Review: American Dreams: The United States since 1945 by H. W. Brands

My husband playfully teases me for being a “history geek,” in that I still occasionally pick up a history book and read it for fun, long after the BA and MA days of “you must read Book X by Date Y and perform related Test/Assignment Z.” It doesn’t help my geekitude any that I work in a library and have pretty easy access to all kinds of books.

 A few weeks ago, American Dreams: The United States since 1945 by H. W. Brands (New York: Penguin Press, 2010; 420 pages) caught my eye on the New Books shelf at the library. I’ve become one of those people who flips to the back of the book to read the “About the Author” section of a history before I even consider taking a book home. Satisfied in seeing that author H. W. Brands is a history professor at the University of Texas, I decided to check the book out. Literally. (Ah, library humor.)

Brands covers most of the major political, domestic, and popular events and trends. He hits all the things you would expect to find in a history book discussing this era and several things you might not: how the invention of air conditioning contributed to the growth of the Sunbelt; how the “CNN effect” changed news media; and the impacts of companies like McDonald’s, Nike, Microsoft, Dell, and Apple on American life.

I very much enjoyed this book. I found it a pleasant, leisurely stroll through the most recent 65 years of American history. But it is just that: pleasant and leisurely. Brands sticks to a non-controversial presentation of virtually indisputable facts. Yes, after 6 years of college study in the field of history, I realize that few books are completely unbiased or contain only “facts,” so take that statement with a grain of salt, obviously. In any event, it would be difficult to find fault with Brands’s argument, since there seems to be no “argument” to speak of.

I would recommend this book to those with a casual interest in history or to undergraduate students. (I suspect Brands’s undergraduate students were among his intended audience.) As a source for a serious history student, I think it is a bit lacking, partially in the absence of any kind of argument, but mostly in the inadequacy of its source citations. Brands cites only direct quotations—of which there are several, and I give him credit for that, because they definitely add interest. But there are no general source citations, nor even a bibliographic essay or “for further reading” section. (Yes, I’ve become one of those people who actually looks at the footnotes/ end notes also.)

I am curious what others thought of American Dreams. I did not find any reviews of it on JSTOR, which I suppose could be because it was not published at a university press. I did find a review by Charles Kaiser from the Washington Post, which was less than laudatory.

Nevertheless, I found American Dreams to be a pleasant read. When I picked it up, I was looking for a concise, easy-to-read narrative of the main events in American history from 1945 to 2010. And that’s exactly what I got. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the same.

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