Eric Burns. 1920: The Year that Made the Decade Roar (2015, Pegasus). It’s frequently a seductive trope of writers and historians to say that certain years hold keys to history. Virginia Woolf famously said the “world changed on or about December of 1910,” self-conscious Modernists have tied the emergence of “our” time to Darwin or Freud or Planck or to 1913 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the Armory Show. Recently Bill Bryson authored a book tied to the summer of 1927. Bookshelves are full of books opining that the world changed with the Fall of Rome, 1066, Luther’s 95 Theses, the Industrial Revolution. And so it goes. Nothing new under the sun except a dramatic, epic event which cleanly and instantly separates the past from after: the difference is simply which pivot one chooses. For Eric Burns, American history finds its transition point in 1920, a year Burns describes, Dickens-like, as joyful but saddened, optimistic but confused, enthusiastic but filled with dread: “It was in 1920 that the Roaring Twenties first began to roar…No less an irony is it that 1920 foretold the years to come so accurately. Foretold them, in fact, with such precision that there is an eeriness about it… seems on occasion as if it were as current as an e-mail alert, a beep that one hears within seconds of the message’s arrival.”
Well, I’m much more of a history-as-constant-spectrum gal myself, with time and events blending together, constancy and change, progression and regression and stagnancy: the question for me is seldom “when” or “what” and very frequently “how much” and “why” and “what did it mean.” There is never one question for me, let alone one year. And still, I did enjoy this history, despite the fact that Burns occasionally adopts a moralizing tone I wasn’t completely comfortable with: “The country would have achieved the un-achievable—the dumbing-down of its audiences as they sank into vapidity with gleeful abandon, as delighted with their plight as if they were riding the newest attraction in an amusement park. American communications—radio and television, movies and newspapers, and eventually the so-called social media, provided by computers and their offspring—would transform the most powerful country on earth in its military and manufacturing might to a third-world nation in its tastes and values. So it is today; so it gives every sign of remaining.” Or: “In today’s post-literate society, though, the word ‘wit’ has lost its cachet. Even in formal settings—between hard covers in bookstores, as feature stories in magazines, on the OpEd pages of prestigious newspapers—wit is often used incorrectly, and true wit is as rare as true perception. Some of the writers in whom at least a number of Americans seem most interested have achieved their status because of the speed with which they can text, tweet, and twitter…In 1920, though, the word was not only art in many cases, but was being transformed into a different kind of art from what the world had ever known before—more sarcastic, irreverent, haunting, analytical, mystical, emotionally wrenching, deeply personal.”
Perhaps our Mr. Burns needs more variety in his reading list; perhaps an expansion of his circle of acquaintances. Not that he’s entirely wrong: he’s just not entirely right and his moralizing touches intrude on the arc of history he is telling and recall to mind an outdated mode of writing about history which is Manchester-ish (World Lit Only by Fire) in its fuddy-duddiness.
The moralizing, though, is rare and most of the book is divided roughly into themes and events, very loosely linked throughout to a mysterious terrorist bombing at the New York Stock Exchange to lead the reader to the end of the year and the book. In fact, despite the weird moralizing moments, much of 1920‘s contents are excerpts, quotes, and paraphrases from other writers, (including, aptly, William Manchester). This book frequently seems to be more a curation of anecdotes and passages, a McGuffy’s Reader of the Roaring Twenties and What Other People Have Said About It. It’s a nice scrapbook of an era, distilled down to one year, even as it’s easy to wrinkle the nose at the occasional parson-y authorial voice, and the simplistic thesis of “this is the year that begat the rest of the American century.”
Meghan McCain. Dirty Sexy Politics (2010, Hyperion). This book takes you on the campaign trail with Meghan McCain as she blogged her way across America with her father John’s presidential campaign in 2008. Weirdly, there is not much dirt, not much sex, and not much politics to be found in this lightweight book. At times an engaging book, this is ultimately an insubstantial one, with little here to stick to the ribs of history. It’s difficult not to find her hopes for a broader and more inclusive version of the GOP appealing, even as one doesn’t exactly find them particularly well-informed or specific. McCain has nice things to say about Joe Lieberman, Lindsay Graham, and Hillary Clinton. She says not so nice things about Mike Huckabee, Steve Schmidt, and the media. McCain says she respects and admires Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and a “Live and Let Live” version of Modern Republican Conservatism. One gets the sense that she doesn’t know Goldwater and Reagan as much as she knows what her family and friends have said about Goldwater and Reagan. As for the rest, she says little at all other than presidential campaigns are difficult, dirty, and petty slogs; she loves her family; she mentions her UGG boots and leggings frequently and appearances are really important. She is concerned here with not appearing to anyone as though she is “entitled,” but all the same, there aren’t many other words to describe someone who was able to self-finance her blog, blog staff, image consultants and year and a half off to travel from the money left to her from her grandparents or for someone who had the luxury to do that since there was no need for an immediate starter job in order to pay for her own student loans, food, health and other non-blog expenses. Still, while I can’t say I recommend this book for its own sake —it’s simply written from someone who, despite the front row seat to the 2008 presidential campaign, is just so young— there is no mean-spiritedness in McCain’s writing. It’s possible that her more mature writing and her undoubtedly better-informed current voice is worth listening to. There is definitely a good nature and sense of humor as a starting point for her to work with.
Don Peck. Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It (2011, Crown). This non-fiction book is based on some of my pet topics: the American economy and the opportunities and vagaries facing a U.S. where productivity and compensation are decreasingly correlated, how working hard doesn’t always equal success, and the separation between the rich and the struggling. I’d use the phrase “income inequality” but I know, for me, that is way less important than the fact that just decent security appears to be out of reach for too many of us. Pinched was written around the time of the Occupy Wall Street movement and still has things of merit to say. It’s pretty balanced ideologically and asks some honest questions. However, this book felt like a substitute for what I really want to read. It reads like an extended magazine article (which isn’t the problem) and one written by an author who hasn’t nailed the words in a way other writers on the same topics have (that is a problem). At the time the book came out, I probably would have been more enthusiastic about it, but too many other writers, speakers, media outlets, and politicians have traveled the same ground and done a better job of it then and since. In other words: if it were still 2010, I’d recommend the book. In 2015, there are too many other ways to access really profound and complex thinking on these topics. Pinched just seems superfluous.