If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: Lolita

Latest in the "What I'm Reading Now" feature of this blog.

For the last few weeks I have been reading Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick. I originally put it on my Amazon wish list back when the New York Times picked it as one of the best books of 2006, and just now finally got around to reading it. I have to admit that when it comes to deciding what to read, I tend to be a bit of a snob. There are so many wonderful books out there, that I don't want to waste the three or four weeks it usually takes me to finish a book on something that I'm not going to love. (Part of the problem is that I feel compelled to finish every book that I start, even if I'm not enjoying it.) So I tend to gravitate towards the classics and the award winners. I like my reading to come pre-vetted.

Mayflower was indeed worthy of its praise. It does what every good non-fiction book should do, educate while telling a great story. Before reading this book, my knowledge of early American history went pretty much like this:

In 1492 Columbus came sailing on his three ships, ended up in the Caribbean instead of in India, and landed on Hispaniola where he proceeded to decimate the Native population. Then in 1620 the Pilgrims came (I'm from Massachusetts, so Jamestown was always less important to us), landed in Plymouth, nearly starved to death, but with the help of the local Indians managed to survive the winter; they had a big meal to celebrate being alive, and lived happily ever after. Then in the 1770's the Colonists got tired of the overbearing British, tossed their tea in the harbor, Paul Revere rode to Lexington and Concord, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and we had ourselves a country.

I am condensing and oversimplifying (I don't want my former teachers or current colleagues to be too horrified), but that is the basic timeline of what I knew about early America. With that as a starting point, Mayflower knocked down my misconceptions on a number of points.

  1. While many of the passengers on the Mayflower were religious Pilgrims seeking escape from Charles I's oppressive rule, about half were businessmen and fortune hunters, hoping to cash in on the natural resources of the Americas.

  2. Far from being the "first contact" situation that I had always imagined, there were a hundred years of interaction between Europeans and the Indians before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, a fact that made their relations with the Indians far more complex, and far more dangerous, than I had previously thought, and made their early diplomatic successes all the more impressive.

  3. The 150 years of history that I was missing between the founding of Plymouth and the American Revolution is mostly about conflict and war between the Indians and the European settlers who kept expanding to take more and more land. When I think of Indian wars, my image is more of The Trail of Tears and Custer's Last Stand: the big westward push of the American states. But before they could do that, they had to conquer the Northeast.

In fact, the real story told in Mayflower--above and beyond the departure of the Pilgrims from Holland, their deadly sea journey, and their even more deadly first winter in Plymouth--is the story a generation later of King Philip's War, in which the English lost 8% of the adult male population (almost twice the percentage of American men killed in the Civil War) and the Indians lost between 60 and 80 percent of their population to war, starvation or disease. It is more than the imagination can fathom.

In the epilogue, which he titles "Conscience", Philbrick cites a 2002 estimate that there were approximately 35 million descendants of the Mayflower passengers living in the United States. If my math is right, that works out to a little less than 10% of the population, a reminder of just how much their story is our story, and how important it is that we learn from the mistakes that were made by our ancestors along the way. I highly recommend reading this book.

Next up: Lolita
I'm the kind of person who likes to create artificial structures to give his life a sense of order. Recently, I have been reading in a specific rotation: one new fiction book, one new non-fiction book, re-reading a book off my shelf (I keep pretty much every book I read, so I have lots to choose from). It's the re-reading spot in the rotation, so I have picked up Lolita. I first read Lolita in college mostly to see what all the fuss was about. My recent post on Reading Lolita in Tehran, brought it back to mind, so I thought I'd give it a more mature read.


Josh said...

Just dropped by your blog right now. Wanted to mention that Philbrick's other two books, In the Heart of the Sea & Sea of Glory are both also great. Heart of the Sea is the story of the whale-ship Essex and its crew. That was a story nearly as famous in the 19th century as the Titanic was in the 20th, and it is considered to have been one inspiration for Moby Dick (that was, in fact, the reason I read it - I had just read Moby Dick for the first time and my mind was pretty blown). Sea of Glory was about the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-42, and it was a bigger, more detailed story with some extremely interesting characters, though perhaps not as immediately gripping a central premise. Haven't read Mayflower yet, but probably will eventually - it sounds like the most timely and relevant of his books, perhaps.

Oh, and Heart also did win the National Book Award, so that should count as pre-vetted (I totally know what you mean about requiring that of your books, though).

Anyway, hope all's well, Jeff. I look forward to reading this blog as it continues. Friends and I always mused on how a school might incorporate some of the things that made MM great, and brainstorming education improvement is clearly a valuable project.

Book posts are cool, too, though.

-Josh S.

Jeff said...

Thanks for the comment, and the book recommendations.

Don't worry, I have a whole "everything I need to know I learned at summer camp" series planned somewhere down the line, so MM will get plenty of attention here.

On the topic of books, check out today's (5/14) post, "Five Books Every High School Student Should Read". I'd love to hear your choices.