Special Snowflake Gifts: US History Book Recommendation
August 13, 2013 11:28 AM   Subscribe

My girlfriend has virtually no knowledge of US history. She is an incredible bright, intelligent, interesting recent college graduate, but due to side effects from a medicine, was essentially in a fog for the entirety of her Junior year of high school and remembers nothing. This is a huge source of embarrassment and anxiety for her. Her birthday is just around the corner, and I would like to get her a great book to help her fill in the gaps and be more comfortable with the subject.

I was wondering if anyone had suggestions for an accessible, interesting overview of US history. She is deeply interested in social justice, the sort that would enjoy the historical analysis that Howard Zinn has done, but I'm not sure she has enough history background to enjoy A People's History right now. I'm hoping for something to start her off, without overwhelming her, but something more engaging than a high school US History text. A People's History will likely follow soon!

Does anything like this exist?

Thanks for any help the hivemind can offer!
posted by joshers13 to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
What degree did she graduate with? It might be cool to link the history to something she's already versed.
posted by spunweb at 11:31 AM on August 13, 2013

This is a fantastic book, but the title might be a bit too off-putting given your girlfriend's situation.
posted by deanc at 11:37 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lies my teacher told me is commonly assigned to US history AP classes. It's been awhile but I thought it was fun and accessible.
posted by tinymegalo at 11:39 AM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

Oh gosh, I completely understand this. I have huge gaps in my memory due to side effects from a drug, and it's really disheartening. Like, for instance, I know I read One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was in 12th grade, and I even remember that I liked it (based on my recommending other people to read it), but I don't remember a single thing from that book. Not a single thing.

I think spunweb is really on the right track here. I really didn't care much for history until I got to college, where I eventually majored in it. The trick was that I was doing History of Science and Medicine, which really appealed to me because science is interesting to me. It was more like a history of great minds instead of learning that The Battle of Clusterfuck happened in 1726. I didn't give a rat's ass about Civil War history until I studied it from the perspective of how it changed prosthetic limb technology.

It's all about finding a way to package it that already appeals to something she's into.

I don't know if this would apply to your girlfriend, but it certainly does to me. The effect that the drugs I (have to) take have had on the way I process information has been...difficult to deal with. I learn in a completely different way than I used to. I don't really know what I'm getting at here, except to say that however she used to learn might not work for her anymore, so don't get your feelings hurt if she's not that into the book.
posted by phunniemee at 11:40 AM on August 13, 2013

It's not a book, but John Green's Crash Course is pretty solid. It's also not completely US history, but Mark Kurlansky's 1968 covers the year...1968, she might like the social justice angle there.

Good overview books: Don't Know Much About History, How the States Got Their Shapes, A Young People's History of the United States
posted by troika at 11:43 AM on August 13, 2013

She might really like Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror, in that case, though it should probably be read alongside more traditional histories as well.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:43 AM on August 13, 2013

I have no background in history and really enjoyed Zinn's book. In fact, it one of my favorites ever. Deanc's recc looks good too and would probably be less intimidating.
That sounds like a great gift idea!
posted by TheLibrarian at 11:45 AM on August 13, 2013

I have a strong suspicion that she is not nearly as alone in her lack of knowledge of US History than she probably thinks she is. High School, even if we were paying close attention, was a long time ago for many of us.

I would actually make the argument that starting with Zinn's book would be awesome. It would be great to be able to read that book from a sort of Tabula Rasa place, where you are reading it as the actual history of the US and not as a correction to all the myths and wealthy old men worship that is most US History. Not only that, it's a damn enjoyable read.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:57 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Could you give her Don't Know Much About History with a sweet smile and a mention that it is just, you know, a catchy title that refers back to a song?

I was given a bookstore gift card for my college graduation, and that book is what I bought. It's great.
posted by jgirl at 12:00 PM on August 13, 2013

Larry Gonick's "Cartoon Guide To American History" definitely skews to the social-justice side of things, and is really comprehensive (but stops circa 1996), and the cartoon aspect makes it easy to digest.

If she wants to expand to the whole Western Hemisphere, Eduardo Galeano's "Memory Of Fire" trilogy was readable and gripping - but kind of a mindfuck, so that maybe would be a second course.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:01 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I sympathize - I had a just plain sucky history teacher in high school, and it was the Galleano that spurred me to self-educate when I realized that I didn't know shit. The way history gets taught in this country just sucks in general.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:03 PM on August 13, 2013

You might consider giving her this book after she has gotten an overview of American history from one of the other books mentioned above: Eyewitness to History. It has a bunch of first-person accounts of many different events and periods throughout history, including American history, and might go well when paired with a more traditional history book.
posted by zoetrope at 12:19 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I actually really liked Kennedy's The American Pageant, the text used in my AP US course in high school. Maybe not a book to read cover to cover, but a decent reference to have on hand for more info on specific eras. The author does his best to include interesting quotes and colorful turns of phrase to lighten the reading. This resulted in my actually having memorized a quote by Calvin Coolidge that ended up being useful on my AP exam... first and last time that happened!
posted by town of cats at 12:23 PM on August 13, 2013

Fun idea: a set of flash cards to study for the US naturalization exam. If she is a good student, she will be rewarded with these US passport earrings!
posted by rada at 12:43 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is what I would do.

- Quick wikipedia roundup of the following: History Of The US Colonial Period, Revolutionary War, Civil War, and maybe a rundown of the American involvement in both world wars. These are the aspects of US history that the average history book assumes lay readers know something about. (That and maybe a smattering of presidential facts.) All she really needs to know is general dates and overarching ideas like "the South seceded in reaction to Lincoln's election," and "taxation without representation", and "Iwo Jima". That's really enough to avoid embarrassment, and I'd guess that she learned a lot of that as a child/through cultural osmosis, anyway, not junior year history class.

- For more in depth yet still very accessible stuff, she might want to check out the PBS series "American Experience". They're discrete documentaries about different aspects of US history, at about a high school level. She might also want to tackle some Ken Burns documentaries. I'm a huge history buff and have yet to slog through all of the Civil War documentary, but if she finds that she's really curious about that period, it's a great resource. Jazz and Baseball are also good historical overviews of American culture of the 19th and 20th centuries. Another educational TV resource might be "The History Detectives", which is a PBS series where a team of historians, archivists, and academics answer viewers' questions about US history. Episodes aren't exhaustive explanations of a particular period, but they've done some theme episodes (the Space and Rock & Roll episodes are particularly good) and in general they give a lot of background.

- History podcasts are also worth checking out. In my experience they tend to be more niche-focused and assume that listeners already have a high school or college level of history knowledge, but the How Stuff Works history podcast is good (she could just check out any episodes they've done about US colonial and Civil War topics). Backstory is more college level, but it's a great podcast and will probably give her good ideas for things she wants to read more about.

And, yeah, I think bookwise Howard Zinn is perfect. Unless there have been a lot of revisions to Lies My Teacher Told me, I don't think that's a particularly comprehensive resource. I remember it just being about specific historical events that are misunderstood or not known about within the wider public. It's a good book, but if you don't have the "...my teacher told me" part down already it kind of misses the mark.
posted by Sara C. at 1:44 PM on August 13, 2013

Does she have an iPad, or access to one? There is a U.S. Presidents history app for the iPad that would probably be useful to her. It's made by Disney, and it's technically aimed at middle-school-ish kids, so you'd probably not think at first glance that it would be that awesome for an adult, but I've watched/played the whole thing from beginning to end with my 9-year-old homeschooler, and it didn't bore me at all (even though I passed AP U.S. History with flying colors). I think it's a really fantastic basic intro to U.S. history. It features Mo Rocca and Melissa Harris Perry and other real, grown-up journalists and historians providing video commentary, and despite being by Disney, it does a pretty good job, in its limited scope, of addressing serious issues like war, slavery and government corruption. And the information comes in bite-sized chunks, so she could easily watch it for 5 or 10 minutes every day for a few weeks and learn quite a bit.

Judging by what I have seen of it so far, A History of Us by Joy Hakim is an accessible and an entertaining read -- it's expensive to buy the whole series, but it's often available at libraries. And there is a PBS series that accompanies it, with free support material available online.
posted by BlueJae at 2:51 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all of the wonderful suggestions! It sounds like Zinn may not be such a bad idea after all, perhaps coupled with another, lighter read.

Spunweb, she was a sociology major, but is a theater artist and painter as well.
posted by joshers13 at 3:00 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does it need to be specifically U.S. History? Because in addition to the Cartoon History of the United States, Gonick also has 3 Cartoon History of the Universe books, which lead into 2 Cartoon History of the Modern World books. All are terrific, and the last couple do, indeed, feature America all the way up to W.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:20 PM on August 13, 2013

Thad Russell's Renegade History of the US . Much more fun than Zinn.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:51 PM on August 13, 2013

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