Thursday, March 11, 2010
Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States by Dave Barry
Sometimes you just need a palate cleanser. Something to make you smile, that requires a minimum of thought for a maximum of entertainment. This is a dangerous thing to look for; it's all too easy to find oneself wading through a sea of dross, looking for funny but just finding silly, childish nonsense of a mediocre caliber.
The nice thing about Dave Barry is that he is silly childish nonsense of the highest caliber.
My family has been Barry fans for a long time running. When I was a kid, the new Dave Barry book was an automatic Father's Day present, and would migrate around the house as one or another of us picked it up for a few laughs. Fortunately for us, the laughs were more than a few - I remember laughing so hard I had to put the book down for a few minutes because just thinking "Hawley-Smoot Tariff" sent me into uncontrollable giggles.
This book is Barry's tribute to not only American history, but to the whole concept of history books themselves. The fact that he's covering everything from the initial human migration into North America to the Bush-Quayle administration (the book was published in 1989) in only 175 pages with fairly large font is a sign of his being a true master of history.
For example, he does what most public school textbooks do - he skips the boring parts. Teapot Dome? Who cares! The Federal Banking Crisis of 1837? Yawn.... We all remember high school, right? Pretty much nothing happened between the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 and the Civil War seventy-six years later. Right? He also saves time and space by skipping over those parts of history which are, to use a technical term from historiography, "bummers." World War 2, for example - nothing fun to talk about there.
What Barry also does to make history easier is he standardizes the dates for us. No more do we have to remember what month and day something occurred (a feat that always kept me off the high score list in high school history class.) Now all the prospective student of history has to remember is October 8. When did the Mayflower arrive in New England? October 8. When was Kennedy assassinated? October 8. When was the very first Fourth of July? October 8.
See how easy it is? Why didn't they do this when I was in school?
The style of the book is like someone writing about something barely remembered, with only the most cursory amount of research done. And this was in the pre-Wikipedia days, kids, when you had to look stuff up in books. Fortunately, while Barry's history does indeed parallel our own, it is almost completely devoid of actual facts that you may be required to remember. All you really have to do is follow him along on the ride. Of course, if you actually do know something about American history, the book is even funnier. The fact that the book ends with the election of George Herbert Walker Norris Wainright Armoire Vestibule Pomegranate Bush IV and his vice-President Dan "Potatoe" Quayle does disappoint a bit, but, linear time being what it is, there's not a whole lot one can do about it. All history books, serious and silly, are obsolete the moment they hit bookstores. The good news is that Barry maintained a prolific career as a columnist until he retired back in 2004, so you can read his thoughts on the large amount of history that did not end in 1989.
I will always have a warm place for Dave Barry in my heart, but I do have to confess something. When I was younger and read Dave Barry, I would laugh. A lot. Those good, hearty, soul-clearing laughs, and part of the best memories I have of Dave Barry is simply remembering laughing. I didn't laugh very much reading this again. I don't know if it's because I knew where all the jokes were, if my head just wasn't in the right place, or if my sense of humor has changed over the last twenty years.
Twenty years. Good lord.
Anyway, whatever the reason, I had far fewer of those laugh-out-loud moments than I used to. It's still funny, don't get me wrong. I just didn't giggle, guffaw, cackle and try to read bits to my long-suffering co-workers. Whatever it is, I kind of miss it. I think I'll have to dip into some of his other books to see if I can find it again.
If you haven't read Barry, I definitely recommend checking him out. This book is a fine place to start....
"But as the old saying goes, "Time heals all wounds," and in the more than 120 years since the Civil War ended, most of this bitterness gradually gave way to subdued loathing, which is where we stand today."
- Dave Barry, Dave Barry Slept Here
Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry Slept Here on Wikipedia
Dave Barry's homepage
Dave Barry Slept Here on Amazon.com