Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review: A Century Turns by William J. Bennett

A Century Turns: New Hopes, New FearsTitle: A Century Turns: New Hopes, New Fears

Author: William J. Bennett

Pages: 275

Source: Publisher, via Booksneeze

Rating: 8/10

Challenges: Read 'n' Review challenge

First Sentence: "I was not going to write this book -- at least not right now."

Summary (From book flap):

Where is America going? Just look at the decades between 1988 and 2008.
As America collectively exhaled at the end of the Cold War, we loosened our grip on the fear of nuclear confrontation for the first time since WWII. Some scholars even characterized the collapse of the Soviet Union as the end of history itself. Peace was palpable.
But America's domestic and global vitals changed almost instantly, and turbulence, not tranquility, marked the turn of the century: the war on drugs, race riots, values debates, deep economic shifts, and the growing threat of terrorism on U.S. soil that would tragically play out in 2001.
And there were storms abroad: U.S. forces landed in Panama, Somalia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Names such as Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden folded seamlessly -- and almost instantly -- into the American vernacular.
In A Century Turns, William J. Bennett explores America's recent and momentous history -- the contentious election of 1988, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of global Communism, the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, the technological and commercial boom of the 1990s, the war on terror, and the election of America's first black president.
Surveying politics and pop culture, economics and technology, war and religion, Bennett pieces together the players, the personalities, the feats and the failures that transformed key moments in the American story. And he captures it all with piercing insight and unrelenting optimism.
Where is America going? Recent history offers only signposts. What Bennett makes clear is that we are at a critical juncture: "Today, the levels of both hope and fear are at a high point. Whether we can expand the former and reduce the latter ... will depend on what we do with the challenges before us today."

My Two Cents:

Not being much of a non-fiction fan, I tend to choose my non-fiction very carefully. It's usually limited to biographies of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan figures. But, I decided to branch out a bit with this one, and I'm glad I did.

Bennett takes a look at the last 20 years in American history, from 1988 to 2008. He focuses mainly on the political climate and events involving the president, but he does give a little taste of what was going on in popular culture during that time period, too.

I was alive during the entire time span, but was so young for much of it that I don't remember the details. Bennett's book was a great refresher for me. I found myself reading about events and thinking, "Oh, I remember that, but I didn't remember that detail." The early- to mid-90s, during the presidency of Clinton, was a period I was especially grateful for the extra details. I was young (elementary and middle school), yet I still paid attention to the news and politics. I didn't understand much of what I was hearing, so re-learning all of what happened knowing what I know now was great.

Bennett's writing is solid, although his sentences can get a bit convoluted from time to time. He breaks each chapter up into smaller sections, which was helpful for small bouts of reading. However, he occasionally would "rabbit trail" within those smaller sections from politics into popular culture, and I thought the book could have used a little editing in that sense.

One of the things that bothered me about this book was that Bennett seems to adopt the view of the press that everyone else has: They're vultures who swoop in whenever there's a good story and peck until there's nothing but bones left. Sure, there are some reporters who are horribly relentless, but the majority of the press is just trying to make an honest living and tell the truth. Since Bennett spent much of his adult life in politics (He was the Secretary of Education in the 1980s), his view of the press is very different from mine. End rant in which I defend my former profession.

Another thing that bothered me was his fairly cursory coverage of the 2008 election. Whole books can (and have) been written on the subject, sure, but I think he should have either covered all the candidates in play (he didn't) or not touched the election at all.

Overall, though, I think this is a great look at recent history. I like that books are starting to come out now on recent events, books that show a little more of the cultural bias than will show up in history books in later decades. I think it helps preserve something that's lacking in looking back on historical periods of times past; they're written about by historians who are so far removed from the actual events that the impressions are open to interpretation. With books written shortly after the events by people who lived through them, I think there's a different perspective and a new understanding that's important.


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