Shy's Reviews > Don't Know Much about History: Everything You Need to Know about American History But Never Learned

Don't Know Much about History by Kenneth C. Davis
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's review
Mar 13, 2011

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bookshelves: historical-reference, non-fiction, reference

I read this book as a refresher on American History with a view to sitting a specific exam. In that respect, I suppose the book was successful in achieving my objective. However, I would generally not recommend this book for anything other than as a springboard into further study and thankfully for this purpose Davis provides a very detailed list of further readings for each section.

It is a good succinct summary of American history. A distillation, if you will, of a large amount of research and reading. However, I have some serious issues with the book.

Firstly, I found the writing style to be poor at times. It is overly journalistic, which I guess does make it more accessible and less dry. However, it is poorly edited, with several instances of vague pronouns or references which Davis does not clarify. Toward the end of the book the author loses his control over adjectives as they get sweepingly over-dramatic with wild metaphors and similies that I would expect to see in a ranting editorial rather than a text book.

Secondly, I was constantly shocked by the jagged transitions in the book. While I understand and have no issue with the particular question-and-answer style chosen by Davis, from the middle of the book onward I kept encountering the end of a section followed by an unrelated insertion of an "American Voice" with a line or a paragraph explaining the significance of the excerpt. Then he would launch into a new section once again unrelated to the "American Voice". It felt like the book was once a bigger manuscript which the editor then slashed without going back to smooth over the new transitions.

Finally, I would advise that anyone reading this book should be clearly aware of the author's goal, which is to correct the problem of the way American history is taught in schools - poorly, with little critical thinking and often teaching apocryphal stories as facts and with frequent glossing over of the darker aspects. As a result, the overall tone of this book rather negative. Davis starts out with a fairly balanced approach to the founding fathers, describing their intellectual genius as well as their prejudices. He also leaves Teddy Roosevelt and FDR more or less unscathed and the Civil Rights movement is described favourably. But for nearly every other aspect of American history he concentrates on the negative is his attempt to redress US history whitewash taught in the classroom.

Ultimately, I have to go back to my comment about treating this as only a springboard into further study or to brush off the cobwebs of earlier education. If I were a teacher I would mark down any essay which relied on this book for research instead of going to the original materials or the more thorough research Davis himself relies on and lists in his "Further Reading" appendix.
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