March 23, 2014

CEPEDA: Making history come alive


I recommend the book because of so many interesting tales from history. Also, here is a list of other recently published books telling history through a person, product or institution. Sorted from wonkiest to most entertaining, they’re so good I promise you’ll enjoy them even if you never liked history in school.

The most offbeat selection is “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” by Marc Levinson. OK, I’ll grant you that there aren’t many people who really need to know this much about maritime logistics. But if the “first comprehensive history of the shipping container” doesn’t thrill you at least a little, then rest assured that the story about how those giant colorful semi-trailer boxes came to change nearly every facet of our consumer lives from the 1950s to today is worth the read.

You don’t need to be an education policy expert to derive great enjoyment from “How Lincoln Learned to Read” by Daniel Wolff. But if you love that “Wow, I never knew that!” feeling and are interested in how the educational upbringings of Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, W.E.B. Du Bois, Helen Keller and Elvis Presley helped them exceed expectations, this book will give you much to think about.

“American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms” by Chris Kyle with William Doyle is just jaw-dropping. Not a glorification of guns, nor a dismissal of the pain they’ve brought this nation, this is an eye-opening and respectful look at the role guns have played in the development of our national character, identity and economy. Plus, it’s just plain fun to read.

Lastly, “Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser Busch and America’s Kings of Beer” by William Knoedelseder. This story about five generations of the Busch family has more suds than most soap operas. Sex, lies, betrayal, hubris, alcohol, zoo animals and amusement parks, labor union disputes, fancy horses, egos, babies born and served Budweiser before even suckling at their mother’s breast for the first time, it’s all there. America’s ups and downs over 150 years in beer — you can’t beat that.

History — too rich, steamy, violent, greedy and funny to be any good once sanitized and compartmentalized into a textbook — must be devoured in its fullness in adulthood. Enjoy.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. She can be reached at

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