Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Found Books

"Found Books" is a themed posting that I enjoyed in the past and have decided to revive here in The Overnight Bestseller just because I think it's fun. It's sort of a Goodreads thing where I talk about books that I've found second-hand and that I'm currently reading. "Found Books" because I wasn't particularly looking for them but happened to come across them when I was browsing, bought them on impulse and discovered that I liked them. Inexpensive, second-hand books that deserve a shout-out.

These books are usually non-fiction that I read in the afternoon after I've run out of creative juice for the day and want to shift my brain into another gear. (Fiction I read at bedtime.) In the summer, if I don't have to drive anywhere, I take the book, a glass of bourbon and a cigar outside with the dogs and sit in the screen tent, hiding from the bugs, puffing, sipping and reading. This is how I read Life Before Life by Dr. Jim B. Tucker, which inspired Blood Passage, and Team of Rivals by Dorothy Kearns Goodwin, which, as those of you who have read Blood Passage will know, Hank Donaghue gave to his confidential informant Smoke Archer as a gift.

First up in this new feature are two books that I'm reading together. I began with Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2004), the biography by Ron Chernow. I found Hamilton in the Value Village for $3.99 in hardcover. I love American history in general and quite a few years ago read Burr, the historical novel by Gore Vidal which covered the other side of that infamous rivalry, and when I saw Hamilton sitting there I knew it was a golden opportunity to learn more about a historical figure I was only vaguely familiar with. The other book I'm reading along with it is A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Harcourt, 2002) by Carol Berkin, which I also found in Value Village, at $2.99 softcover. Berkin is a professor of American history at CUNY, and this book focuses on the constitutional convention of 1787 in which the American federal government was born from the rudiments of the original Confederation.

I knew that Hamilton was a federalist, that he believed strongly in a strong federal government with powers that would bring the individual states into a united collective, but I didn't really know anything about his origins or how young and precocious he was when he served as Washington's aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary war, nor how far-reaching his influence was in shaping the United States as it is today despite the negative portrayal that popular history seems to have given him. I had already read almost 100 pages before I watched the recent rebroadcast of Adams, the HBO miniseries, in which Hamilton is portrayed as a toady, a sneak, and a monarchist in disguise, so I knew this was dramatic license at best. Chernow is doing an excellent job right now, as I read, to clarify the relationship between Hamilton and Washington. The Revolutionary War hasn't yet reached its conclusion at the point where I am right now in the biography, so time will tell.

I started reading A Brilliant Solution because I couldn't help myself. Berkin sucked me in right away and I couldn't put it down. Again, I was only foggily aware that James Madison was the key figure in the creation of the American constitution and suspected that Hamilton must also have been involved, but now I know I'll get the complete picture as I read this book. I'm trying to hold back on this book because I want to catch up chronologically in Hamilton before I read about the convention in 1787, but it's a struggle. Berkin is telling an excellent, well-balanced story and I can't keep away from it. A chapter at a time is all I'm allowing myself as I move through Hamilton, a much longer book.

Why do I mention these books? Because I feel they are very timely. Americans have found themselves drawn into an increasingly intense debate about the nature of their political existence. The rise of the Tea Party and libertarianism, combined with President Obama's health care initiative and other federal processes such as the economic recovery measures, seems to have intensified the struggle between opposing forces -- a federal union on one side and individual state republicanism on the other side -- which I'm now learning is a fundamental tension rooted in the very creation of this nation. I had no idea the extent to which individual states had conducted themselves as sovereign entities at the conclusion of the Revolution and before the creation of the Constitution, going as far as to issue their own currency, establish tariff barriers and set up customs services to control trade with other states. How reluctant they were to participate in a United States of America!

As a Canadian I have the luxury of not having to express an opinion and support a side. For me it remains a subject of intense interest, particularly since the opinions and policies being expressed today have such clear echoes from 224 years ago. I would urge everyone with a similar interest in the current political debate in the U.S. to read these books, or books on this subject, to understand the historical roots of this debate and how fundamental these issues are to the American nation.

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