The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe Photo by Victor Grigas
It occurred to me the other day that it may be worth saying something about the philosophy behind A Little History of the United States. For lay readers, the purpose of the book may seem almost laughably self-evident. They remember being bogged down in high school or college with textbooks nearly a thousand pages long and filled with a relentless procession of details. Those readers, having long ago left the world of textbooks behind, wish to approach history in a less intimidating way. All well and good.
For those of us who teach history, however, regularly wandering through the world of lesson plans, syllabi, study guides and textbooks, it’s worth thinking about the assumptions behind such materials. I’ll borrow here from the introduction to my Explorer’s Handbook, an informal guide designed to accompany A Little History:
Thus there is a kind of double-paradox behind the philosophy of less is more. A book of 300 pages rather than 1000 doesn’t necessarily mean less effort. Learning fewer facts and theories but learning them well may require as much time spent as the hapless soul does who flounders through the unabridged edition of American history. Rereading a tightly packed narrative is not a sin but a virtue. Secondly, a shorter narrative is not an endpoint but a beginning. For those who wish merely to have a refresher course in the main points of American history before moving on to another life, best of luck to you. But I suspect the larger number of readers will come away wanting to jump into specific areas of interest and dig deeper.
For invariably, the deeper you dig, the stranger and more wonderful the story becomes. The Exploration Handbook makes suggestions for further readings on topics covered in Little History, and can be downloaded for free here.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors