Jill Lepore is a New Yorker staff writer and a historian at Harvard University. She tells David Remnick that her new book is the result of a dare: to tell—or even to understand—the story of this country, from the Age of Discovery through the present day, in one volume. In “These Truths,” Lepore surveys six-hundred-odd years of American history, paying particular attention to themes of immigration, suffrage, and how the media has shaped our democracy. Above all, Lepore grapples with whether the United States has lived up to the promises of its founding. She finds an America alternately fearful of change and fearful of stagnation, trapped between idealizing the past and hoping for a better future. The journey toward progress, Leporesays, is less a march than a stumble.
I have listened to several interviews that Jill Lepore has given during her promotional tour of her new book, such as the one above (click the top image to go to the source). Today I listened to this one, and it has convinced me that this is one of the books I should take the time to read to put the country of my birth, and the country that many people regardless of birthplace are currently confused by, back in some kind of perspective.
We mostly avoid political commentary on this platform but it is impossible to pretend that the USA or Brazil, or the world as a whole are moving forward or in a good direction. My point of view on the state of governance is mainly one of surprise and confusion–how did we get so reactionary so quickly, and where will that lead us?
I had already listened to this short discussion of the ideas in this book several months ago. It was interesting but had almost zero impact. On the best of days recently I tell myself that if such a shocking mess is possible, then it should also be possible to imagine and move toward a radically superior future. And that always feels Panglossian. But with a few hundred years of history in mind, Jill Lepore gets me thinking that maybe I can see these times for what they are–not good, nor headed anywhere good–but also see that the cycles of history have had us in at least equally trying times, many times in the past. Ezra Klein has one of the best podcasts out there, and this episode proves it to me:
Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian, a New Yorker contributor, and the author of These Truths, a dazzling one-volume synthesis of American history. She’s the kind of history teacher everyone wishes they’d had, able to effortlessly connect the events and themes of American history to make sense of our past and clarify our present.
“The American Revolution did not begin in 1775 and it didn’t end when the war was over,” Lepore writes. This is a conversation about those revolutions. But more than that, it’s a conversation about who we are as a country, and how that self-definition is always contested and constantly in flux.
And beyond all that, Lepore is just damn fun to talk to. Every answer she gives has something worth chewing over for weeks. You’ll enjoy this one.
Fear Itself by Ira Katznelson
A Godly Hero by Michael Kazin
The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson