Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book review: "I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not"

As Forrest Gump might say, Richard Shenkman's book "I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not" is like a box of chocolates. You just don't know what you're going to get.

Shenkman has filled this book with bucketfuls of interesting and often surprising historical tidbits. But in reaching for the good stuff he sometimes overreaches, including items that are questionable or just dull.

Shenkman is at his best when he picks a specific and well-known historical "fact" and then carefully debunks it. For example: The Pilgrims didn't land at Plymouth Rock, prohibition wasn't the flop many believe and Betsy Ross did not sew the first American flag.

At other times, Shenkman's assumptions about what Americans believe are dubious. He says the anti-slavery radical John Brown really wasn't a hero but I never considered him one. He says that "it is often thought" that Franklin Roosevelt got his inspiration for the New Deal from John Maynard Keynes (and then disproves it). Huh? I've never heard that one.

Shenkman even tries to debunk the phrase "History repeats itself" by showing that historical events always have different circumstances. C'mon. No one thinks the phrase means history repeats itself exactly.

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot in this book that's thought-provoking, just not all of it. For the most part, Shenkman is fastidious in providing examples to illustrate his points. Curiously, though, he occasionally throws out a debatable statement without any support, as when he says, "It is now conceded that the weakness of the politcal parties is disastrous."

I'd suggest this book might be best used like a reference book. Keep it on your shelf, and when you're curious about an episode in American history, use the index to see what Shenkman has to say about it. There's a good chance he'll  surprise you.

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