I always enjoyed history as a kid, but was also underwhelmed with the way history is generally taught. While I understand that it makes for an easy grade measurement, memorizing names and dates gave me no real feel for the vast drama of human history. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to read history books that emphasized more than names and dates, and much like my experience with science, most of what I learned about history came after graduating from college.
A few weeks ago, I re-read David McCullough’s outstanding biography John Adams, and now I’m about halfway through George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Until now, I’ve never read a biography of Washington before, and I am enjoying it immensely.
When I first read John Adams, back in the summer of 2001, part of my enjoyment stemmed from the fact that I knew so little about Adams to begin with. In school–and consider that I spent 2nd through 5th grades at a school in New England–the most I ever learned about the second president was that he defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre, and that he died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. To see what an incredible life Adams lives, in all of its richness and detail, was eye-opening.
Of course, George Washington, being the first president of the United States, gets a lot more attention in the history books. My 2-years daughter knows the name George Washington. “George Washington is the first president!” she says, firmly.
That said, even when you think you know a lot about a famous figure like Washington, there is always much more in the details. At times, reading Chernow’s biography of Washington, I’ve found myself, quite literally, on the edge of my seat.
And it was through this, that I realized what specific element makes for a good history book, at least for me.
It is one thing for a book to be thrilling when you are new to the events that take place within it. But when you read a history of something so famous as, say, Washington’s crossing the Delaware River, and his assault on Trenton, knowing full-well the outcome, and you still find yourself on the edge of your seat… That, my friends, is the mark of a very good history book, indeed.