Sunday, July 3, 2016

Reading The American Revolution

I often say that the American Revolution is my number one bookish interest. This statement raises questions. What exactly does it mean? Is it accurate? How does this fit in with my reading patterns?

I have been interested in, and reading books on, the Revolutionary Era since I was an early teenager. Though there have been intermittent periods of several years when I did not do any reading on this subject, in the end, I always came back to it. 

A lifetime is a long time. Other interests come and go. Often these interests burn bright for a while. My interest in the Revolution burns lower at times. It has, however, burned longer and with greater consistency than anything else. 

About ten ago, I went through a period when I had not read this subject for a long time. At this time, I made a conscious decision to resume my readings in order to retain it as a major interest. I felt that it was important to have a subject in which I specialize. At that point, if my resumption in reading had led to boredom, this intentional renewed interest would have fizzled out. Instead, I quickly realized that I should never have slacked off, and I asked myself why I had stopped in the first place. For me, this reaffirms something deep inside of me that draws me to this topic. 

Over the past two years, I have been watching the television series Turn. This series centers on the Revolutionary Period and takes place on Long Island, which is my home. Watching this program has raised my interest in this subject of late, sometimes surpassing my interest in all other subjects. Similarly, museum visits, particularly good books on the subject, and other events elevate my interest from time to time.

The more detail and nuance I absorb, I become aware of the more that I want to know. One thing leads to another. Furthermore, I tend to relate other subjects to the Revolution. Here, I connected the philosophies of James Madison to what we now call identity politics. As someone interested in modern politics and social issues, it is inevitable that I would find and ponder such connections. This subject has all sorts of other implications that relate to many other topics.

The lifetime pattern of my reading is also worth noting. When I was very young I was interested in the military history of The Revolution. I read books that sometimes dug all the way down into the detailed strategy of armies. As I matured I became less and less interested in this aspect of the subject and I became more interested in political, philosophical, economic and social histories. I also became intrigued with biographies of the principle characters. Reading the philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau that influenced the Revolutionary generation also appealed to me. 

What I define as “The Revolutionary Era” also expanded. I now consider the entire Revolutionary period to include the decades leading up to the war and only ending at the Constitutional convention of 1787. 


Though I have read many books on this era some of my favorites include Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Joseph J. Ellis His Excellency: George Washington, James Lincoln Collier’s and Christopher Collier’s Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, Ralph Ketcham’s James Madison: A Biography, to name just a few.

As I posted here, history in general has always been an interest of mine. About half of my history reading is dedicated to the Revolutionary Era. About twenty percent of my total reading is dedicated to it. One might argue that such a percentage disqualifies the subject from being labeled a primary interest. However, this percentage has more or less held steady throughout my life. This is roughly about the same for articles and other pieces that I now read on the Internet. Ultimately, this is lot more pages than I have devoted to any other subject. Thus, I think that it is fair to call this my number one concentration of interest.

In the end, I am fascinated by the Revolution. I will likely maintain interest in it for life. As I alluded to above, at times this interest will seem dimmer than other more transitory preoccupations, but occasionally, it will be brighter. The old adage does come to mind when I think about this subject. Slow and steady wins the race.

36 comments:

Stephen said...

I make a yearly habit of devoting much of June and July to reading 'about' the Revolution -- either the political turmoil itself, the war that followed, or the early period when its actors were still the leading men on the political stage. I'm abstaining from that this year, largely because it's an election year and politics wearies me. Instead, I am reading American literature in this period.

You have mentioned Joseph Ellis, who I have read devotedly. He makes the past so personable, so relatable -- it helps that his subjects, men like Adams and Jefferson, are decidedly interesting. Just try to pin Jefferson down -- his vision transcends ideology. He has this fervent belief in individual equality, but coupled with a deep distrust of a powerful state. His liberalism is mixed with a conservative ideal, that of a republic of farming homesteads.

Have you ever read David McCullough? I'm most fond of his Adams biography.

James said...

Like you I enjoy American History. My reading of the American Revolution has focused on Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington among others. One book that stands out in my memory is Samuel Eliot Morison's biography of John Paul Jones. The works you mentioned sound like good ones to add to my future reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - I love your analysis of Ellis. From what I have read from him I think that you are spot on.


I read David McCullough's Adams biography. I thought it was superb. I was little disappointed in his 1776. I thought it was a little to generalized. Perhaps I was looking for more insights.



Brian Joseph said...

Hi James.

That John Paul Jones Biography sounds really good. I will add it to my list.

Lory said...

I'm impressed that you've done so much in-depth reading about one subject. I tend to be much more of a butterfly when it comes to history. And I used to feel bored by the Revolution, because in school that's where our history classes always seemed to start each year (and never got much further) - but I'm realizing that there's so much complexity to consider than the simplified version I learned in school. I want to read the Adams biography for sure, that's one I've seen praised many times.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, it's wonderful that you continue to explore the Revolutionary era through books, museum visits, and the series, Turn. It truly is an important and fascinating time in history (thank you for the reminder). Excellent and timely post!

Tracy Terry said...

Great review and one that takes me back to my O' level history when oddly for a British school along with 'the history of medicine' and what led to the 'troubles' In Ireland', the'American Revolution' was the third topic covered -If only I'd known you then to explain better than our tutor did.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - Time is always an issue and there are so many other subjects that I would like to read, including history subjects.

I really like McCullough's Adams biography and I would recommend it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

I figured that I would try to get this up for the 4th of July weekend.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I love to talk about this subject so that would have been fun.

I myself need to update my knowledge on the subject of the Irish Troubles.

Sharon Henning said...

Hi Brian! I find this subject so interesting. I enjoy analyzing my reading habits and reading about others' reading habits.

I am, as you know,into reading biographies currently. I also love history, both ours and international. The subject of the Revolution and the individuals that made our part of history happen is extremely interesting to me.

I enjoyed learning about your reading habits. I hope your find many new good books on the Revolution to share.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Reading about other people's reading patterns can be so interesting. Sometimes doing so also gives me ideas.

I find that biographies are the way to go. Much of my historical reading consists of reading them.

thecuecard said...

The Revolutionary Period is so ripe -- it seems one could read on for a full lifetime and not get tired of it -- as long as one ventures into all the different aspects of it which it seems you have. It's fascinating for sure. I'm quite interested in the War of 1812 times and have read quite a bit about these days in the Chesapeake region and the Canadian border. I have a lengthy library on it. But I wonder what you think of the TV series Turn? Would you recommend it? Do you think it's accurate and worth watching? thanks

Citizen Reader said...

Brian,
Have you ever "met" Unruly Reader?
http://www.unrulyreader.com/2016/07/reading-on-4th-of-july.html
She reads a lot of history too. I'm impressed to see such dedication continuing to the Revolution...I always have to rely on others' expertise on this subject, since I don't read a lot of big bios or history books of American history (as an Anglophile I tend to go British history if I go history at all). Just thought you might enjoy Unruly's 4th of July post too.

Unruly Reader said...

Hi Brian,

Unruly Reader here. (Thanks, Citizen, for the kind intro!)

Fascinating post, and I look forward to reading more of your American history recommendations. I'm right there with ya.

Heidi’sbooks said...

I love your reading patterns. I don't have one. HaHa! I do have a hard time deciding what to read after I finish a good book. Maybe it's a book hangover; maybe it's indecisiveness.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sarah - Thanks for the link. I will check out The Unruly Reader.

Being an Anglophile is a good thing. Your history is so interesting and well, worth concentrating on.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Unruly Reader - Thanks for stopping by.

History is such a fulfilling thing to read. I am off to check out your blog.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The War of 1812 is so interesting. It seems that not many people are knowledgeable about it. I know a bit but I would like to know more.

I like Turn though as it goes on I find it a little flawed. It seems that, to the best I can tell, the producers captured the culture of the time. It seems very realistic. Some liberties are taken with the facts. However I am fine with that. It is also very well acted, scripted and produced. It is an intelligent series,

As the series is goes on, it has become a bit soap operaish and the plot seems a little overly complicated. With that, it is very enjoyable.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - With all my reading plans, I still sometimes have trouble deciding what to read next.

Stefanie said...

Very cool that you have such a focused interest! I think it is fascinating how your interest in the different aspects has changed over the years.

Richard said...

Thanks for sharing your Am Rev recommendations, Brian. I have a different volume by Wood and Chernov's Washington bio near the top of my TBR waiting to be read (amomg many others), but this is definitely an area of focus which could fill up a reading lifetime with ease. As you already know, of course!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - We are talking about a lot of years! I first started to be interested in the Revolution around 13 years old. I am 49 now!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard. The Gordon Wood book, while a bit dry, is such a valuable resource for understanding the Revolution.

Maria Behar said...

What a fascinating post, Brian! I greatly enjoyed reading it!

It's very true that reading interests come and go in life, and I congratulate you for sticking to your favorite one. I find it very interesting, too, that, within this one topic, your focus shifted from books that emphasized military history, with such things as famous battles and army strategy, to those that dealt with more abstract and profound things like political and philosophical ideas, as well as information on the personalities of the most important "protagonists" of the time period.

Indeed, the evidence of history points to intellectual ideas and political ideologies as the real causes of outer events such as revolutions. These never just "happen", but are a long time in coming about. When, finally, armed conflict erupts, it's because these ideas and ideologies have boiled over, exploding into outright war. So it's most important to analyze and ponder these hidden causes of such history-making events. Things like military strategy are not the real, important factors here. So you were right on the money when your focus shifted. Furthermore, this is evidence of your growth as a discerning reader.

This post makes me want to rush over to either Amazon or Barnes and Noble and grab a book on this subject. I think I'll purchase the one you've pictured here -- "The Radicalism of the American Revolution". It sounds AWESOME! I had never given thought to the idea that the American Revolution might have been a radical event. Had I lived during this time period, perhaps I would have seen that it was in fact quite radical. It was probably the equivalent -- to some extent -- of the counterculture of the 1960s.

Thanks for these book titles! I'm going to add Wood's book to my Goodreads shelves right away, and to my Amazon "History" wish list! I hope to acquire it soon!!

Have a GREAT weekend!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the great comment Maria.


I think that many young people become interested in military history. As you mention, it is often not the optimum way to understand history or humanity. Oner needs to dig into other things.

Radicalism of the American Revolution was such an informative book. With that it is not narrative in any way. It is almost all theory. Thus, readers with less interest in the subject then I have might find it a little dry.



HKatz said...

"Instead, I quickly realized that I should never have slacked off, and I asked myself why I had stopped in the first place."

It's curious why these things happen. Why people drift from an interest, only to realize that they were still deeply interested.

Thank you for the book recommendations too. This is off-topic, but you might be interested - this week I went to a lecture by Daniel Czitrom who talked about his new book, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era. The book also touches on themes (political party machines, vote suppression, etc.) that resonate today, maybe similar to how you're finding connections between Madison's philosophies and identity politics.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Interests, bookish and otherwise seem top come and go. I try to have some consistency with some things, hence my interest in the Revolution.

Czitrom sounds interesting. It seems that there are some human constants. This we find things from the past very relevant in terms of today's issues.

Harvee Lau said...

Fascinating period of our history, Brian. Well worth our interest!

Caroline said...

It's interesting to read about your reading habits and interest. I suppose I do have a few areas of interest to which I return again and again but they are not historical. Not exactly true. I'm interested in the history of France pre Revolution and Napoleon. I'd also like to read a book about Waterloo.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - I tend to think that folks can find almost any period interesting. On the other hand, ceryan folks tend to flock to a few periods in particular.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Pre Revolutionary France is a worthy period to focus on. It is a pity that time restricts us to the number of interests that we can focus on.

JaneGS said...

I agree that reading along themes is very rewarding, and a topic like the Revolution really can consume a lifetime. I like getting the broad outlines well understood and then diving into great detail, although I tend to have more interests than reading time!

I hadn't heard of Turn--it sounds wonderful and I will definitely try to start watching it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Too many interests seems such a common problem for curious people.

It is really nice when one gets the general outlines down . As you said, one can then delve into details and get so much out of them.

I really like Turn. It is fairly dense and complex. Thus I would recommend watching the episodes in order.

Jillian said...

I'm not at all well-read on the topic, but I'm very interested in the American Revolution too. One of my favorite books is McCullough's John Adams, which I'm afraid I read more because I found John Adams completely human and fascinating, than because I wanted a chronicle of the war. :) Which is, I guess, as it should be.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jillian - Thanks for stopping by.

I really like the McCullough's John Adams myself.

Adams was indeed very real. Despite his irascibility. he is my favorite founder.