Alan Axelrod
1001 Events that Made America
ISBN: 978-1-4262-0021-2
National Geographic
288 pages, trade paperback
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2008 by Gary McGath

Note: I received this book as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, with the expectation that I will review it. The copy which I received was a publisher's uncorrected proof. Since then, National Geographic Society has sent me a copy of the published paperback edition. I've updated the publication information above and added a notation on one point. The proof is subtitled "A Patriot's Handbook," but this is dropped in the published paperback.


1001 Events that Made America is a flyover history of the United States. Its target audience is people who haven't read a lot of history. Each of its "events," from 40,000 B.C. to the present, is presented in a short passage, usually less than a hundred words. It's inevitable that this kind of book will omit a lot of detail and sometimes mislead through lack of context. There are some errors of fact; I hope some of them (especially the placement of the launch of Explorer 1 before Sputnik) will be corrected in the published version. [The published book correctly places Explorer 1 in 1958.] The book could still expose some people to more history than they'd otherwise read, but the persistent editorializing seriously detracts from its purpose. Bare facts condensed into a hundred words can still convey something of value; bare opinions of a sentence can easily become pontification.

Axelrod's unnecessary injection of personal opinion first becomes obvious in his literary evaluations, such as extravagant praise for The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Leaves of Grass. Starting around the 1870s, he starts throwing in conspicuous political comments of his own. The coverage of the Wilson era shows noticeable bias; he refers to "Wilsonian idealism" while not mentioning Wilson's role in reducing civil liberties to their worst state since at least the Civil War. He mentions the repressive Espionage Act, but attributes it only to Congress, without noting that Wilson campaigned for it and signed it.

In writing about the crash of 1929, he attributes the Depression to the productive success of businesses; they were producing so much that people couldn't buy it all! This is a magic-price theory of economics, which holds in effect that goods must sell at a certain price regardless of supply and demand. Ironically, the book mentions some cases of prices going down due to mass production, as with the Model T Ford and the mobile telephone. If Axelrod believes his own theory, the mobile telephone business should have collapsed because it's produced hundreds of millions of phones which few people can afford at the 1984 price of $3,995. Covering the causes of the Depression in a short paragraph is basically impossible; he would have been better off not trying.

I've learned some new things from this book, but I can't give it much of a recommendation. I'd like to be able to suggest a better alternative, but overviews of history for the occasional reader aren't an area I'm very familiar with. It just should be possible to do it better.

This review last revised on May 1, 2008

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