Sunday, August 5, 2012

Learning from History

It's August and my stack of intended summer reads still sit on my buffet. As I scratched my head wondering what I had been doing with my time, I remembered. I got distracted by a whole other group of books that weren't sitting on my shelf. Three were from my lunch and library group (Charles Dickens, Bill Bryson, Scott Turow). One was required reading from my son (Rick Riordan). And one was required reading from my boss (Jim Collins). Most recently, I needed to indulge in some history. So, I just finished Killing Lincoln. Well, I just finished reading Killing Lincoln. Not actually killing Lincoln.

The other night at my husband's twenty-fifth class reunion I was visiting with one of his classmates about David McCullough's amazing series of history books (1776 and John Adams). We both commented on how history has become so much more fascinating as we've grown older. (Perhaps everything becomes fascinating as you grow older. My mother informed me that she just bought a book about the development of our nation's road infrastructure. That even seems a little dry for me.)

My husband read Killing Lincoln first. Normally, I don't like him to read books first, because he has a tendency to be an incredible spoiler. However, I didn't think it mattered so much for this one. After all, I know how it ends. What surprised me is how compelled I became by the story. Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard weave history into a thriller, writing in present tense, so you feel as if you are living through the surrender of the Confederacy and actually grasp the patriotic sentiment that either embroils or elates the nation. The rise of John Wilkes Booth maniacal plan to ambush four of Washington's most influential politicians reads like a story from fiction. I've read a few reviews that have disputed some of the fact checking and bits of the conspiracy theories. But there is one fact that is wholly incontestable: Once of our greatest presidents of all time was assassinated by a pompous madman, leading a conspiracy of Confederate sympathizers.

Admittedly, I became teary-eyed as Lincoln lay on his deathbed. Now, when I learned about our 16th president's assassination in school, I'm not sure I was over-emotional. Of course, we gave tribute to Lincoln for abolishing slavery. I even remember memorizing the Gettysburg Address. But it was all very mechanical knowledge. I wonder if history should be taught a bit differently...with stories...to discuss lessons learned. Would sophomores be more excited to understand history if they were required to read Killing Lincoln? When my daughter was in middle school, I had to sign a release for her to watch The Patriot. And she still talks about The American Revolution with a great deal of fervor.

I'm not a strong believer that learning needs to equate to entertainment. However, I do believe that lessons can be learned from great story telling. Because what's the use of talking if no one is listening? Killing Lincoln will definitely keep you reading...and it's a great book for discussion.