U.S. History

Just thought I’d inquire the reading public about this, as I have done in the past – what is the best (in your estimation) book that gives one a good overview of U.S. history? I like something that reads well, not just gives me facts. I realize that I’m lacking in the kind of overall history department even if I know a lot about some events here and there. Thanks!

6 thoughts on “U.S. History

  1. Here’s a top 5 list from the WSJ from last February: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123577577631997281.html

    I think 1 and 2 look pretty interesting.

    ‘Everyone’ seems to have raved about all the biographies David McCullough has written over the last several years: 1776, John Adams, and Truman.

    Also, my mother raves and raves about Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

    Though, if you really want to be a good liberal American you should ignore all that and only read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

  2. http://www.amazon.com/History-Lessons-Textbooks-Around-Portray/dp/1595580824/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1252381989&sr=1-1

    I found this book to be quite interesting “History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History”

    It is an experiment in comparative history. High school text books from around the world were excerpted where they dealt with US history and then translated.

    The ones from the UK, Canada, the Philippines and the Caribbeans were the most interesting when it comes to giving different perspectives than US history textbooks.

    The ones from North Korea were bizarre. The ones from Cuba were like a hybrid of N. Korea and the Caribbeans.

    Since these are all translations of high school textbooks, the reading level is pretty low. You get sick of feeling like your reading the back of a cereal box, but it is a fantastic experiment.

  3. hi Mikhail,
    I’m supposed to be (nearly/soon) a professional US historian and I usually feel like I know nothing at all, so your question resonates with me. On the other hand, as far as I can tell most historians don’t deal with books like this (just as a Hegel scholar wouldn’t get much from Hegel In Ninety Minutes). Professional historians tend to do much more narrow thematic and/or chronological emphases, so if you want good academic history it’d be better to narrow the range of what your after.

    That said, there are general works. Some you might be interested in – that book History Lessons is great. There’s a similar one by Kyle Ward called History in the Making. History Lessons takes more or less contemporary textbooks from around the world, Ward’s book takes textbooks from the US from the 1850s or so to the present. Along similar lines, Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me is quite good.

    Zinn’s People’s History is good and there’s a right wing answer to it (which still isn’t a terrible book – get it used though, so you don’t give them any money) called Patriot’s History of the United States which you could read productively alongside them.

    Or, buy a textbook or three, used. I’ve heard good things from colleagues about the textbooks Give Me Liberty!, Created Equal, and Who Built America (the first two emphasize freedom struggles and oppression, the third emphasizes work and class). I’ve got a friend who got through her masters degree exams in history by buying several textbooks, skimming them to get the broad strokes, then going back to them for details as needed. I’ve heard of a great many history professors using basically that method to write lectures for intro history courses – the memory work is just really about getting down enough to know where to look up what you want/need to know, the rest is just having access to the resources to find what you’re looking for.

    If you really want just one book, then get Eric Foner’s Story of American Freedom. The title makes it sound like a conservative/jingoistic book, but it’s quite the opposite. It’s a smart look at freedom in US history, defined a few ways (as concept in intellectual history, as a set of rights and so on in laws, as part of popular consciousness/social conflict, and I forget what else). It’s also relatively short.

    I hope this helps, and please let me know what you end up reading and what you make of it.

    take care,

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