Thoughts on reading history, 1776 by David McCullough

I downloaded this audio book on a whim after having watched and enjoyed the TV series John Adams on DVD a little while ago. Another of McCullough’s books was the basis for that show and it made me curious enough to hear the author read his own words about this tumultuous period in America’s history. I thought it might also help do something about my woeful ignorance of the history of America.

As it turns out I don’t think 1776 was the best book for someone with an extremely rudimentary knowledge of this period. It felt more like the sort of book that would have fleshed out the things I’d learned in high school (if my Australian high school had shown the slightest interest in American history) (which, not all that surprisingly I suppose, it did not) as there was a fairly high level of prior knowledge assumed. I spent a good deal of time pausing the book so I could research (ok, google) some name or place mentioned and did wonder if the printed version of the book has some footnotes and maps that might have made my frequent googling unnecessary. In the end I don’t feel much more informed than I was a month ago (when I already knew there’d been a war which the Americans won, just).

The bigger problem (and it is mine not McCullough’s) is that even as a University history student it was never dates and other facts that grabbed my attention. It’s always been the little details of life in different times that fascinate me; the food people ate, the homes they lived in, the jobs they had, the beliefs they shared and so on. I am also, irrevocably and completely, disinterested in military history of any sort. In the beginning of 1776, which unfurled chronologically and actually starts half-way through 1775 with King George’s address to the English Parliament imploring them to do something about those quarrelsome settlers across the ocean, there is some insight into the beliefs that prompted the war but well before the half-way point it had turned into a chronicle of battles, tactics and weapons. I did enjoy the occasional glimpses of my kind of ‘everyman’ history such as descriptions of the conditions the soldiers experienced and the heartache and fear that must have been experienced by Bostonian loyalists who became refugees overnight. For me though there was not enough of this to really hold on to my attention. I can acknowledge though that for those who are interested in different aspects of history than I am the book offers an undoubtedly an informative and well-structured narrative, using a good mixture of primary sources and sitting comfortably in the popular (but intelligent) history category.

McCullough narrates the book himself and I’m afraid here I do part company with the many accolades the narration has won (including nomination in the 2005 Audie Awards). I don’t think McCullough’s tone changed more than twice across the 11 and a half hours of the book which, when combined with a relatively soft voice and slow reading pace, is more a cure for insomnia than an engaging narrative. I could not listen to this while driving for example (which is when I do listen to other audio books) as I’m sure I’d have fallen asleep at the wheel. I acknowledge that audio is not an ideal medium for non-fiction but I have, for example, listened to Simon Winchester narrate his own book detailing the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (The Professor and the Madman) which is immeasurably superior in terms of the style of narration.

In the end I learned a little about the American Revolutionary War, though not as much as I’d have liked about what prompted it in the first place and what reserves of strength kept people fighting when they were experiencing such losses nor anything at all really about what was happening outside the battlefields while the war was being fought. The last half of the book offers something of a potted biography of George Washington which I did quite enjoy though.

But now it’s over to you. Can you recommend some American history that I might like? It doesn’t have to be about this period but I’d prefer books that don’t focus on wars (it is amazingly difficult to be a history lover who is fed up to the back teeth with reading about war) and those which are at the popular rather than academic end of the spectrum.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3/5
Narrator David McCullough
Publisher Simon & Schuster [1995]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 11 hours 32 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Source I bought it

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9 Responses to Thoughts on reading history, 1776 by David McCullough

  1. Kathy D. says:

    I have to say that this isn’t my forte. I rarely read fiction about U.S. history. The only book that is remotely historical which I liked is The Sex Wars by Marge Piercy. It fictionalizes women’s rights figures as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull (who ran for president from a jail cell), Anthony Comstock (who imprisoned anyone who made, sold or wrote about birth control), and a fictional immigrant. I liked it. I recognized my immigrant relatives in the fictional character. And I liked knowing some of this history in the movement for women’s rights. It’s fun.
    This isn’t exactly historical but Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s the most moving and profound book I’ve ever read about slavery. I couldn’t read too much at once. She couldn’t write too much at once. But it’s one of the handful of best books I’ve ever. read. It changed me.
    And there’s City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley, who’s wonderful. This is set in San Francisco in 1939-1940, with a sort of jaded V.I. Warshawski character, named Miranda Corbie. It’s about the Japanese and Chinese communities, tensions and prejudice. And Stanley is a terrific person, has a fun web site.
    There’s also Bleeding Kansas by Sara Paretsky, a stand-alone about a farm family during the Vietnam War. It’s a bit quirky but interesting.
    I have no idea what you’re looking for. I don’t read the usual historical fiction, but more feminist, Civil Rights, LGBT rights, labor-oriented books.

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  2. Kathy D. says:

    Kelli Stanley’s book is a mystery and she’s got a new one coming out this year — City of Secrets. She also has a few books out, not about the U.S., but Roman noir, as she calls it, set in 83 A.D.

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  3. Norman says:

    They are drilling holes in the wall to install a new gas boiler and I can’t concentrate, but if you want American history books that don’t concentrate on war, um……….if it is straight history with no wars you want then;
    America 1908 by Jim Rasenberger reviewed here http://bit.ly/ruM7Fk
    and Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen about the 1920s written around1930.
    I found both fascinating.

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  4. Norman says:

    I forgot to say that John Adams was the best series I have seen on TV for years, a superb production with wonderful acting.

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  5. Barbara says:

    We’re currently watching John Adams, waiting for Netflix to send disc 3. It’s very good. Your comment about David McCullough’s book is interesting. I had never given a thought to how his books would read to someone who hadn’t had a good dose of American history in school. I too love the daily lives of people rather than dates and battles, but having said that, I think you’d like anything by Bruce Catton on our Civil War. He writes well about people in a folksy sort of way.

    I’m an historian, specialty 19th century American history, so I’ll have some other recommendations but first I want to look at my books with regard to your particular situation. I know I’ll have some that concentrate on what interests you, and me.

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  6. John Adams really is a terrific show…it didn’t do well when it aired here but in our version of Netflix it took forever to get to the top of the queue to rent it as it was so popular.

    I’ll look up Bruce Catton thanks Barbara…I don’t mind reading about people experiencing war I just have no interest in troop movements and battle descriptions and all of that (and frankly believe if we stopped writing about it so lovingly we might just be tempted to go a year or two without starting a new one). Any other recommendations will be much appreciated too…I figure it’s about time I corrected my ignorance…especially as I have a bunch of American relatives including two nieces who scoff at my lack of knowledge. I don’t enjoy being scoffed at by an 11 year old 🙂

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