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Saturday, February 23

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Airbags

This edition of 22 Books deals with two areas of the world that are probably most familiar to most readers -- North and South America. You would think that with a millennia less of written history than the Old World, the New would be easier to get a grip on, but in fact nothing could be farther from the case.

North America

Stretching from the arctic circle to the Rio Grande, North America is in some ways the easiest part of the world for us to get a handle on. With the exception of mountains at either end and a few big lakes in the middle, North America is one of the easiest areas of the world to roll over, which is pretty much what white people did to it in the mere two centuries between 1700 and 1900 (more or less). Plus Chicago is in North America, so you already have a pretty good idea of the history of the area. But these preconceptions also make North America a hard place to understand -- for much of our history the conquest of the continent was actually painted as a gloriously good thing, rather than the bloody and unscrupulous affair it often was. But there are a bazillion other voices to be heard -- Native American, African American, Spanish American and French American to name just a few. This isn't a P.C. sentiment, it's simply a statement of fact. You can't understand how Quebec became part of Canada or how California (or, for that matter, Louisiana!) became part of the United Sates without understanding the role that the European empires and African labor played in North America's history. And don't even get me started on the world-historical significance of the beaver in Canada's history. Let's get started:

American Colonies, by Alan Taylor
This book has everything going for it. Not only is it the first volume of Penguin's prestigious series on the history of the United States (edited by the equally prestigious Eric Foner), but it's written by Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor. A mere two years old, this powerfully synthetic history is up-to-date, and not at all written in the tendentious style of earlier, more celebratory writers who idealized the United States as the be-all and end-all. Moving from Native North American migrations and cultures, Taylor works through the various colonies that took hold in North America. Moving roughly in chronological order, he turns from central America ("New Spain") to the northeast coast and then across the country to the great arc of the Pacific, moving from Hawaii to British Columbia and California. The book is clearly written and has a great list of suggested readings. It's a great way to learn about North America's history.

A People's History of the United States, 1492-, by Howard Zinn
C'mon -- how was I not going to pick Howard Zinn's ultra-popular one volume history of the US as my second book? Ideally, of course, I'd have liked to pick a history of post-independence United States so that it would dovetail better with Taylor's books. But for some reason it's quite hard to find good general histories of the US in one volume (if you know of one, please let me know). Zinn's book is famously accessible and very highly regarded. It's also extremely progressive -- I was at a Nation of Ulysses show once and the guys were actually selling the book out of a box next to the sound board. So this may not be the book for you. Of course, if you read Gapers Block, it probably is.

Special Bonus Round!

Empire of the Bay: The Company of Adventurers that Seized a Continent, by Peter C. Newman
In terms of population and political import, it's only natural that the United States get more than its share of the limelight when discussing North America. But I felt bad that I didn't include more on Canada, so here is an extra optional bonus: Empire of the Bay. There are a few general histories of Canada, but they tend to be rather dry and focus on the southern (i.e. non-arctic) parts of the country. Not so for Empire of the Bay, a ribald (that's right, ribald) history of the Hudson's Bay Company that explains how most of the country that is now Canada got to be that way. Peter Newman is an exceptional writer with a keen eye for great stories and tells them masterfully. A wonderfully idiosyncratic take on Canadian history. The chapter on the natural history of the beaver is worth the price of admission alone.

South America

South America is hard to get a handle on. It may or may not include Central America. It definitely does include: rain forests, grasslands, snow covered mountains, barren deserts, tropical humidity, and antarctic cold. The ubiquity of Spanish and (to a lesser extent) Portuguese conquest makes telling the story of South America a bit easier, at least at first. But when you look at the incredible diversity of indigenous peoples -- including cultures with monumental architecture and writing, which pushes back prehistory a few centuries -- you are back to a welter of confusion. Like Africa, South America's internal diversity makes writing a general history of it an unrewarding and infrequently attempted task. Here are two of my picks to at least get you oriented:

Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean, by Peter Winn
This is a companion volume to a PBS series on Latin America, and, like Empire of the Bay (another PBS-related project), it is readable and straightforward, although it lacks Empire's incredible verve. There are also comparisons to be drawn to Reader's Africa: the Biography of a Continent, although Winn lack's Reader's lifetime of immersion in his subject. Still, this is a good general take on the continent that is oriented toward North American readers who are interested in learning about why South America is relevant to them today.

The Contemporary History of Latin America, by Tulio Halperin Donghi
OK, I'll admit it: I was first drawn to this book by the delightfully improbable name of its author. Still there's absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that this is the definitive history of South America. And what's more, it's the definitive history of South America in South America. The latest edition, the 16th, is now available in English translation. While some non-academic readers may find it a bit dry at times, rest assured that it is much more accessible than the other options, which are flat out textbooks and read that way. By "modern," Donghi's means "postcolonial" -- the history starts at the dawning of the nineteenth century and follows South America from its Napoleon-induced struggle for independence right down to the present day. Unfortunately, there is no general history of all of pre-Columbian South America (if anyone can find one -- a readable one -- please let me know).

That's it for this edition of 22 Books. Next time we'll move on to our last two areas of the world -- Europe and Southeast Asia. The end is in sight, folks -- keep reading!

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