This first installment of an American history series covers 1957 to 1976.
Borgen (The Relevance of Reason, 2013) bravely undertakes the herculean task of presenting an overview of recent U.S. history. In the book’s early chapters, it is clear that he recognizes the challenges inherent in curating such a gargantuan project, taking great pains to justify the setting of parameters. First, the author neatly summarizes the problematic nature of history as a discipline of study. Even the choice of an official start date for what he terms Modern America is a cause for much understandable hand-wringing. He eventually settles on his selection: “In 1957, even amidst the consumerism, confidence, and enthusiasm for all things American, the ferment of change was starting. The winds of change were everywhere.” Borgen also points to the cultural effects of increased life expectancy, whereby four generations coexist, often uneasily, which creates room for misunderstandings and frames of reference that do not match up neatly, a phenomenon that he terms “multi-generational ignorance.” Thus, the author asserts, this project can serve a dual purpose: A younger audience encounters information perhaps for the first time, and older readers revisit past memories, with both groups hopefully gaining a broader perspective. As Borgen begins to move through the designated years, some portions of the text have the feel of an almanac, with lists that include bestselling books, Oscar-nominated films, highly rated television programs, and popular slogans from the worlds of politics and advertising. But each year also features a more substantive section titled “Memorable Words from Speeches, Books, Writings, and Other Sources.” Crucially, the author follows each of these entries with a concise explanation of “context, meaning, and impact.” Likewise, he includes information about seminal books that appeared within the same year, at times producing delightful juxtapositions like these three titles from 1957: Atlas Shrugged, On the Road, and The Cat in the Hat. While readers may notice the occasional minor error—such as rendering the TV series Charlie’s Angels as “Charley’s Angels”—the volume retains a depth that goes far beyond simple nostalgia. The work’s approach to the study of history may inspire the search for commonalities without erasing differences. As a bonus, Borgen provides helpful ancillary resources, including an index, 376 endnotes, and many appendices.
A solid and entertaining reference book packed with cultural highlights and pivotal moments from a wide array of sources.