Feel-good non-fiction about American history.
January 31, 2017 7:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to spend a week off and I'm distraught about current events, so I'm looking for a quality read about American history that'll help me relax and refocus.

Another book I like is "At Home" by Bill Bryson. I find domestic history especially interesting. Any era of American history is great.
posted by theraflu to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Probably my favorite book about American history is Greg Egan's The Worst Hard Time, about the people who stayed behind in the dust bowl. Not sure that it's the relaxing read you're looking for, but the writing is awesome and the story may help put some of today's stuff into perspective.

And for something completely different: if you're interested in biography at all, one my all-time favorite reads was an excerpt of legendary athlete Babe Didrikson's autobiography. I encountered it in an anthology called Written By Herself which was full of amazing stories written by amazing women, in their own words. Didrikson was just a person apart, and the casual way that she recounts and just completely *owns* her exceptional athleticism was so delightful to read, even though (or perhaps because) I am the exact opposite of a natural athlete.
posted by Sublimity at 7:55 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have not read much, or in fact any, American history per se, but reflecting your own predilections: Bill Bryson's Made in America is quite excellent, and smattered liberally with historical anecdote. The Lost Continent is also very decent.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:59 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh! I have also read and greatly enjoyed Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers, which has a big American section, and I recall that he has many other books about American history. If they're as good as The Discoverers, they're very good indeed. Have a squiz here.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:02 PM on January 31, 2017

While we're on Egans, Timothy Egan's The Good Rain.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:02 PM on January 31, 2017

One Summer, America 1927 by Bill Bryson.

Also if you haven't read The Boys in the Boat or Unbroken you will probably feel a swell of patriotism or at least awe.
posted by raspberrE at 8:14 PM on January 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

(The Worst Hard Time is also by Timothy Egan. Greg Egan is a hard-sci-fi writer.)
posted by Etrigan at 8:15 PM on January 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

One Summer by Bill Bryson is indeed a lot of fun. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to.

Also by Timothy Egan is The Big Burn, largely about the creation and preservation of our national park system. The chapter on the midnight forests made me want to stand up and cheer.

I'm reading Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners right now and it's laugh-out-loud funny with plenty of insights into the realities of domestic life at the time.
posted by anderjen at 8:43 PM on January 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sarah Vowell (example).
posted by furtive_jackanapes at 8:48 PM on January 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

D'oh! Thanks for catching my misattribution.
posted by Sublimity at 8:51 PM on January 31, 2017

Egan's book The Big Burn is about the creation of the US Forest Service in 1904. The National Park System was created a few years later with a different mission. If you can find Gold Dust by Donald Dale Jackson you may enjoy it as a very well done well documented history of the California Gold Rush.
posted by X4ster at 8:59 PM on January 31, 2017

I just finished Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon and to Mars by Nathalia Holt today and found it inspiring. It's about the women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from its earliest days to now who did the calculations (at first by hand, then learned how to program computers) which made it possible to launch rockets and send probes into space. They had their hand in so many space milestones: Viking, Voyager, Mariner, the Mars rovers. They helped set up the Deep Space Network which made it possible to receive the information these probes found. They helped make it possible to reach for the stars.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 10:24 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Robert Caro's The Power Broker, is the best history book I've read (excluding historiography, with which I'm really enamored). It's just virtuosic great writing about a fascinating figure, in whose image New York City was structured. Just amazing, and I'd cut off a finger or two if I could read it again for the first time.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:10 AM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

We just read Titan about Rockefeller. In today's dollars he would be the richest person ever which makes him pretty significant but lots of other reasons to read. Did you know his father was some kind of snake oil salesman who went by the name of Dr Levingston? Book has lots of details about the whole family's day to day life. We enjoyed it.
posted by cda at 12:37 AM on February 1, 2017

I've been doing much more reading about American history than usual, though mostly not feel-good. A few that come to mind that are more towards that end of things:

Personal History - memoir of Kay Graham, who was publisher of the Washington Post - there are some rough parts on the "personal" side but as I recall it has a breezy relationship with history & politics & power

Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. Definitely touches on domestic life.

Two memoirs/family histories about the black experience in America:
Proud Shoes by Pauli Murray - written in the 1950s, mostly about her grandparents' lives in the latter half of the 19th century
Negroland by Margo Jefferson, released last year, about growing up in the black upper-class in Chicago
posted by yarrow at 12:52 AM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure is one I liked. It's a relatively quick read about a road trip back when presidents were people.
posted by DaveP at 2:45 AM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

You might want to consider something about FDR, such as Jean Edward Smith's workaday bio.

A denser but also more interesting book might be Schlesinger's Coming of the New Deal.

Basically, anything about the New Dealers should change & recharge your view of 'murka.
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 4:31 AM on February 1, 2017

This reminds me that I need to find a biography of Robert Smalls. His life seems pretty epic. Amazingly epic. One dude, so much win.
posted by I-baLL at 7:34 AM on February 1, 2017

Simon Winchester's book "The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible" was pretty great. He reads the audiobooks himself, and his voice is very nice.

"A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 " is also very good, but a bit of a downer, what with the fires and dying and such.

Really, read a Simon Winchester book and be healed.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:35 AM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Now is a great time to be reading Hidden Figures. Whether or not you've seen the movie. Maybe especially if you've seen the movie, so you can learn the real details, as opposed to the movie details haha.
posted by janey47 at 9:35 AM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

With the caveat that it may bring out some raw emotions given the state of the world, The Immigrant World of Ybor City is a delight to read, especially for embracing some of the best parts of what it means to be an American.
posted by veery at 9:52 AM on February 1, 2017

Sarah Vowell is absolutely the go-to for this.

Gene Krantz's "Failure Is Not an Option" about his work in mission control for NASA is fascinating and pretty feel-good (since, like, we go to the moon and all). First book that made me realize how INSANELY optimistic NASA was in the 60s, that was some crazy-ass shit right there.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:28 PM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein is, to me, the single best examination of the roots of today's Republican party and reveals a great deal of how partisan politics work in the US today. It's also brilliantly written and researched.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:43 PM on February 1, 2017

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