SEVEN TRUTHS ABOUT HISTORY FROM THE NEW YORKER'S JILL LEPORE

American history got a breath of fresh air this month.  Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and staff writer for the New Yorker, stepped back from her usual close-ups and into the realm of historical sweep.  These Truths: A History of the United States covers the country from Columbus to the current president.  And like Lepore’s New Yorker pieces, the book is surprising, engaging, and just kind of wonderful.  (Or as wonderful as a 782-page American history can be.)

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Lepore seems to have read everything, studied everyone.  But along with scope, she offers insights on history’s messy struggle to find truth. Here are a handful:

1.  “To study the past is to unlock the prison of the present.”

2.  “My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for themselves.  I’ve pressed their words between these pages, like flowers, for their beauty, or like insects, for their hideousness.”

3.  “The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the story-teller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth. 

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4.  “I once came across a book called The Constitution Made Easy. The Constitution cannot be made easy. It was never meant to be easy.”

5.  “There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy.  No nation and no people are relieved of these.  But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty.”

6.  “Some American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but.  This book is neither kind.  The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth.  Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path.”

7.  “The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden.  It can’t be shirked.  You carry it everywhere.  There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.”

 

“It isn’t until you start reading it that you realize how much we need a book like this one at this particular moment.”  

New York Times

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