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Publisher: Penguin Books$35.00
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Ranging from the earliest years of the pre-Columbian continent to the digital age, and from the American Revolution to Vietnam, each entry pairs the fascinating history surrounding each object with the story of its creation or discovery and the place it has come to occupy in our national memory. Kurin sheds remarkable new light on objects we think we know well, from Lincoln's hat to Dorothy's ruby slippers and Julia Child's kitchen, including the often astonishing tales of how each made its way into the collections of the Smithsonian. Other objects will be eye-opening new discoveries for many, but no less evocative of the most poignant and important moments of the American experience. Some objects, such as Harriet Tubman's hymnal, Sitting Bull's ledger, Cesar Chavez's union jacket, and the Enola Gay bomber, tell difficult stories from the nation's history, and inspire controversies when exhibited at the Smithsonian. Others, from George Washington's sword to the space shuttle Discovery, celebrate the richness and vitality of the American spirit. In Kurin's hands, each object comes to vivid life, providing a tactile connection to American history.
Beautifully designed and illustrated with color photographs throughout, The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects is a rich and fascinating journey through America's collective memory, and a beautiful object in its own right.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-07-22
- Reviewer: Staff
As Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture for the Smithsonian Institution, Kurin (Hope Diamond) has intimate knowledge of the organization’s inventory of over 137 million items (that doesn’t include millions and millions of books, photos, documents, recordings, etc.). That blessing had the potential to turn into a curse when he was challenged to select a mere 101 objects that would tell the history of the United States. But he’s done a masterful job. Yes, there are obvious inclusions, like the Declaration of Independence, Neil Armstrong’s space suit, Dorothy’s red ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer, but even these well-known items have surprising and significant backstories—the Wright Brothers, for example, contacted the Smithsonian for information on research on flying machines prior to their epic flight. (The Smithsonian happily obliged.) Unexpected selections—like vials of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and an Emancipation Proclamation pamphlet that freed slaves carried with them—make the book even more engrossing, and, as in the case of the last item, can make for some emotional reading. Kurin does a terrific job of expanding upon the story of each object, whether it’s a pair of slave shackles or a damaged door from one of the New York City fire trucks that responded to 9/11. This humanistic approach to storytelling (he even includes digressions on things that didn’t make it in, like the ubiquitous stuffed animal named after the first President Roosevelt: the teddy bear) makes for immersive, addictive reading. Photos and illus. throughout. (Oct. 29)
New perceptions of the past
Three newly released books remind us that history is more than just a series of big moments. It resides in the small details and in unexpected places.
Bill Bryson’s best-selling At Home: A Short History of Private Life is now available in an illustrated edition. In it, the veteran author embarks upon a detailed exploration of his house, a Victorian parsonage in southern England. We are so immersed in our daily lives that we often fail to see that a back story exists to everything around us. Plumbing this notion could be a daunting task for a writer, but Bryson gracefully transitions from room to room and anecdote to anecdote with a sharp, playful intelligence. New readers will be enthralled; returning readers will be re-enthralled and appreciate the accompanying illustrations.
There’s a joy to Bryson’s writing, as if he’s tickled and astounded by his discoveries. Take his discussion of salt: It’s a coveted and essential mineral, but the absence of salt, Bryson observes, “awakens no craving. It makes you feel bad and eventually it kills you . . . but at no point would a human being think: ‘Gosh, I could sure do with some salt.’” His infectiousness will propel readers through the book.
THE LONGEST DAY
Illustrator Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is a panoramic, 24-foot-long, black-and-white drawing of World War I’s signature (and gruesome) battle. On that day, some 20,000 British soldiers—not knowing that a weeklong strategic artillery bombardment had failed to wipe out German machine-gun emplacements—essentially marched to their slaughter. Another 40,000 were wounded. We see the soldiers proceeding as if they’re going to work, laughing and yawning and waiting. Then, there’s a wave of uninterrupted terror. Men shout and wear masks of grave concern. Bodies lie in immobile stacks. Each panel is packed with the aspects of war we prefer not to see. The final one, where soldiers dig rows of graves, is a grim reminder of the misery that remained even after the battle died down. Sacco’s astounding depiction of that day is overwhelmingly moving because he captures the little strokes among the epic chaos.
STORY OF A NATION
In many ways, The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin is the ideal coffee-table book. Featuring a thoughtfully curated selection of objects from the Smithsonian’s vast collections—including Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Thomas Edison’s light bulb and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet—the book boasts an abundance of stunning photos and short, info-packed chapters that make it easy to dive in at any point and come away with something useful. Gawk at a photo of Julia Child’s kitchen, and learn that her mainstream success was partially set up by Jackie Kennedy. Gaze upon Abraham Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hat, and discover that most clothes in pre-industrial America were made specifically for an individual. What also becomes apparent in perusing the pages of The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects is that items we might dismiss as merely stuff may end up being part of our nation’s history. Fifty years from now, an iPhone could be a relic that represents a culture gradually seeing the world through mobile technology. History is in the objects all around us—not just in books.