Esther Cepeda: Books can make history come alive
CHICAGO -- Throughout my formal academic career, history classes bored me. The timelines, the outdated maps, the tiresome chronology that seemed always to begin with ancient earthen pottery and end with the Beatles making crowds of teenage women faint. Snore.
The stories from history, however, were a different thing altogether.
I would give just about anything to lay my hands on a copy of my first favorite book—a story about how Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia with only a few coins in his pocket and made his way to a bakery where he bought three puffy rolls of bread.
An illustration showed a young, red-cheeked Franklin eating what looked to me like three bolillos—the bread that tortas, a Mexican sandwich, are made with—as he walked down the streets of what was to become one of the capitals of the fledgling United States.
This memory of being able to almost taste a piece of history bubbled up from my consciousness as I finished “The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance” by Ron Chernow.
I’m certainly not a student of banking, but the idea of spanning 150 years in America through the story of one family was irresistible.
The book did not disappoint. Richly detailed and meticulously researched, Chernow gives us a sweeping view of business and wealth in the U.S. during several wars, economic booms and crises, and the construction of some of the nation’s most important infrastructure. He unwittingly traces the path of propriety among the wealthy classes to the overabundance of profit and stark greed that make Americans both worship and despise Wall Street.
There are vivid stories about J.P. Morgan’s diseased and torturous-to-look-at nose, his son Jack Morgan’s embarrassing encounter with a circus midget outside a Senate hearing, and digressions into the Morgan institutions’ first Hispanic, Jewish and female managing partners.
I recommend the book because of so many interesting tales from history. Also, here is a list of other recently published books telling history through a person, product or institution. Sorted from wonkiest to most entertaining, they’re so good I promise you’ll enjoy them even if you never liked history in school.
The most offbeat selection is “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” by Marc Levinson. OK, I’ll grant you that there aren’t many people who really need to know this much about maritime logistics. But if the “first comprehensive history of the shipping container” doesn’t thrill you at least a little, then rest assured that the story about how those giant colorful semi-trailer boxes came to change nearly every facet of our consumer lives from the 1950s to today is worth the read.
You don’t need to be an education policy expert to derive great enjoyment from “How Lincoln Learned to Read” by Daniel Wolff. But if you love that “Wow, I never knew that!” feeling and are interested in how the educational upbringings of Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, W.E.B. Du Bois, Helen Keller and Elvis Presley helped them exceed expectations, this book will give you much to think about.
“American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms” by Chris Kyle with William Doyle is just jaw-dropping. Not a glorification of guns, nor a dismissal of the pain they’ve brought this nation, this is an eye-opening and respectful look at the role guns have played in the development of our national character, identity and economy. Plus, it’s just plain fun to read.
Lastly, “Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser Busch and America’s Kings of Beer” by William Knoedelseder. This story about five generations of the Busch family has more suds than most soap operas. Sex, lies, betrayal, hubris, alcohol, zoo animals and amusement parks, labor union disputes, fancy horses, egos, babies born and served Budweiser before even suckling at their mother’s breast for the first time, it’s all there. America’s ups and downs over 150 years in beer—you can’t beat that.
History—too rich, steamy, violent, greedy and funny to be any good once sanitized and compartmentalized into a textbook—must be devoured in its fullness in adulthood. Enjoy.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.