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by Sarah Handel
Nov 5, 2007

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Sarah Handel

I know this serves as further evidence that I am decidedly simple, but here it is anyway: I'm not much of a history buff. Sure, I have an intellectual appreciation of the importance of studying the past to understand the present, and I know American history is jam-packed with interesting and important events. I'm just not terribly good at remembering the details. Standard retellings of facts and dates and chronologies just never grab me. I was a lousy American history student in high school*, but I was fortunate in college, when a class called "American History Through Fiction" was an absolute lifesaver — I never would've earned my degree without it! The problem is, without a good story, I'm not apt to remember what exactly was so important about this day in American history. Enter Joseph Ellis. Sure, his is a literary career touched by scandal, but man can he tell a good story. Reviewing transcripts of his prior appearances on NPR, I found more juicy, pithy bits (like a pomegranate!) than I could cram into the show — for instance, these George Washington gems: "As a young man, he is a physical specimen. He's a head taller than anybody else in his time. He's a natural athlete, the best rider. I sort of think of him like John Wayne circa 1939 in Stagecoach," and "Washington, when he applies to become a British officer in the 1750s and is rejected, does not take that as a sign that he's unworthy. He takes it as a sign that the British are stupid." Now those are nuggets I'll remember! Today he takes on all the founding fathers — who's your favorite, and do you have any good stories about them?

*File this under "life's funny that way:" My roommate of more than six years is a high school history teacher. For the record, though, she's a fantastic educator — I learned more in one day spent observing her classes than I did in all of AP History.

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