon as the "King of the Orthogonians", who would play upon the growing resentments of "Orthogonians" nationwide (Nixon's "silent majority") to electoral success.

Perlstein also presents a broader overview of The Sixties' cultural and political turmoils, including the 1968 Democratic Convention, but, as the book ends with Nixon's reelection in 1972, only peripherally covers Watergate.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:47 AM on June 28, 2011

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:50 AM on June 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding the biography recommendations. I also think that exploring history through Supreme Court decisions is a very not-bad idea.

If you like The Nine, then you should check out The American Judicial Tradition, Brandeis: A Life, and Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion. The first has great sweep, and its bibliography is great for cannibalizing for future research. The second two books are both well-written biographies about important justices who dealt with important issues and important transitions in American legal and political life. These books were all assigned to me for class, and I enjoyed them all.

On another note, A People's History of the United States is a hoary old classic for a reason.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:56 AM on June 28, 2011

Lenin's Tomb documents the last days of the USSR. I was alive when the country fell, but this book taught me how truly messy the transition was.

The Gulag Archipelago is an amazing series. Solzhenitsyn describes the Soviet gulags with an unexpected sick, dark gallows humour, but it doesn't stop you from being horrified.
posted by spamguy at 7:06 AM on June 28, 2011

President Reagan: The Role Of A Lifetime is long but a good read. The standard bio of Reagain, it focusses on his years in the White House, so you also get a good overview of 1980's U.S. history.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:00 AM on June 28, 2011

It's hard to understand twentieth century history without understanding the mistakes and misunderstandings that happened at the end of WW1. The decisions made then affected the rise of the Nazi's and the Communists and how much of Europe evolved for the next 50-75 years.

Paris 1919 is a detailed, human document of the period. Wilson invents the UN (or its predecessor). Watch Clemenceau beggar Germany (and provide causus belli for WWII). As well as being an important point in history, it's also a great read.
posted by bonehead at 8:01 AM on June 28, 2011

I have recommended this before, but 'House of War' by James Carroll might be useful for understanding American thinking during the Cold War when it become the world's dominant power. It concerns the rise of the Pentagon in the post war years and it's disastrous impact on US foreign policy.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 8:18 AM on June 28, 2011

The Cartoon History of the United States! I used it as a bird's-eye overview for my AP US History final and got a lot out of it. Very useful and cool.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:06 PM on June 28, 2011

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

With Postwar, however, Judt moves up into the ranks of the grands simplificateurs. He dares to expound the sum total of Europe since 1945 in a seamless narrative. By presenting "an avowedly personal interpretation", he accepts that his personal make-up will be reflected in the end product. His French expertise, his Jewish background, his American mission and, one suspects, a mis-spent political youth can all help to explain particular, and not always felicitous, points of emphasis. So what? This is history-writing with a human face, as well as with brainpower.
posted by Jakey at 3:08 PM on June 28, 2011

Just a quick scan from my history shelf at Goodreads:

Bloodlands - TOTALLY HORRIFYING...but fascinating story of the lands between Stalin & Hitler.

The Master Switch - history thru technology, looking at how freedom has waxed & waned in communications technology.

All the Devils Are Here - I've read several books on the financial meltdown, and this one was probably the broadest overview. (The Big Short and 13 Bankers are both good too.)

Bomb Power - how the nuclear age created the executive secrecy machine.

Nothing to Fear - the original "First 100 Days" told through the important people who weren't FDR.

Ghost Wars - what we were up to in Afghanistan before 9/11.

A Peace to End All Peace - on WWI and the Middle East, extends what bonehead said about WWI being central to 20th century history beyond Europe into Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Oh, and Nixonland is fantastic.
posted by epersonae at 4:39 PM on June 28, 2011

A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey
posted by Abiezer at 9:31 PM on June 28, 2011

Seconding Tony Judt's Postwar. It's amazing how clearly the events then shape what's happening in Europe today.
posted by quiet at 4:18 AM on June 29, 2011

I'm not always entirely sure how relevant political movements of the 1960s are to today, but they're probably relevant to filling in some gaps, so I'll recommend

A Tale of Two Utopias by Paul Berman

The Children by David Halberstam (or really anything by David Halberstam)

The Sixties by Todd Gitlin
posted by newrambler at 2:09 PM on June 29, 2011

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