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I Have Been Reading ...

... some fascinating books lately, and I thought I would share.   

I began the year with Public Enemies: Americas Greatest Crime Wave and The Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934 by Brian Burrough.  The sub-title tells much of it, and that is interesting enough.  However, the narrative style used by Burrough really brings it to life, constantly moving the story along with the day-by-day activities of a loose collection of small time crooks.  Some of the stories (or at least the myths of the stories) -- Bonny and Clyde, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd and the like -- are familiar; but Burrough shows how close they really were in time, in place, and in style.  They criss-crossed the Midwest and South, often finding themselves in the same town or neighbourhood.  The story of J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau is equally fascinating. The details are full of ineptitude, corruption, hideous management style, and luck.  But Hoover was clever enough to have his FBI praised as the national police force.  Thoroughly recommended for fun and social history.

I usually buy all my books from the Book Warehouse remainder store, but I finished Public Enemy while stuck in Tampa Bay airport last month.   The choice in the Hudsons News was not great but I lucked out with the paperback edition of 1491:  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.   It purports to be a history of North and South America prior to the European contact in 1492; and in this it does a marvelous job of explicating new work on Bolivia, the Inka, the Maya and other major Mesoamerican polities, and the broad swathe of North American society.  It is unfortunately weak on the pre-contact economic enterprises of the Pacific Northwest, but there is so much else good stuff that it is a forgivable omission.  However, much more than an economic and/or political history book, 1491 is an extended essay on how pre-contact Americans thoroughly managed and indeed created much of their landscapes.  He takes on and thoroughly demolished the paradigmatic myth of the primeval wilderness hardly touched by the feet of humans.  A wonderful lesson and a fine read. 

February 10, 2007 | Permalink


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