Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Zinn Reader

The Zinn Reader
© 1997 Howard Zinn
668 pages

When I pulled this book from the shelf, I did so with the intention of checking it out and reading it over the Thanksgiving holiday. I did not anticipate the book monopolizing my interest from the moment I peeked inside on my way downstairs to the circulation desk to check it out until the minute I finished it. That a book of nearly seven hundred pages, often about politics, never lost my interest is impressive indeed.

Last week I watched a biographical documentary about the life of author Howard Zinn, a historian whom I read in the early spring. His People’s History of America and People’s History of American Empire were historical narratives with political messages, wholly interesting to me.  The man who emerged from the documentary and from this book is fascinating: he grew up poor, in the slums of New York, back when the United States had its own labor and socialist movements. He was part of a B-17 crew during the Second World War, and afterwards became a historian and political activist, a combination of roles he sees only as natural. By chance he was sent to the South just as the Civil Rights movement began in earnest, and has written commentary on seemingly every major social and political event of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. This book contains a large sampling of articles, essays, newspaper columns, book introductions, and other literature he produced during the period, and it is a staggeringly communicative book.  Zinn is easily the most captivating political author I’ve ever read, communicating not just history, but the emotional effect of history. Zinn’s indignation, sadness, and anger are obvious, but never overwhelming.

The Zinn Reader is one man’s commentary on his and the United States’ history and development. Zinn is a character in a larger story, responding to the historical events that unfold around him. Zinn is very much involved with history: for him, the idea that the historian is and must be  neutral is wrong, fallacious even.  Historians, and scholars in general, have the right and duty as human beings to respond to what is happening in their world -- to champion the causes they see as righteous and to attack with fervency what injustice and lies they can. He doesn’t write simply on the major events of his life -- World War 2, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam -- but on the minor parts as well (Boston University’s “battleground” role during the rise of the student left) - -and on the whole scope of American history, from Columbus to the Gilded Age and beyond.

The highest praise I can give to any book is that it added depth to my life in making me think: Zinn addresses questions of mine in regards to civil disobedience (when is it “right”, namely), and makes me examine old ideas and new ones alike. The book swept me away, and I imagine it will be holding sway over my mind for a good long while, in the manner of Neil Postman. I don’t know if I’ll read anything more memorable this year -- I doubt I could. I recommend this to you utterly.

1 comment:

  1. That's quite a recommendation! I agree that historians ought not stay neutral. Moreover, I'm not at all positive that it's possible to remain neutral, despite the trumpeting of journalists worldwide. I think writer who aim to remain neutral in their personal opinions are cowards, afraid of offending a large number of people all at once.


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