Monday, April 27, 2015

Reviewing Gabor Boritt's "The Gettysburg Gospel": Part 1

I went into this book feeling like I had preconceptions about Lincoln, Gettysburg, and the American Civil War. But I knew I was ignorant, and in a way acknowledging ignorance is a good way of becoming a sort of tabula rasa.  

It was easy to admit ignorance (at least to myself). With a title like The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows I expected to learn something I didn’t know. And I didn’t feel ashamed of it, since apparently nobody knew it. 

The book doesn’t recount the events of the battle of Gettysburg. It assumes the reader already knows it was the turning point of the war. And though the reader may assume he or she knows how bad the devastation was, Boritt begins his book with in-depth descriptions of how bad it actually was. Imagine wounded and dead in such large numbers that it overwhelms the population of a city. Bodies lay neglected in fields because there simply wasn’t manpower to remove them to hospitals or to bury the corpses. Even when corpses did get buried, it was such a hasty job that later they had to dig up the graves in the attempt to figure out the identity of the soldier lying there, what side he’d fought on, who his next of kin were…and finally, to give him a decent burial.

That was the reason Lincoln came to Gettysburg. Not to give his famous speech, but to lay the buried dead to rest in a national cemetery. Boritt describes the dignitaries, the journey by train to the site, the celebrity fever that caused people to flock to Gettysburg to hear the dignitaries and catch a glimpse of the president.* He poses the question of whether Lincoln wrote the speech in a flash of inspiration (as was the legend), or if he wrote it carefully over a period of time (as some historians suggest); Boritt never quite answers this question, instead going over the impact the Gettysburg Address has had over the course of history from the World Wars to September 11. 


Monday, April 20, 2015

The First Time I Met Lincoln

This entry probably should be subtitled “A review of Gabor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows.” However not only is that subtitle too long (and also confusing because The Gettysburg Gospel also has a subtitle), but it wouldn’t quite be true.  This entry could double as a review, I suppose, but its focus is not on the book (for once).  Because though the content of the book was interesting enough, it sparked a process of thought that meandered far away from the author’s original purpose.

But we’ll start with the book at least. The Gettysburg Gospel was a whim checkout at the library. I was in need of an audiobook, my holds of said “listening material” taking far, far too long to come in. When my commute is an hour a day, I rely on a constant flow of audiobooks for making the time move faster, as well as actually chipping away at my colossal reading list. While I’m in the car, I’m literally a captive audience, making a good book like the embrace of a friend, and making a bad book tempt me to reinvent the Frisbee with the compact discs. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sometimes Books Are Unexpected: "Grecian Calendar" and "Seven Wonders of the World"

I'm sure I've told this story before, but several years back my dad--who works are the local school district--found out the school's libraries were doing a major overhaul of their curriculum, weeding out obsolete textbooks and a lot of other books that were published before 1970 or so. He got permission for our family to go through these weeded books before they were sent away to be recycled. It sounds like dumpster-diving, but actually this was located in a tiny room right off a gymnasium. It felt like a supply closet, and the shelves the books were stacked on were more suited for storing basketballs and hockey-sticks.  Nevertheless, it was a beautiful sight. Books stacked floor to ceiling along the walls, books heaped in the center of the room, smaller stacks of books scattered across the floor, with only bits of tile flooring visible, like little stepping-stones, and only enough standing room for three bodies.  

This was the where, when, and why of how I accumulated the bulk of my nonfiction collection.  With access to thousands of books for free, we took away hundreds of volumes in those days. And I'm still going through them, reading the ones that I picked up on a whim just because the title or cover seemed an iota of interest. I pretty much grabbed every book that was about my favorite nonfiction subject at that time, which was Ancient History.  

The thing is, not all those books have turned out to be about Ancient History. Take, for example, Grecian Calendar by Christopher Rand. I saw "Grecian," figured the "calendar" part meant it was one of those "a year in the life of an ancient Greek person" type books, and also saw a black and white photograph of a Greek city on the cover. I didn't read the back. I didn't read the blurb.  I didn't read the author bio at the back. In fact I very much doubt I looked at more than the spine at that point. I just grabbed it.