History is one of those topics that can make the eyes glaze over or appreciably brighten. Too many, alas, get their first and only taste of history in the classroom in either a grade school or high school classroom, where more immediate concerns, such as lunch or awakening hormones, often take precedence in learning what British general surrendered at Yorktown. Every once in a while, a teacher will come along and instill some relevance into the subject matter, demonstrating, for example, why everyone in New Orleans talks funny as the result of the Louisiana Purchase. But, for the most part, history class is where a young mind feels its mortality ticking away for the first time.
It is Kenneth C. Davis's intention to correct this state of affairs with DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY. The original volume of this work was published in 1990. This new one is, in the words of the author, completely revised and updated. It retains the strengths and the weaknesses of the original.
The format of DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY is very simple and straightforward. The book proceeds chronologically with each chapter divided into subheadings in the form of questions, which Davis proceeds to answer. Accordingly, the first chapter, "Brave New World," begins with the question "Who Really 'Discovered' America?" It is thus relatively easy to go directly to an event of interest. The book has an excellent and in-depth index --- which is nearly 20 pages long --- and lends itself well to picking up and reading at random.
Davis has a breezy and entertaining style that makes DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY hard to put down. If you open it in search of one topic, you'll undoubtedly read at least five or six before putting it down again. Davis also, as a general rule (with some lapses), takes pains to present all available facts regarding an issue and does so quite effectively when dealing with such topics as Alger Hiss, the secession of Southern states and the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemmings controversy.
Where DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY breaks down is when Davis treats his subject matter as a vehicle for his own editorials. He is capable of being evenhanded, such as when he deals with the impeachment of Bill Clinton or the Second Amendment. That is why it is all the more glaring when he takes off on such topics as Iran-Contra and Oliver North, Plessy v. Ferguson, or what he refers to as "Contract With America." While he is certainly entitled to take umbrage at historical events, selectively or not, Davis's intermittent lapses of objectivity unfortunately result in turning DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY into a subjective treatise and casts doubt on the accuracy of what he presents.
While DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY is worthwhile as informative entertainment, it is not necessarily a work one would want to wholly rely on as a reference. If its intent is to make history interesting and relevant, it does so quite handily. However, one seeking an objective, more scholarly work would be better served looking elsewhere.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011