A History of the American People by Paul Johnson

For Christmas 2013, I received an excellent gift from my brother and sister-in-law – a homemade book club. The club consisted of receiving an audiobook of their choosing about once every other month. This was a great present, not only because I read a lot, but because the books that they sent were not ones that I would typically pick for myself. This helped break me out of a groove (really a rut…or trench…or anyway) of a LOT of Sci-fi. Their selections were all enjoyable and yet for the most part – brief. However, their last selection has made up for the lack of listening hours handsomely.

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson apparently was a textbook that summaries were read out of in one of my brother-in-law’s classes in college. Yes, a textbook. But thankfully, it does not read as a standard dry methodical recitation of times and places. In his 42 hours (much longer than all previous 5 selections together), Mr. Johnson opens up the American country with the lively vantage of a Brit who is enamored with our, at least historically, unparalleled nation. It is a completely engrossing survey. Essentially beginning with the Puritans and working non-stop to the Clinton years, the political, economic, and interpersonal stories of individuals are opened up with a keen insight. Mr. Johnson’s enthusiasm is contagious, and the reader can’t wait to see what happens next.

His heights are his explorations of the Presidents which he basically uses as windows to the soul of America. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln come to life as he connects the cultural dots to the decisions that these men made. His seemingly inexhaustible optimism is set off brilliantly by the surprising vitriol he has for FDR, Kennedy, and Johnson – the men he views as ruining American ideals. In each case, the reader wants to know more about the subjects not less. While maybe not right away, I want to dig deeper into Lincoln, Coolidge, John Phillip Sousa, Eisenhower.

One caveat: there is plenty of editorializing in this book. This makes for some of its strongest sections and its weakest. The author fesses up to his opinions early in the book so the reader isn’t surprised, but sometimes they can be off-putting. It’s clear Mr. Johnson is something like a free market individualist with a social heart. Sometimes he could easily offend conservatives and other times stomp on liberal’s toes – more often the latter. His last hundred pages of commentary after the strict chronology is done were my least enjoyable. However one of its main points, which I can agree with, is that modern Americans are losing (maybe giving up to political correctness) their rights to assert their opinions. He does and with gusto. I can at least applaud his conviction.

Granted my interests usually lie in the quadrivium, but the amount of Americana trivia I’ve been spouting recently reveals that I like the stuff. I probably would have never chosen a thick survey of American history for myself, but I’m glad I read it. A wonderful gift, and one I highly recommend.

9 stars out of 10