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8 Thoughts on 'American Colossus'
November 7, 2010 - 7:30pm

American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H.W. Brands

1. Maybe the best way to understand the first third of the 21st century is to learn about the last third of the 19th.

2. Is the Internet more or less consequential than the trans-continental railroad, the transatlantic telegraph table and Bell's invention of the telephone? Is our new post-industrial way of organizing work as big a change as the transition to the industrial organization of labor?

3. Would someone living in 1910, who was born in 1869, have experienced more or less change than someone born in 1969 and alive today? (Like me).

4. American Colossus is long - 23 hours and 33 minutes (624 pages). Took 3 kids' soccer games, one college hockey game, two weekends of yard work, a basement clean-out, and various runs, dish washing/laundry folding sessions, and about 10 commutes to finish. Multitasking is the only way (at least for me) that a book as colossal as Colossus gets finished.

5. Rockefeller (oil), Carnegie (steel), Vanderbilt (railroads), Morgan (money, finance) - it is these men who created our foundational industries. Brands' thesis is that capitalism and democracy are always in tension, that the concentration of capital necessarily requires the erosion of democratic ideals.

6. It's possible that one reason I enjoyed American Colossus so much is that if is performed by Roberston Dean, my favorite Audible narrator. Anybody who questions the quality of an audiobook experience should spend some time with Roberston Dean.

7. Part of the reason I love to read history is that it takes me so many damn times to get all the facts straight in my head. I have this "5 times" rule. I need to read about something 5 times before it begins to stick. Only after about 5 books on the brain, or 5 books on behavioral economics, or 5 books on the on the 19th century do things start to come together.

8. American Colossus is a great companion piece to Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life, as the both cover about the same time period but from opposite vantage points. Bryson explains the impact of the agrarian to industrial transition from the perspective of the home and its residents, Brands from the personalities and big events that drove this great transition.

What books on the past are necessary to understand the future?

What are you reading?


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