American Dialogue

by Joseph Ellis
First sentence: “Self-evident truths are especially alluring because, by definition, no one needs to explain why they are true.”
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Content: It’s a work of scholarship, even if it’s written for a mass audience. There are footnotes and endnotes, etc. It’s in the history section of the bookstore. 

I picked this one up because I was curious after hearing an interview with Ellis on the New York Time Book Review podcast. I’m not quite sure what it was that he said that made me want to pick it up, but after hearing it, I put it on hold at the library. 

The basic premise is this: Ellis takes a look at four of the American founders — Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington — each through a prism of an issue that is both relevant back then and today. Jefferson gets race; Adams, equality (monetary, not gender); Madison, law; and Washington, war. Ellis dissects each man’s letters (easiest to do with Adams, most difficult with Washington), speeches, and papers, in order to come up with what they were thinking about when they framed the country — from the Declaration to the Constitution, but especially the latter — and what we can learn from that. 

And I think that the take-aways are striking. Ellis starts from the position that slavery and the genocide of the indigenous peoples are America’s original sin, the things that we have yet to redeem ourselves from. We (especially today) have forgotten that the Constitution was never meant to be written in stone, but is, in fact, a living document that’s supposed to change and adapt to the needs of a growing and changing country. He admits that the founders were geniuses, but they were also human, with flawed logic and changing opinions. 

I’m not sure it’s a book everyone Must Read, but I found it fascinating to learn about these men and the ideas they had. 

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The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1

by M. T. Anderson
First sentence: “I was raised in a gaunt houses with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.”
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Content: There’s violence and talk of human bodily functions. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore if we had it.

Octavian had an idyllic childhood, growing up in the house with a bunch of rational philosophers (in the Novanglina College of Lucidity) where his every move was studied and cataloged. He was dressed in the finest silks, taught to play the violin and speak Greek and Latin and French. And he had no idea he was black and a slave. That is, until the sponsorship for the society lapsed and they found a new person to sponsor them, someone who felt that Africans were truly less than people. From there, Octavian’s life changes, and not for the better. He escapes, and gets involved in the Revolutionary War.

I heard lots of good things about this one when it first came out, and it won the National Book Award and a Printz honor. I wanted to like it, to understand what all the excitement was about it. But. Times have changed in the past 12 years, and I’ve changed a bit with them, and the one thing I couldn’t get past was that this felt like appropriation. I like Anderson as a writer (for the most part), but to write a slave story just felt… wrong. Yeah, he made some of the white people sufficiently awful (well, one of them anyway), but he also has a literal white savior narrative at the end of the book which really sat poorly with me. And to be honest, I lost interest. I kind of skimmed through the last third of the book, just to see what happened, but I wasn’t engaged.

And I have no interest in reading the second part. I wish I had liked this better.