The American Future: A History by Simon Schama

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The American Future: A History by Simon Schama

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: American history through its attitude to war, religion, the national identity and economics. Not the easiest of reads because of the style, but worth persevering with. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: October 2009
Publisher: The Bodley Head
ISBN: 978-1847920003

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After 9/11 America had the sympathy of most people. Whether or not you agreed with what the country stood for was immaterial – the horror of what happened left few unmoved. How then has the country descended into being vilified around much of the world and suspected even where it is not guilty? Simon Sharma has lived half his life in the States and he looks at four areas – War, Religion, the American identity and Economics in an attempt to understand how the country has reached this point when it seemed, at least until the 2008 election, that many Americans did not even like themselves.

Initially I thought that the book might seem dated as it was published before Barack Obama was elected President but this was actually an advantage. Schama nails his colours to the mast early on when he comments that the fact that a statement is made by Dick Cheney doesn't necessarily make it untrue and had the book been written in the knowledge of the result I think it could have turned out rather differently.

If you like your history in chronological order then this might well not be the book for you, but by taking themes, examining them and relating them to the current situation, Schama covers broad swathes of history in an effortless way. Part is verifiable history, part is anecdote and part, I suspect, is the research for his television series. This is perhaps the least successful part but Schama's ability to tell a good story and weave it into the present lifts the book above the ordinary.

The broad facts of American history you probably know well, but Schama leavens the mix with the history of some of the lesser-known players. Take Montgomery Meigs, for instance. He was a Union officer in the Civil War and sometime friend of Robert E Lee with whom he was at West Point. Lee fought for the Confederacy and Meigs determined that he would make Lee's home uninhabitable should he return to it and proceeded to bury dead Union soldiers throughout the grounds of Arlington House in Virginia.

The book places America today in context. Schama's affection for the country is obvious but he takes care to set the good against the bad and the extremes against that which balances them out. It was heartening to see America in the context of history rather than as the fiefdom of probably its worst President. It was chilling to see how often history repeats itself and how little Presidents seem to learn from what has gone before.

The book is not without its faults. Schama is not easy to read. He uses complex sentence structures which don't always deliver on first reading and paragraphs are so dauntingly long that a moment's loss of concentration can leave you wallowing. He's occasionally indulgent in allowing the personal to intrude but the balance to all this is that the stories he tells, the arguments he advances allows me to believe that there is hope for America.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then we can cautiously recommend Dynasties: Fortune and Misfortune in the World's Great Family Businesses by David Landes although you should be warned that it tends to be superficial. On the other hand, The Triumph of Ignorance and Bliss: Pathologies of Public America by James Polk is not. we can recommend Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen.

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Buy The American Future: A History by Simon Schama at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The American Future: A History by Simon Schama at


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