Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Big Apple Is So Juicy and Sweet

As I type this, I'm about five pages from finishing the book I've been reading for the last month or so:

New York: An Illustrated History written by Ric Burns and James Sanders with Lisa Ades. ( link to the book here.)

On the basis of being a scholarly history book, I don't know if it's what historians would judge as legitimate, useful or accurate. I don't know if there are significant events or people that have been left out (certainly one can't expect EVERY significance of New York to be included). I don't know if historians would agree with every interpretation or account of events. I don't know if historians would say this is a true, complete, definitive history of the city.

On the basis of being a popular book about a popular city, a book that tries to give a good sweeping account of major events and people that have shaped the most American of American cities, I can say that it is a triumph. From my point of view, with my limitions of knowledge of what a "good" history book should be, this is a very insightful, interesting and educational book. It is over 550 pages long, with hundreds of exquisite photographs and illustrations. It begins with the discovery of Manhattan Island by the Dutch and Henry Hudson, and tells the story of the city to come right up to the 1990s cultural and economic boom.

What I love about this book is that it informs as it entertains. It doesn't just gloss over major historical events, but ties everything together in a cohesive narrative. It explains what happened, why it happened, what forces (whether economic, cultural, social, historical, or financial) made it happen, what personalities and groups made it happen, and what effect it had on other happenings. In other words, it explains the causes and effects that, linked together, made the city what it is today.

Throughout the book, we are reminded of what came before. We are reminded of what forces, explained to us in previous chapters, paved the way for the developments the book explains to us later. The stories of the city intertwine and lead to well-explained conclusions, allowing for a fuller understanding of history. This is what I think a good history book should do. This is a good history book because it does not just tell WHAT happened, but WHY and HOW.

It also entertains. Readers know what Times Square is, what purpose Wall Street serves, and what the Empire State Building looks like. This book tells the reader how these places came to be, what purposes they served that allowed them to arise in the first place, and what impact they had on both the daily lives of New Yorkers as well as the entire nation.

Individual stories of courage, luck, dedication, adversity, and oddity abound through the narrative. Thus the reader is given not only a large view of the city as a whole, but the tiny stories of individuals who make up the larger city.

The book tells of the people who made the city happen. People like Alexander Hamilton, Walt Whitman, Jane Jacobs, J.P. Morgan and, perhaps most importantly, Robert Moses. The story of New York is incomplete without the stories of these influential men (and women!) .

I loved reading this book. I loved learning why the city is the way it is. I loved learning the reasons why it came to be the way it is, learning about the events that shaped it. I loved learning about the interesting, only-in-New-York stories that made me say "Wow, I didn't know that! How interesting!"

In short, I loved how this book grabbed my attention, made me understand the history of the city, and entertained me and made me want to read on while I was learning. I'd highly recommend this book to any history lover, New York lover, or anyone who would like to read a book about a simple island that become a world-class city with world-class people.

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