So, Presidents Day is kind of a vague celebration. The federal holiday is officially called "Washington's Birthday," so... are we just celebrating George Washington? Washington and Lincoln? All of the presidents we've ever had, or just the ones we like (how are they all going to agree on a cake)? A lot of us probably feel like screaming into the void or spontaneously bursting into flames at the thought of having to celebrate our current president. So, rather than worshiping our elected officials, let's spend Presidents' Day doing what appears to be our current president's least favorite activity: reading. Here are a few books on U.S. history to read this Presidents' Day weekend.
Of course, you're not going to get a full review of American history in just one day. Or in just one book. Even the most comprehensive history books leave a few thousand things out. But the history of the United States involves so much more than just learning who was president when, so it's worth giving these books a read. And I guarantee that well-written history is much more compelling than whatever you remember from high school.
So don't move to Canada just yet, because here are some books on American history to make you laugh, cry, and think:
1'Assassination Vacation' by Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell is off on a road trip of political murder. Through her hilarious personal essays, Vowell explores presidential assassinations and all the weirdness that surrounds them (did you know that Robert Todd Lincoln was present at the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley?). It's a travelogue that is both informative and deeply entertaining.
2'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow
Yes, this is the biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the musical Hamilton. And yes, Alexander Hamilton doesn't really need any more exposure at this point. But Chernow's account of Hamilton's life is genuinely thrilling, and reminds us all that quite a few non-presidents helped with the founding of our country, too.
3'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' by Dee Brown
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is famous for being one of the first major accounts of the systematic displacement and murder of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. It's one of those books that every American should read. Even though Brown published this book in 1970, it still holds up as a gripping, heartbreaking history of oppression and state-sanctioned violence in the United States, and it's just as relevant today.
4'Lies My Teacher Told Me' by James W. Loewen
Whether or not your high school history class put you to sleep, Lies My Teacher Told Me is a real eye-opener. Loewen debunks common myths of U.S. history, starting with all the lies we're taught about Columbus. Fill in all those gaps from high school with some fascinating and deeply upsetting truths about America.
5'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass' by Frederick Douglass
Have you heard of this Frederick Douglass guy? Our president says he's being recognized more and more these days. In honor of Presidents' Day, let's all "recognize" Frederick Douglass and read the incredible story of how he was born into slavery and became a great American statesmen, writer, and orator.
6'1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus' by Charles C. Mann
OK, so maybe this is slightly cheating, because there was no "United States of America" back in 1491. But if you're looking for a history of America that pre-dates the "discovery" of America by Europeans, then this is the book for you. 1491 is an engrossing collection of new information on the civilizations that flourished in the Americas long before they were called the "Americas."
7'The Warmth of Other Suns' by Isabel Wilkerson
The Warmth of Other Suns is probably on your radar already (I mean, it did win the Pulitzer). But now is the time to drop everything and read it. This is a beautifully crafted account of an event that re-shaped American history. Between 1915 and 1970, almost six million black Americans left the south in search of better opportunities, and Wilkerson has documented these journeys through the lens of three very different individuals.
8'Letter of the Century: America 1900-1999' edited by Stephen J. Adler
Primary sources are a historian's best friend. Letters of the Century collects some of the letters that shaped the 20th century, including correspondence from the likes of Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, and Bill Gates. It's a fly-on-the-wall look at the most significant events in modern history.
9'The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects' by Richard Kurin
Lincoln's hat. Dorothy's ruby slippers. Harriet Tubman's hymnal. Physical objects are another kind of primary source. History of America in 101 Objects focuses on the stories that material possessions can tell us, and the result is a brilliantly curated, utterly unique tour through the centuries.
10'One-Night Stands with American History' by Richard Skenkman and Kurt Reiger
Look, sometimes we all just need a good laugh at America's expense. Fill your brain with useless (but very interesting!) tidbits of historical trivia, embarrassing facts about famous dead men, and all the other nonsense that makes America the big, messy country it is today.