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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Four history books on the early twentieth century I reccomend hightly

By Jamie Lutton

I was on my third reading of The Great Crash in late August of 2008, while on a brief vacation in Aruba, it was my beach book. One of my hosts, who had sprung for the trip, was complaining about the current dip in the stock market. I earnestly turned to him, and told him to liquidate his holdings.

I had seen the latest crash coming for years; all the literary presses like The New Yorker would run little worried pieces about the run up in the housing market; but only reading John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929 gave me the historical context to help me understand what I was looking at, in the fall of 2008. I fortunately or unfortunately had suffered earlier reverses that had caused me to liquidate earlier, so when I watched the market plummet, it was not a personal blow. But I did get hit hard by the effect on retail sales in my business. For a good year after the crash, no one bought books; or not very many, and I nearly went out of business. This has been a frighning time. I do not think I will have very many more beach vacations in my future.

Reading history prepares for all sorts of life experiences. It helps to spot liars and lying institutions, first off, as history is full of them, the havoc they cause, and their downfall. History makes deep time more understandable. And makes the financial reverses we have all suffered more bearable.

The four books I recommend that my readers tackle, and read back to back, are William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream, a history of the United States from 1932 to 1972. Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday, by Fredrick Lewis Allen, a History of the Twenties and the Thirties, respectively, of the United States. Last, but not Least, The Great Crash by John Kenneth Galbraith.

If you had to read one of these books, and not the others, I would read Only Yesterday. It was published in 1931; so it is a fresh history book, written just after events it chronicles. This is important; it does not use annoying hindsight, or "what-we-know-now-isms". This is an historians telling people of the time what just happened, by an eyewitness who went through it with them. It is also considered good enough to be used as an original source by later writers, so it is not a fudged or lying account. It was a huge hit in its day. This book chronicles the history of the nation year by year, covering all the controversies, like 'The Big Red Scare', reflecting the revolution in Russia, the reaction and adaption to Prohibition, to womens clothing not only going from long skirts to very short, but losing 75% of its weight, in only a few years. This is the decade where America became recognizibly America, from drinking habits, political prejudices, to dating habits and mores. Americans may have gone into a higher or lower jobless rates, or been more or less tolerant of liberal ideas, but the basic pattern of American habits are set down in this decade. When you read this book, you will know these people, even if they are your grandparents.

Allen's book on the Thirties will reinforce this vision of the past, with the added shadow of the growth of fascism in Europe, so like our fear of the Muslim extremism now. And the the terror of joblessness and destitution is so like our fear of the future, with our fear of global warming and environmental collapse. With 30% of the population out of work in the thirties, with no real relief in sight, this fear was quite stark.

Galbraith's book is like a bark of dark laughter. His chronicle of the Great Crash can almost be read for laughs, if it was not so dense with facts and information. Each time I reread Galbraith, I struggled to understand the workings of the Stock Market of his day, as the Market of 2007 and 2008 was going wildly out of control. I reread it again before I wrote this entry. Gailbraiths dark, mordant wit seems more like a college lecturer trying to entreat and implore me not to make the same foolish mistakes these people made.

In this book, he goes back as far as the entire decade, spending a lot of time on the two years before the actual crash, showing the ugly underpinnings of the vaporization of value of the market. We thought the crash of 2008 was bad; from 1929 to 1932, the market lost over 90% of its value, as the public lost more and more confidence in it. This is an excellent book to read now, when the market skyrockets up, with no recovery in the economy to account for it. I would especially recommend this book to anyone doing any long range financial planning for his or her family. It is also good to note that it took the liberals who came to power in 1932 to straighten out the mess left by the powers that be in the 1920's and early 1930's. Over a trillion dollars lost, 1/3 of the work force thrown out of work, because of laisse-faire notions of the economy. We very nearly had a revolution like Russia and China, or fascism like Germany; there were that many starving people in America. Roosevelt and the hope he brought saved the country from ruinous overthrow of the constitution.

The Glory and The Dream is more of a political history of the United States, written by a non-American, and English writer noted by his long expert biography of Winston Churchill. This volume is very friendly; and starts out with a bang; the bonus "riots" - protests - by the World War One veterans in Washington D.C.

This book, written in the 1970's, draws heavily on the two books by Fredrick Lewis Allen; by reading all three, you can see how the material is handled by two different authors. Manchester takes us through WW II, and through the sixties, to the time close to the present, when other historians pick up the threads.

These four books leave out gritter matters that authors like Howard Zinn talk about, but they give a very good grounding on the period. Work through these four books, and then try Zinn and others to get the bits left by the contemporary historians like these. And if you can master Gailbraith's economics, you are well on the way to understanding what happened in 2008.

I plan to return to this essay later - but I wanted to get the word out on these authors now. April 12, 2010

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