Have I written about Kenneth Davis yet? I haven’t? Oh good. Kenneth Davis is the man who knows everything. I’m not exaggerating. I literally believe he knows everything under the sun, and to prove it, he writes the much acclaimed, New York Times Bestseller listed, Don’t Know Much Series.
The books sound like they would be watered-down versions of information for children, but they are not.
I’m going to be honest. I am actually only halfway through his book about the Civil War, but I’m so into it that I had to put it down for a half hour and write this blog. It is that good. Like most of you, my version of the Civil War is like this:
Everything I Learned from Gone With the Wind and maybe a History channel special.
So I actually know very little about the Civil War. The thing with American history, which I’m learning as I delve deeper into education, is that people find it boring and confusing.
They can’t remember dates, all that jargon about Articles, the Senate, the weird political parties that bear little resemblance to our finely drawn Democrats and Republicans today, all the names are eerily similar to the generation before making it sound like the same persons being mentioned over and over, battles are all about strategy and who has the best general, (and I don’t know about y’all, but I never played Risk. My brother hoarded that game like it was his own, personal tribute to his male-ness…and no girls allowed) and important events are drawn out over thirty, sometimes fifty, years.
Not only this, but its difficult to write about history because a lot has been written on it already (so you have to draw from different books and its like: Why am I writing this on my right while I’m reading it over here on my left?) Not to mention when history is a couple hundred years back or more it can be vague and unreliable, with many contradictions from many historians. Besides, it really, really, doesn’t seem to have a whole helluva lot to do with our present government and situation.
But here is where people like Kenneth Davis come in. For starters, he’s a really good writer. Not because he’s brilliant, which he pretty much is, but because he has a very distinct voice.
I’ve read a lot of textbooks about American history over the years and I have been bored to tears by most of them. I think it’s because they are written by people who are good at research and very passionate about their subject, but they lack the one thing that makes them readable: Narrative Writing Skill.
Which is a term I think I just made up, but who cares.
Textbook authors couldn’t write a good story to save their lives and they probably have no idea about leads, tensions, character, conflict, and resolution. Like, they may have learned all that in their literature courses way back when, but never thought to combine the craft of creative writing with historical non-fiction.
Imagine the person you best love to talk to, the one that always tells you something interesting that you didn’t know and does it with remarkable grace and with no sign of pretension or condescension. Then imagine that person also makes you laugh by pointing out ironies and makes you cry by relating something that is intensely moving.
This is Kenneth Davis.
He tells the story of the Civil War with lots of details and facts, it’s true, but he is also telling you a STORY, with tensions and build-up, citing all the conflicts, the great strain of one nation divided in half and at each others throats. I mean, seriously, the cries of Union and States Rights and Central Government took on meaning for me for the first time this afternoon. I get it. (Aren’t we still bitching about those things today? Interesting.)
He offers you a vivid picture of the masses of dead and wounded. The horror of slavery, and the explosive and often deadly protests of abolitionists. He also mentions the nice things and the funny things. In one part, one of my favorite parts, he talks about how the soldiers from opposite sides would often trade goods back and forth across enemy lines.
One night, on the Potomac, a Confederate soldier yelled over to the opposite side: “Say Yanks! There are some fools shooting across the river up above, but we won’t shoot if you don’t!” According to Davis, unofficial truces were common among the fighting men, because, as he says: Perhaps misery does love company.
The characters of the leaders of all the different armies are illustrated with brutal honesty; Davis does not glorify anyone or vilify anyone, he just tells the facts with remarkable non bias. (Did you guys know that there were different armies? Not just North and South? I didn’t really get that, but now it makes sense: Lee’s army: not the Confederate army, but a section of it; men who were fighting in Maryland and Virginia. It was all about States individual rights, you see. So different States had different armies all fighting the Union armies in different parts of the country, but for the same cause. Fascinating. I did not know that.)
It’s a great series by a great author. I’ve read two of them now and when I’m finished with the Civil War I think I’ll start a new one.
To all you guys who have been pestering me with dull textbooks and book suggestions? Yeah, don’t.
I’m busy learning everything there is to know about everything.