Friday, December 11, 2009

1880s: Building the Brooklyn Bridge

To explore the era of exploding industrialization, grand visions, and changing infrastructure that begin shaping the country for its tremendous economic growth in the 20th Century, I started with the story of the Brooklyn Bridge. After living in New York and purchasing the bridge from a guy on the street, I figured it was a good artifact to learn about how it came to be.

David McCullough is one of my favorite history authors, so this book has been on my hit list for some time. The story was particularly appropriate for this era as the father and son team of Roeblings as the grand visionaries and the engineering, construction, political, and financing teams around them represent the transition from antebellum world of modest capital projects to the grand projects made possible by the exponentially improving technology and shared intelligence of the late 19th Century. And maybe more important, as told through the side stories of this book, the increasingly complex layers of politics, financing, and human inputs that evolved with the technology.

Add this story in context of where New York had been up to that point and how its growth exploded soon afterward, both physical, population, and economic, and it is too obvious to see this as a metaphor as a bridging of the old with the new. But this is clearly the first chapter of a new volume for New York, soon to be included with the consolidation of the boroughs, the works of Olmsted and Vaux such as Central Park, the building of the subway, and culminating with the story of Robert Moses. (Robert Caro's The Power Broker, would be part of this reading project if I hadn't already read it. Highly recommended.)

The book itself is 4/5 stars. I love McCullough's usual great balance of story telling and original source work, but as can be the case, the book maybe lingers a little too long on some technical details for the sake of thoroughness. Any of the "subplots", such as the lives of the father, son, and wife; Tammany Hall; or just the engineering breakthroughs are worthy of their own books for deeper inspection, if that is possible.

The other book I would have read for this era, if not already a favorite on my shelf, is Ambrose's Nothing Like it in the World about the building of the transcontinental railroad.

I am probably going to linger on the end of the 19th Century for a little while longer. Several biographies of ecnomic empire builders are tempting me.

(Read fall 2009)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

1870s: Grant

Written by a military historian, the book focuses more on Grant's lead up to and leadership during the Civil War. There is more detail for certain battles and war decisions than for parts of the Presidency. But all in all, that is probably appropriate for describing him, and arguably more important to the country.

(Read July 2009)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

1860s: Baseball

I wanted to linger a little more on the pivotal Civil War era before jumping into Reconstruction issues. And it was time for something lighter, because the country could not have been fully focused on the horrors of war and divisive moral issues all of the time, every day. There must have been fun, too. In fact, this was the time that baseball evolved into a standard game and the sport very quickly spread across the country, creating the first, true national pastime craze. One that has had quite the longevity. I knew a little about baseball's origins, that it was originally a city game and became professional fairly early on. And I figured advancements in transportation and communication had a role in its spread. So to learn more I read Peter Morris' "But Didn't We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870." Most of the book focuses on the peak of the game's popularity among amateurs in the 1860s and its transition to a professional sport by the end of the decade.

My review of the book: 2/5 stars.

Histories tend to fall into two categories based on the author's skill: great research with so so writing; great story telling but no special insights. This book is clearly the former. The topic was really compelling to me: I love baseball and I love history. And it had enough information to satisfy my curiosity and keep me reading. The quotes and stories from original sources he found gave a great color and sense of the game as it developed, spread across the country, became standardized, and transitioned into a professional game. You can understand how baseball was developing at the right place at the right time to become what it became.
The first half of the book is a little awkward, reading more like a college thesis than a trade book. The author spends a lot of time telling us what he is going to say and repeating his points than actually saying anything. But he seems to find a groove in the second half, which is where the real story takes off.

(Read April 2009)

1860s: Lincoln

The 1860s were obviously dominated by the Civil War, and the leading character was Abraham Lincoln. I have read books on him before and visited the excellent new museum and related places in Springfield, IL two years ago. I was still left wanting to know more about his personal ambitions and drive that would lead him to the pursue the Presidency and his moral ambitions and drive that would lead him to act as he did. The Lincoln-Douglas debates in his actual words were a great lead up to this. So for this pivotal decade I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's very popular, "Team of Rivals".

My review: 5 / 5 stars

Okay, I'm officially on the bandwagon that this is a very good book. Lincoln (and Seward once he's SoS) still seem a little too idolized and larger than life, but it is amazing what they accomplished and how they did it. The other characters, especially Salmon Chase, are just as compelling, and in many cases I wanted to hear even more about them. While there are a million and one books about Lincoln, this is definitely a top recommendation, especially for the lens of how he managed and used his cabinet. The obvious contemporary comparisons have been made in the media as Obama and Hillary allegedly both loved this book and her appointment is a not unsimilar to Lincoln's appointment of Seward. But I would stop there. Lincoln was not trying to build cross-party cooperation to get things done in Congress as the Republicans essentially controlled everything and there were no Southern Democrats in sight. His primary political purpose was keeping a new party together during a horrific national crisis. I would not dare to compare the Civil War concerns with any economic hiccup we are having now.

(Read February 2009)

Monday, April 20, 2009

1850s: Debates

Knowing that the 1860s would be dominated by the Civil War, with Lincoln as a central figure, I wanted to read more of where he came from and the differing views that led to the breaking up of the country. During his failed bid for a US Senate seat in 1858, Lincoln famously debated his most famous rival, Stephen Douglas, in locations throughout Illinois. In The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Texts, the author attempts to recreate the actual words spoken, versus the cleaned up text later promoted by Lincoln, byusing the newspaper accounts from the papers supporting the opposite political party than the speaker. This was the best example so far of showing how this book is much more powerful when reading it in the context of the events before and after it. You can see how controversy and debate happens at the intersection of competing but equally supported ideas. While Lincoln and Douglas were heated in their debates, in the big picture they were both moderates, backing similar compromises. This added much more subtlety and complexity to the Lincoln that emerges in the Presidency.

(Read November 2008)

Friday, April 17, 2009

1840s: Brigham Young

To get away from just Presidential political history I read the first half of Leonard Arrington's "Brigham Young: American Moses." Of course Young's story cross several decades, but I stopped reading in the 1850s. Not because of trying to limit the time period, but because the book was a little too dense. I had the most basic understanding of Mormonism going into the book, but I feel that it was written for people who have a much stronger foundation in understanding the faith. If I remember correctly the author was (is?) an official historian for the chuch in Salt Lake City and has access to a lot of detailed records. And that's how the book reads--written by someone with tremendous resources, but who is also very close to the subject matter.

As for the life of Brigham Young--Fascinating.

(Read April 2008)

1840s: Polk Presidency

Good to read as a sequel to the Jackson book in the Times Presidents series. (Easy to skip Van Buren as he is well covered in both of these.) The Jackson bio did a great job analyzing the contradictions in his presidency from a contemporary perspective. The Polk is more of a straight-up history, but is actually a fun page-turner. At least for people who make history reading projects and document them.

Easy 4/5 stars

(Read January 2008)

1830s: Andrew Jackson

First of the American Presidents Series from Times Books I read for this project. (James Monroe's biography is also from this series.) We own several of these books, and they are quick reads, and oftentimes good, so I will include several more going forward. Generally speaking, these books are brief, a little more than 100 pages each, focusing mostly on highlights or an overview of the President's time in office. But the best part is that each is written by a different historian or general author who ends up being a fan of that particular president. They almost all try to make a case that their president is the (usually) least appreciated and (always) one of the most important presidents in history. Even the Benjamin Harrison biographer makes such a claim!

Anyway, the Andrew Jackson entry in this series by Sean Wilentz is a particularly good book. His is one of the best of the series. He does not over-adore Jackson, but instead provides good context and complexity for Jackson, especially from a contemporary perspective.

(Read January 2008)

1820s: Democracy in America

Okay, another decade where I cheated. I had read portions of Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" in college and we have a copy lying around at home. So I picked it up and made it through the introduction, skimmed some other parts, and read a summary online. It's also stretching to put it in this decade.

1800 - 1820

At the beginning of this project I hadn't firmly decided to read a book per decade, thinking it would be more one per era or generation. Therefore I did not read anything directly related to the decades of the 1800s or 1810s. In hindsight, I wish I knew more about the times when the first generation born after the Revolution began to grow up and take leadership. Also the War of 1812. It is so glossed over in school, other than the burning of Washington, Dolly Madison saving paintings, and some naval battles.

While they don't count for this chronological undertaking, in recent years I have read biographies of John Adams and James Monroe. For Adams I read McCullough's big seller (and I really enjoyed HBO's miniseries.) But I would just as much recommend learning about Monroe, probably the least known, and youngest, of the Founding Fathers and Presidents considered of that generation.

Gary Hart's take on Monroe got some press because of comparisons he tried to make to contemporary times (hint: G W Bush). They distracted from an otherwise interesting tale with other more relevant lessons.

1790s: Upheaval

For an interesting take on important moments in early US history and how the related to similar turning points in other countries I read Jay Winik's "The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800"

1780s: Founding Fathers

For the period immediately following the Revolution (all that founding stuff) I read Joseph Ellis' new book, American Creation.

My review: 2/5 stars

Ellis admits this is full of material that didn't make it into Founding Brothers or were his FAQs on his speaking tour. And it reads like that. Some of the chapters are interesting and well written, but other topics are too dry for the material or he spends too much time talking about what he is going to say instead of saying it.

(read December 2007)

Thursday, April 16, 2009


For the Revolutionary period I chose David McCullough's 1776.

My review: 4/5 stars

A quicker read than McCullough's John Adams, but still very rich from the research and citing of letters from central figures (mostly Washington) and everyday soldiers and witnesses to now famous events. As the title suggests, the books starts and especially stops rather abruptly, kind of like leaving a football game at halftime where the underdog was trailing until the last minute before the half when they dramatically scored to change the momentum of the game. Plus is good to know more of the context of the famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware" painting.

(Read November 2007)

Reading Project Goals

This blog will follow my personal project to read through US history from the revolution to the present, roughly one book per decade or era. I love history and am always reading some book or studying some topic for fun. But after reading Winston Churchill's "History of the English Speaking Peoples" I saw how useful it was to read through a long narration spanning different eras in chronological order to see how they all fit together. So my goal is to get a better understanding and context of US history across the eras by reading chronologically.

I hope to mix the books up by political histories, biographies, niche subject histories, economic history, event histories, etc. I would even like to mix in some fiction written in and about the era as a follow up to the non-fiction entry.

The following are the eras : decades that I want to cover.

Late 1700s: 1780s
Late 1700s: 1790s
Early 1800s: 1810s
Early 1800s: 1820s
Early 1800s: 1830s
Pre-Civil War: 1840s
Pre-Civil War: 1840s
Pre-Civil War: 1850s
Civil War
Reconstruction: 1860s
Reconstruction: 1870s
Reconstruction: 1880s
Gilded age: 1890s
Turn of the Century: 1900s
Turn of the Century: 1910s
Between Wars: 1920s
Between Wars: 1920s
Between Wars: 1930s
Mid 1900s: 1940s
Mid 1900s: 1950s
Mid 1900s: 1960s
Late 1900s: 1970s
Late 1900s: 1980s
Late 1900s: 1990s

The most difficult part is choosing books. There are countless options, but I only want to read a few at most for each decade. I am naturally interested in certain subjects more than others so there is a risk of not being balanced. And while I had a list of potential books in mind at the beginning, I hope to find a lot of good recommendations.

Please leave any recommendations in the comments!