'A Peoples History of the United States' is the book for everyone but history majors. It gives a crunchy satisfaction to all of our hungers to confirm that we have been hoodwinked, bamboozled and led astray. It comes to the top of the list just ahead of 'Lies My Teacher Taught Me' in the query of what *really* happened in America, now that we can say so. But it is far from the most profound book I've ever read. In fact, I think it led me a different color of astray, in that it gave me a sense that there were once brave, young, intelligent men and women who decided once and for all that good government was the highest calling and things went from worse to better. Howard Zinn's great work is a sweet categorization of the good, the bad and the ugly in American government. But.
The most profound book I have ever read has to be not a single book but the Neveryon Trilogy. It is the encapsulation of a mythical period on a distant world that tells the story of a feudal society's evolution into literacy. Anyone who would study history must surely be aware of the essential paradoxes of, as Niall Ferguson puts it, communing with the dead. But Neveryon as fiction did not have that problem, and yet it reads very much like a history complete with archetypal stories of slave uprisings, creation myths, golden children, errant knights, evil tyrants and prodigal sons. The key to Neveryon and how it affects me greatly is it show a society that minds its own business because it is illiterate and then it shows how literacy changes what is on the minds of peasants and how this new skill, once privy to the nobility now set free, changes power.
When I read Neveryon, I was very much interested in matters of the canon wars and cultural production. Now it speaks to me on a broader basis which is that basis of understanding the forces that provide the gift of literacy and content. That is to say, whose interest does it serve for the masses to know anything? What does it matter what you know, and therefore who owns your attention?
It is in this context that Zinn's People's History should be taken into account because its very existence substantiates three myths. The first and most important myth is that 'knowledge is power' when in fact power uses knowledge to whatever ends power wants. But if you believe that myth, then you can believe the additional two, that history before Zinn was less informed and that after Zinn we are better informed. If Zinn corrects, then there was something wrong before Zinn and something right after Zinn. But that is not actually within our place to say because we, idiot peasants like me, are drawn to the book because of this promise.
Where is Zinn's revolution? It is a question somebody will have to write down and sell. Or perhaps that was Zinn's end in and of itself. He raised the question that stuck. What was America before it had a People's History, and what is it now that it does?