Timekillers (Book Bonanza Edition)

So I – like apparently the rest of humanity, it seems – recently got a Kindle. I held out for a long time, being someone who enjoys cracking open a new book and turning the crisp pages and all that; besides, I thought, what’s the big difference? Reading is reading, right? I eventually made the leap because I thought I’d subscribe to a few magazines and use Instapaper even more. But OMG the difference is you can read at all times. Seriously – it fits in my coat pocket and it might as well be in a holster. So I now I feel I’ve been cheated out of several years of reading at triple capacity. Time to make up for lost time….

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What if I were to tell you I read a campaign story about an election where one party saw its vote divided based on how to best address matters of social justice, so much so that the opposition, building on their rock solid base of Southern white votes, took advantage of said split and coasted into the White House. You might think of 2000, maybe. Either way, you’d probably be like “so the Republicans won, huh?” Nope. In 1912, a schism in the Republican Party cleared the way for just-short-of-open white supremacist Woodrow Wilson to best William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. It’s bizarre to think of a near total inversion of today’s political roles and map. Wilson would go on to segregate the federal government; Roosevelt avoided debating Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs because their platforms were so similar.

It is equal parts comforting and depressing that we simply cycle through the same debates about the role of government in this country, only the triggers and the context change. Here’s Taft in 1912:

“A National Government cannot create good times. It cannot make the rain to fall, the sun to shine, or the crops to grow, but it can, by pursuing a meddlesome policy, attempting to change economic conditions and frightening the investment of capital…prevent a prosperity and revival of business which otherwise might have taken place.”

This bodes well for 2112, right?

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Sticking with the Edwardian Era, this is the book to read if you liked The Devil in the White City, not In The Garden of Beasts. Without spoiling too much of the plot, which returns to the White City device of rotating between a crime and a genius, it brings to life the moment people “got” wireless telegraphy. Much like radio existed before Fireside Chats and the coverage of the Blitz, and TV was around before the Kennedy-Nixon debates and especially the Kennedy assassination, it took unique events to push these things from nice technological perks to staples of our society.

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It’d be difficult to find an American without at least a passing interest in the Civil War. It’s the central drama in our national story. Yet, I feel that very thing has cheated us somewhat – because so much has been written, at this point, 151 years on, we’ve reached almost a saturation of detail. People can tell you the exact location, movement and orders of Longstreet’s corps on July 3, 1863. We recite almost rote that from Fort Sumter we went to Bull Run to the Peninsula, without stopping to think about what was happening in between. Americans of the era were watching their country fall apart around them, and yet from this safe distance of history, we imagine nearly everyone as a scripted actor, carrying out their roles. Lost entirely is the general sense of “OMG WTF” that would – and should – accompany any civil war.

This book, more than any I’ve read, does a fantastic job of taking the pulse of the nation in late 1860 through 1861. As bitter as the divisions between North and South were, there was (thankfully) a drawn out escalation that brought Americans to the point where they were “comfortable” killing each other en masse. Adam Goodheart dives into that escalation, and it’s exceedingly worth your time.

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