Monday, January 16, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 1

Welcome to Week 1 of A People's Read-a-long! So far I'm thoroughly enjoying this read-a-long. It's incredibly easy to keep track of reading one chapter a week. I may not post every week, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts and a couple of my favorite passages from Chapter 1 this week.

My thoughts: It's rare to find a non-fiction book without an introduction, and consequently, chapter 1 read like a combination of an introduction and a first chapter. Zinn provided context for his view of understanding history as he told the story of the first chapter: Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress. I appreciate Zinn's view of reading and understanding history as a modern person: "My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality."

I'm fascinated by how different societies, past and present, viewed gender. In chapter 1, I learned Iroquois societies were matrilineal. Furthermore, Zinn quotes historian Gary Nash, "no laws and ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails—the apparatus of authority in European societies—were to be found in the northeast woodlands prior to European arrival." A French Jesuit priest who observed the Iroquois in the 1650's noted: "No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers. . . . Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common." Learning these things about Iroquois society initially made me horrified at the actions of Columbus. As I began to challenge myself to think like Zinn, however, and placed myself in the viewpoint of both groups at that time, I was struck how scared Columbus must have been to encounter a society so totally different than his own. I can marvel now, but wouldn't I have been frightened by our differences if I were with Columbus?

I also was fascinated by the reactions of those at Vera Cruz when a Spanish armada arrived. When "a bearded white man came ashore, with strange beasts (horses), clad in iron, it was thought he was the legendary Aztec man-god who had died three hundred years before, with the promise to return--the mysterious Quetzalocoatl. And so they welcomed him, with munificent hospitality." It's a chilling story of looking at history from both sides, gathering perspectives, and ultimately, I think, understanding tragedy. I consider myself somewhat of a history buff, but after reading Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard historian and Columbus scholar, "retraced Columbus's route across the Atlantic." It's a fascinating prospect of experiential learning and understanding. Would the inverse be possible? Could we retrace the steps of those whom Columbus destroyed upon arriving?

The verdict: I'm thoroughly enjoying A People's History of the United States and am eager to read chapter 2. 

There's still time to join in! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version I have seems to no longer be available, thus vindicating my habits of impulse Kindle shopping!)

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14 comments:

  1. Glad you're enjoying it like I am! I, too, was surprised by the lack of an introduction...I actually flipped back a few pages to make sure I hadn't missed anything. But I was relieved he still included his objectives in that first chapter.

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    1. I'm glad to hear I wasn't the only one wondering if there was really an introduction! Thanks again for hosting this read-a-long!

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  2. I so need to read this! What you've shared has me especially intrigued -- I can't swing it this month, sadly, but I'm going to put it on my maybe-in-2012 TBR and cross my fingers! Can't wait to see your thoughts as you continue -- I hope you keep sharing!

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    1. Audra, we'll be reading through July, so there's plenty of time to catch up! I'm actually thinking of continuing this tradition of one chapter of a non-fiction read a week. Perhaps we could coordinate one together!

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  3. I never thought of how Columbus must have felt as he came upon these societies, and that is a very good, and interesting point. A lot of what I read made me angry, but seeing it from your perspective sheds a different light on it.

    I really liked the set up that the Iroquois had going though, with the women in charge, and I wondered how different our society would be if that was the case here!

    Great thoughts today!

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    1. Isn't it amazing to ponder the state of the world if the Iroquois way still existed? I think one of the greatest benefits of being a fiction reader is understanding situations from many angles. I've never thoughts about it in terms of history before, but at the end of the day, we're all simply human.

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  4. I loved reading about the matriarchal and communal societies often found in the Native peoples of the Americas. So interesting, that along with the brutality of Columbus and the other explorers, historians also often leave out the strong feminine structure.

    While I'm glad Zinn set the tone for his approach in chapter one, I kind of wish I'd gotten more history on those very early days!

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    1. Brooke, I was surprised how general much of chapter 1 seemed. I'm curious to see how the level of detail changes in coming chapters!

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  5. I think you are so right … this first chapter was a kind of introduction as to what Zinn planned to do as with the book as well as the first chapter. I too was captivated by the Iroquois society. It is chilling how many civiizations were wiped out and replaced by one that, frankly, seems inferior by comparison. Great post and I enjoyed hearing your thoughts and perspectives on this first chapter.

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    1. Thanks for co-hosting this read-a-long, Jenners! I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts too!

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  6. Wonderful post about the readalong! I am thoroughly enjoying Zinn's book and learning so much more about history than what is written in hs history books. Definitely an interesting point about Columbus and seeing the Indians from his perspective - it would be frightening but it seems he also had such a god complex that i have to wonder if *he* was frightened or not? And another question - how would history have been different had the Indians chosen to navigate the seas and had landed in Europe?

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    1. Stacy, you're right, Columbus might well have been in his own domain and not felt fear. I'd love to read an alternate history novel of the Indians landing in Europe instead!

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  7. Great post about the first chapter, and you're right, the lack of an introductions is a bit awkward. I think we will have some interesting conversations about this book.

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    1. Gavin, I'm looking forward to discussing with you this spring!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!