Don't know much about history

Posted: Nov 10, 2005 12:05 AM

I've received over the past year many requests for a reading list of American history books for high-school students, so here goes -- but I should first mention that I'm skipping three kinds of books.
My list does not textbooks. Some of the following may be a reach for high-school students, but many would rather read harder stuff by good writers than what is typically assigned them. (For those who insist on an overall text, the best one I've seen is Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen's "A Patriot's History of the United States.")

 My list does not include books whose authors assume greater knowledge than we have of why specific events happened in particular ways. All history is providential, in the sense that God, the master novelist, intricately weaves together billions of subplots -- but unless the Bible gives us the reason for a particular occurrence, we can't state that cause as certain.

 My list does not include the wonderful, terrific, extraordinary history books that I've written -- students will just have to let their fingers do the clicking to online venues. (Editor: Noble of you to be self-sacrificing in this way. Me: Yes, and humble, too.)

 I'll start with a book now on bestseller lists: David McCullough's "1776." McCullough writes history the way it ought to be written, with graceful prose, a dramatic narrative thread and a focus on individuals. Examining the ups and downs of Revolutionary War battles, McCullough shows how "circumstances -- fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often -- intervened," and doesn't wave away the clouds of mystery that make history so fascinating. Burke Davis' "The Campaign That Won America" tells a good story about the end of the war.

 To have students understand early 19th century America, I'd have them read Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage," about exploration, and extended excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," which is really a romance -- Alexis loves America of the 1830s and describes happily his beloved's face, form and character, particularly noting the role of churches and informal social institutions.

 Next on my reading list comes the American Iliad, Shelby Foote's three-volume "The Civil War." The books are long, but they read like riveting novels, filled with strong characters, mighty exploits and abysmal failures. (My two oldest sons at age 12 or so each received a Roger Clemens rookie card for reading all 2,700-odd pages, and I like to think that reading them contributed to the straightforward and manly prose style each has developed.) To understand one aspect of the postwar situation, Booker T. Washington's autobiography, "Up From Slavery," is a good read.

 The chapters about the United States in Paul Johnson's "Modern Times" are a good overview of most of the 20th century. (Johnson also has written an overall book, "A History of the American People," but it seems to plod along.) The move away from biblical Christianity during the 20th century's first half affected every part of American culture, and J. Gresham Machen's "Christianity and Liberalism" shows cogently the lines of the divide during the 1920s and thereafter.

 High-schoolers now have trouble understanding the 45-year Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which ended in American victory, so I'd suggest that they read the first 85 pages of "Witness" by Whittaker Chambers (1952), who lays out the stakes. Peggy Noonan's "When Character Was King," a biography of Ronald Reagan, and William F. Buckley's "The Fall of the Berlin Wall" explain the crucial figure and the signal event of the victory.

 It's vital to understand American perseverance during that era if we are to persevere in the war against terrorism. Noonan's "A Heart, a Cross and a Flag" chronicles well the beginning of our new war, and Karl Zinsmeister vividly shows the undermining of a regime that harbored terrorists in "Boots on the Ground" and "Dawn Over Baghdad."