Hack Review: Abandoned Villages and Stuff

Imagine my excitement at discovering a book titled Abandoned Villages and Ghost Towns of New England at my local bookstore. Finally! I thought: a solid regional history of the places I stumble upon during my wanderings, terrestrial and nautical.

Then imagine my disappointment upon bringing it home to discover it full of prose such as this:

As we traverse overgrown trails that were once well worn with life, it becomes clear these forsaken hamlets had similar ends even though no two settlements were completely alike. Their history and people are often all but forgotten in the shuffle of time and evolution. This could be one reason why many of them are haunted.

Ah, fiddlesticks. What I had believed to be a historical touring guide is instead a collection of Weird NJ hokum, 200 pages of Halloween-store plastic and polyester in lieu of actual archival work. Worse still, the mistake was my own fault: if I had only glanced at the bibliography before lining up at the register, I would have seen most of the sources are either other fiction collections by D’Agostino or spooky storybooks similar to his.

There are lots of photos and a few maps, and Abandoned Villages is best when D’Agostino steps out of the picture completely, like when he quotes at length newspaper articles about the flooding of Flagstaff, Maine. But D’Agostino gives the impression he didn’t do much original research himself, and whatever factual evidence he presents is immediately ruined with personal asides about curses and fluctuations in his EMF meters.

Abandoned Villages is the literary equivalent of a ghost-hunting television show: 10 percent history diluted by 90 percent green night-vision. If you’re interested in any of the towns listed in the table of contents, my advice is to contact the historical society or government agency D’Agostino posts at the end of each chapter and proceed on your own from there.

Hack Review: Don’t Know Much About History

Another blog I frequent has something called “Premature Book Reviews” wherein the author reviews books before he’s completely read them. In a similar vein, I hereby christen my own feature in which I review books so bad I can’t finish them.

The plugs on Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned declare it a New York Times bestseller, 1.3 million copies sold, “the renowned classic completely updated” from its first printing in 1990. Inside Davis uses a question-and-answer style to sketch American chronology from 1492 to the 2000 presidential election. What’s not to like?

It can’t be his bias that bothers me because Davis isn’t biased. He says so in his introduction:

It is interesting to me that my work was sometimes described as “liberal.” … And if “liberal” means believing in the ideas of America as laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — ideas like “All men are created equal,” “We, the people,” “a more perfect union” (you get the idea) — then I plead guilty to the charge.

Why do Mr. Davis’s critics hate America? Are their ears deaf to the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as he pounds the keyboard? How dare they impugn this patriot, this lover of mom and apple pie! It would be easier to believe Davis if he didn’t quote three negative opinions (one conservative, two liberal) of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore while failing to provide any affirmative ones.

But it’s not this that demonstrates a colobus monkey is better qualified to write a book than Davis. In his entry “So if Columbus didn’t really discover America, who did?” Davis doesn’t discuss settlement of the Americas by Paleo-Indians, via Beringia or otherwise; and he only briefly mentions L’Anse Aux Meadows, adding “While archaeology has answered some questions, many others remain about the sojourn of the Norse in the Americas.” Thing is, archaeology has answered most of the questions about L’Anse Aux Meadows. Excavations in the ’60s and ’70s told us it was a Norse outpost used to harvest lumber, furs, nuts, fish, and more from around the Gulf of St. Lawrence for export back to Greenland and Iceland. All of this is well-documented, though you would never know it from Davis. Instead, he segues into the usual conspiracy theories of Irish monks and Chinese sailors discovering the New World, and then dives off-topic into Mark Kurlanksy’s Cod for two whole pages. I could write a separate Hack Review on the problems with Kurlansky’s book, but in this case Davis tries to use Kurlansky to fill the chasm of his own ignorance.

If you don’t know much about American history, you can do better than this book. If you already read history, then you already know better.