Tuesday, May 20, 2014

My Latest Reading Project

I have a new reading project.   I sat down with some lovely sharp pencils and notepaper and made lists. I love making lists and planning, so this was a lot of fun.  For the next several months every evening, I'm going to be reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Voices of a People's History of the United States (written along with Anthony Arnove).  So far, I've read the first chapter in both books.  Each chapter in each book corresponds.  The Voices book is several writings from several viewpoints in different points in American history in each chapter.  The People's History is Zinn's take on the time period with plenty of primary sources cited.  For instance, the first chapter of the Voices book has an excerpt from Columbus's diary, an excerpt from the diary of a man who was on the ship with Columbus and came to realize the evils of what they were doing, and an essay written by a Native American man in the 1980s re-imagining Columbus's arrival.  Then, Zinn offers his thoughts about the arrival of Columbus, all written in a captivating and lyrical prose.

I think this is an important book for everybody to read.  American history (particularly school textbook history) has become badly distorted in a variety of ways.   Firstly, for many years, the viewpoint of the white, European-origin male has reigned supreme and the school system seems to not have quite gotten the message yet that this is only relevant to one segment of the population.  Second, the wars, exchanges of money, and foreign policies have been the "important" parts of history for a long time.  What counts is not what the Virginia slave women were making for their meals, but what law Jefferson was passing.  Howard Zinn has set out to completely change the way we view history and I think he's done a wonderful job of it.

One thing I am enjoying about this book is the calm recognition that, yes, this history that Zinn is writing is biased.  So often, history is presented as pure gospel, like the Pythagorean Theorem, that can never be wrong.  Even though the facts themselves may be true, every historian picks and chooses when writing something and it's refreshing to have that acknowledged.  The other thing I love about this book is how truly interesting it is.  That history is boring is something that many 5th graders repeat.  And really, if you're talking about textbooks, they're right.  This book succeeds in sounding serious and intelligent, while still being fascinating.

I thought I would give you two quotes that I especially love from Zinn's books.  The first one is from A People's History, the second is from Voices.

"My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia.  It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality.  But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)-that is still with us.  One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a max of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth.  We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks.  This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences.  It is therefore more deadly."

"To omit or minimize [the] voices of resistance is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth, who own the newspapers and the television stations.  I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women- once they organize and protest and create movements- have a voice no government can suppress."

I strongly recommend that you read these books.  They are actually surprisingly cheap for how big they are and they are books that are worth buying and adding to your home library.  However, they are at my public library, so you could definitely check them out of the library first, read a bit, and then decide what you think.


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