A Shocking Reversal

Thanks to everyone who wrote in about the American Revolution. After sleeping on it, I decided to stick with Middlekauff. There's a part of me that always feels like a chump for putting a book down. I'm just going to have to power through, I guess.

I also wanted to highlight something linked in comments. I often get requests for book-lists from commenters. I don't mind offering such a list up, but it feels a bit awkward. As I've said before, my approach is pop. I can tell you what I'm reading and what I think about it. But please remember that I'm basically a professional, if extremely curious, amateur.

Having said that, Ari (who is, himself, a practicing historian) from Edge Of The American West was kind enough offer five books for the "non-expert reader" seeking to understand America:

1) Alan Taylor, American Colonies. I chose Alan's book because I wanted to start with a survey. It seemed like a good idea to provide context, particularly in the colonial period, which lacks a unifying national narrative. But I also wanted a book that would include the West, Native people, and reach beyond the Anglo-American story. Plus, sucking up to a colleague is always a good idea.

2) Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom. When I teach the survey, I often use as one of my themes what Eric Foner calls the "American irony," which I take to mean the way that liberty expands for some, typically white men, at the expense of others, often people of African descent, women, Native people, or unfree white laborers. As this theme relates to slavery, Morgan got there first.

3) Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. This was the choice that troubled me the most. There's a lot wrong with this book, problems that are well-documented anywhere better historians can be found. Wood focuses relentlessly on white elites, ignoring, for the most part, everyone else. Still, if one wants to understand the causes and consequences of the Revolution, and one only has time to read one book, I think this is the place to start.

4) James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. This was probably the easiest of my picks. The McPherson synthesis -- that debates over territorial expansion and the fate of slavery moved in lockstep, pushing the nation toward civil war -- seems unchallenged to me. And if you like shooting, you'll find plenty of that as well.

5) William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis. It would have been nice to include a book on Reconstruction. Foner's Short History was the obvious choice. But I find that book hard to read and somewhat narrow. So I chose Cronon instead. The merits of Nature's Metropolis are many: attention to urbanization in the opening and settlement of the West; the significance of commodity chains in tying a city to its hinterland; and the rise of futures markets in transforming the nation.

I can personally vouch for Morgan and McPherson. Both incredible books. I'll find out about the rest, soon enough.

A quick word on commenting etiquette. We have a lot of smart people hanging out here, and frankly, I depend on their company. But any time I link to a list or talk in terms of "best" or "worst," take it as a given that it's highly subjective. That doesn't mean it isn't valuable, but an argument about why some other list is "clearly better," or "the best," isn't going to get us very far. This is one really smart dude's opinion. I value it, and think it's important. But I don't claim that it's definitive. More importantly, I'm fairly sure he doesn't either.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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