Posted by: Ele Quigan | July 28, 2013

The American Future – Simon Schama

The American FutureMy posts are a bit mixed about at the moment, mostly due to a bit of a backlog, and a bit of writers block around some of the books I’ve been reading lately (Jon Ronson, I’ll get to you soon…) so this is a book I finished a few weeks ago now.

Airports, another place to feel incredibly depressed about the overall reading population. At least there aren’t whole stands dedicated to Twilight or 50 Shades anymore, but I still feel a smidge of dread every time I see the top 100 bestsellers, particularly fiction. So on this Friday afternoon I was in Stanstead airport waiting for a flight to Florence, and suddenly realised that I again was somewhere with ample reading time ahead, with nothing to read…

A quick scan of the only bookstore, displayed a rack of fiction books, a small amount of non-fiction/business books, and aisles 3 times as long for chocolate and water. Seriously?! I guess Kindles really have impacted these businesses, I think I was the only person looking across for something to catch my eye.

I’m still reading a lot of non-fiction, mostly from my ongoing quest to know something about everything, absorbing facts about nothing like a sponge (I’ve been the same since I was little). American history is something I know very little about, and what little I know has come from ‘Dances with Wolves’, building wonders in Civilization 2,3,4 & 5, Colonization (I always played the French, they were nicer to the natives…) and of course what I absorb from the media in movies, news etcetctc.

This is a great read, while it pretty much feels like it’s a ‘fictionalised’ account in someways (using history to tell a story) it makes for an interesting read, and put within a backdrop of the way our world (and world politics) is changing, I guess it gave more credence in why things are the way they are in the US.

There are lots of elements to the States I just don’t understand, I mean sure you’ve almost got to look at each state as a separate country in some ways, each with their own history and allegiances. From the puritanical christians who became settlers who escaped religious persecution in Europe, who seem to be removing women’s rights one abortion clinic rule change at a time. To The American dream from the ability to make it from nothing (I guess the kiwi equivalent is our ‘No. 8 wire’ can-do attitude) – & I just don’t understand the lack of vacation time and expensive healthcare, gun control law and the overall constitution and various amendments. Don’t even get me started on the election setup? The whole ‘primaries’ thing is just confusing for me, and then once you start looking at congress vs the senate vs republican vs ‘card carrying democrat’ my brain just does flipflops. What struck me as interesting some of this was written during the 2008 ‘Obama’ election, amazing to read about the trickle, then river, then flood of change that the election seemed to capture. A pity that several years down track and a second election later it doesn’t feel like America had made the great leaps and strides that were hoped for. Wars are still going on, the economy is still slow (though improving), expensive healthcare is still an issue, and there’s still no Government mandated vacation time.

While not fully comprehensive, this book (from a TV series, so I guess it matched the 4 episode series of that more than anything) looked at a few key topics, framing them against history and current events. I think the most interesting piece for me was the first one – America & war, which included the founding of West Point. I sort of realised it was a military academy (thanks Civ 5) but not to the extent on which so many high profile Americans moved through it.

It was interesting reading this on the backdrop of a holiday in Italy… There were a phenomenal amount of Americans wherever I turned, always open and friendly, which since I have been in the UK so long, is incredibly unusual. I had people talk to me in restaurants, chat to me across the table at lunch, ask advice on what to see and where to go – quite strange as being a female travelling on my own I had ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ rolling about my head every time someone struck up a conversation. I had a few people pay for my wine, or offer me a glass of theirs, an American (and Canadian) generosity that I’d forgotten about. It made me wonder what is the background in the overall North American culture to extend almost an offer of friendship across a table. It’s been the same when I’ve been in New York for work, with other staff always keen to make sure I had something to do after work, somewhere to eat, something to drink. Even one time taking me to a concert in Central Park (Giri, I’m forever indebted :)) which was absolutely brilliant.

I think the most amusing American comment was when I was in the queue for the Galleria dell’Accademia (where the statue of David is housed) and a family behind me said ‘Oh we started in Naples for a day, then went to Rome for the day yesterday, and now Florence today’. The judgemental ‘traveller not a tourist’ in me was horrified, how do you see Rome in a day? How do you see Florence in a day? Does this mean you choose 2 things to see and travel through the night? Do you spend your time on those AWFUL hop on hop off horrendously overpriced city bus tours? Do you feel that because you saw the Colosseum & the Trevi Fountain that you’ve seen Rome? Or saw the statue of David and La Primavera that’s Florence? But I guess if you’ve only got two weeks holiday you’re going to try and see as much as possible at once, & the same for all those bus trips through Europe where you have a day to 2 days in every city.

I feel so lucky that not only can I visit these places, but go for essentially as long as I like 7 days in Paris (and 13 museums). 5 days in Florence (and 5 museums/art galleries). 7 days in Rome (a few museums, but mostly walking about going ‘woah’), and not feel constricted by 2 weeks holiday a year.

I’m struggling a bit to remember what else struck me by the book (so I guess less impactful than I initially thought) but I do remember finishing it with a flourish, and enjoying it more than I expected.


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