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Book Review of: The Forgotten History of America

Little-known conflicts of lasting importance
from the earliest colonists to the eve of the Revolution

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Review of The Forgotten History of America, by Cormac O'Brien (Softcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

 

This book is a bargain. The Forgotten History of America packs a great deal of interesting material into its nearly 300 pages (about half of which are graphics). O'Brien presents the accounts of 18 conflicts that were influential in American history, over the course of about 250 years. Most amateur history buffs will find plenty of new material.

The writing is far from dry, but unfortunately it's clumsy in many places. I wish the text would have had more (or better) editing.

A recurring theme in this book is the stark difference in philosophy between the trading French and the conquering British. While the French treated the native Americans as trading partners, the British treated them as people to be subjugated. And, in many cases, as vermin to be eradicated. The author doesn't set out to portray this; that's just the way it was. And not just in North America. Ask the Irish about that. Or the Scots. Then there's India....

Chapter One covers the first conflict, which runs from 1528 to 1536. Chapter Eighteen covers the eighteenth conflict, which occurs in 1763. O'Brien relates each of these accounts in rich detail, making you feel as if you were there. We typically see what drives each faction, why a given conflict occurred, and what happened during the conflict. Sometimes, we see what the aftermath was.

In some cases, there is only one side to the story. To present both sides where no records exist for one, the author would have to write fiction instead of non-fiction. Unfortunately, there is no getting around that.

The book doesn't contain any superhero stories. Nobody is larger than life. Instead, we find realistic accounts of humans failing and succeeding in struggles that eventually contributed to the emergence of Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the smaller Caribbean nations. All but two of the conflicts take place in modern-day Canada and the United States.

In an era in which history keeps repeating itself due to the failure of most Americans to learn their own history, this book is a welcome addition to the body of literature. Where it seems to be especially valuable is the author selected critical conflicts that weave a pattern. He presents them in chronological order, and the reader can observe several trends and threads through this chronology. Because he does this, there's no need to "tie it all together" with a fluff piece final chapter that isn't presenting actual history. Readers who aren't paying attention, however, could miss these trends and threads.

Something that really stands out in this book is the reader cannot discern O'Brien's personal views. There is nothing of the author in this book, or if there is I can't see it. "Nothing of the author" is a quality standard non-fiction writers are supposed to adhere to.

But lately, that standard is simply dismissed outright. Since about the year 2000, it seems 8 out of 10 "nonfiction" books are authored by New York Times devotees (the disinformed) who can't overcome a compulsion to insert irrelevant and derogatory comments about GW Bush. Regardless of the topic, and regardless of the inaccuracy of the comments. O'Brien didn't do that. I'm no fan of GW Bush, but I don't need to read anti-Bush propaganda in every book I pick up.

Nor did O'Brien take the view that the "white man" was all bad or the "Indians" were all bad. His writing wasn't judgmental. His was a balanced account, to the extent possible from sources that exist. And he didn't misappropriate the work to propagate an irrelevant personal political viewpoint. This is how an author should behave when writing any work, unless that work is specifically chartered as a personal political piece. If other authors would follow this example, there would be more book readers (newspaper editors, take note).

The reader has to understand that this isn't a complete history. Nor is each of the conflicts described exhaustively from every angle. That wasn't the goal of this book. The goal is revealed in the introduction, and it's essentially to give the reader an understanding of selected conflicts in American history. On average, each account occupies about eight pages of text. This is enough to allow you to understand the basic facts of the conflict, but not much more than that. It is possible to write an entire book on any one of these conflicts, and that's not what this author did.

A perhaps unintended consequence of this abbreviated approach is that a revered historical figure about which we know much doesn't come across as the demi-god most history books portray him as. That is as it should be, in the context of discussing certain conflicts. That figure is George Washington.

Like anybody else, Washington learned by making mistakes. It just so happens that some of the events in this book occur during his primary learning years. In fact, even in later accounts in which he is ultimately lauded, accurate historians show he was a human and made errors. We are so used to the hero worship accounts of George Washington that an accurate account is likely to seem biased against him. And, yes, I hold the man in high esteem. I carry his picture with me wherever I go. In fact, I often hand his picture to perfect strangers.

Rarely do I comment on the way a book is laid out. But the layout of this book simply begs for criticism. So, here it is. At the outset, I said this book was a bargain. For the content delivered, that is true. But the publisher chose some poor ways to hold down costs:

  1. Saving paper by using an absurdly small font. Makers of mobile devices note that their primary customers are under the age of 25. The reason for that is adults really hate getting migraine headaches from squinting, while also trying to hold down a job. This is why 6-point fonts haven't become commonplace in books (at least, not yet). It's just not acceptable, because one reason you buy a book is so you can enjoy reading it. Torturing someone with a tiny font in a book isn't yet in vogue. I got past this by wearing reading glasses.
     
  2. Saving page space (and maybe research time) by including almost no maps. As this book takes place all over a continent, following the normal practice of including maps seems almost obligatory. There should be one for each conflict or battle. I got past this deficiency by using a combination of Rand McNally maps I just happened to have. But I wasn't able to locate everything. Maybe the lack of maps was a decision based on a text to graphics ratio. The book had an enormous number of images (many of which were outstanding). I think eighteen of those should have been replaced with maps.
     
  3. In yet another apparent paper-saving effort, the bibliography is incomplete. Unless O'Brien simply knows a vast amount of arcane history or is very good at making it up, this book must have been much more extensively researched than the small "Select Bibliography" would indicate. Further along these lines, there are no footnotes or backnotes. With the amount of detail in this book, those seem to be requisite. Without them, I'm not sure an academician would accept this as the serious literary work it otherwise appears to be.

Another flaw, and this really threw me every time I encountered it, was the confusing way the sidebars were laid out. When I got to the first sidebar, there was nothing to indicate to me it was a sidebar (other than the two column format with a line down the center). It just looked as though the facing page wasn't continued and the sentence there would never be completed. I thumbed around for bit trying to figure this out. It kind of seems obvious in hindsight that the different format means it's not the main text. But it wasn't obvious at the time.

The sidebars should have been set off with a different background color (or in some other way) to make this clear. There was hardly any whitespace between the sidebars and the other text, either--again, an apparent effort to save paper.

The apparent effort to save paper by using an absurdly small font and cramming the sidebars up against the main text is at odds with the overly-generous gutters (1.5 inches inner and 1.5 inches outer). While I appreciate it when a publisher avoids the small (1/4 inch) inside gutters that make it hard to hold a book open far enough to read along the inside edge, I would have preferred a 2-inch wider content area with a decently-sized font and some space around those sidebars.

There was also one advantage to this apparent cost-saving effort. The book didn't have the "obligatory" epilogue or conclusion.  These normally do not enhance a book, as they are normally the author's personal editorializing. As such,  they end a non-fiction work with either fiction or an op-ed. So, this was a welcome exclusion.

I liked the heavy paper stock, but I would have preferred more pages of thinner stock and a larger font for the same production costs.

If the reader can forgive the production flaws, this book is a worthy addition to any collection. You just need an atlas and a pair of reading glasses, and you're all set.

 

 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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