Wednesday, January 30, 2013

25 Books: Book #2 - Conquering Gotham

At the beginning of the 20th Century, New York was growing into a major metropolis. But transportation in between the boroughs (especially in and out of Manhattan) was still somewhat difficult. It wasn't until the construction of Penn Station and its underwater tunnels that train travel in and out of Manhattan was even feasible. Accomplishing such an engineering feat required a company willing to take tremendous risks and invest huge amounts of money in such a project. That company was the Pennsylvania Railroad led by its visionary president Alexander Cassatt. The story of the Penn Station construction project is told in Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes.

Today, the idea of an underwater tunnel is not so very foreign. But in 1900 such things were still relatively new. The construction of such a tunnel was a dicey prospect at best as numerous workers had perished in other tunnel projects. However there was no better way to solve the problem of how to connect Manhattan to New Jersey and to the other boroughs.Once the project was completed the city would be completely transformed. Suddenly people would have the freedom to move out to the suburbs and still be able to get to their jobs in the city.

As for Penn Station, for several decades it stood as a grand station in the midst of Manhattan. Unfortunately poor planning and a change in transportation choices (as Americans migrated towards air and roads in the 1950s and 1960s) doomed the grand temple to a brief existence. Still Penn Station managed to serve as a grand monument not only to the determination on Andrew Cassatt but of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to revolutionize travel into and out of Manhattan. Its story is still an interesting one to read as it involves courage, risk-taking, battles against political corruption and good old-fashioned American ingenuity to accomplish what many thought was impossible.

Monday, January 21, 2013

25 Books: Book #1 - Ratification by Pauline Maier

Many a volume has been written about the writing of the Constitution (The Summer of 1787 and Tempest At  Dawn are two of the better volumes I have read on the subject) but very little has been written about the ratification process. Most discussions of ratification tends to revolve around The Federalist Papers but that only provides a small part of the overall picture.

Pauline Maier set out to write the definitive history of the ratification debates in Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. She provides a detailed history of the individual state conventions and insight into the public mood and debates that surrounded ratification. While it might have seemed that once the Constitution was written it was a foregone conclusion that the states would ratify it the fact is that it was far from a sure thing,

As Ms. Maier shows in her book the debates were actually much more extensive and not always driven by just two opposing points of view. In fact, the debates were much more sophisticated than that. The debates were not just limited to those among the political elites, either. The proposed Constitution drew interest from people from all walks of life and became one of the most widely debated issues of the day.

Ratification is a good overview of the political climate of the day and does a good job of documenting the numerous aspects surrounding the debates. Those who wish to more fully understand the Constitution would do well to learn more about the passions from all sides that fueled the ratification debate.

Friday, January 04, 2013

25 Books in 2013

Like most folks, I don't spend enough time reading. I read recently that the average person only reads four books per year. That's a pretty shameful statistic.

Also, like most folks I'm lousy at keeping resolutions. But I do believe that it's important to set goals for things I want to do and achieve. Therefore, I have come up with a challenge for myself to address both issues simultaneously. I am setting a goal to read 25 books in 2013.

It's pretty simple: if I read just one book every two weeks I can achieve this simple goal. In the process, I will be nourished through reading and get back into developing some healthy book consumption.

However, before I jumped into this challenge I wanted to set out some ground rules that would help make this an even more beneficial process.

First, I am not allowing myself to read any e-books or listen to audiobooks for the purpose of meeting this challenge. While I enjoy reading on my Kindle I often find I am distracted by other things on it (e-mail, Internet, Twitter, etc.) and I don't spend as much time reading books as I should.

Second, any book I read has to be at least 200 pages in length. This may seem a little silly but I want the books I read to be of substance. Therefore, no cheating on this challenge by reading shorter books.

Finally, any book I read has to be a book I haven't read before. Part of the purpose of the challenge is to explore new stories and ideas. Therefore, I want to be intentional about what I'm going to read in that it's not something I have read before.

As far as subjects go, pretty much anything goes. I tend to be drawn more to non-fiction books but I suspect there will be a few novels mixed in too. This also means lots more trips to the library and the used book store!

As I finish a book I'll post my thoughts on it here so that (1) you'll be able to follow what I'm reading and (2) can help hold me accountable on meeting this goal. I'd welcome anyone else who wants to attempt the challenge with me to share in the comments what they are reading too.

Books are a precious treasure that are meant to be savored. In this information age it seems that we tend to know less and less. Books can open us up to other worlds and other lives. There are all kinds of wonders to be explored but only if we are willing to take the journey. Are you willing to join me in the journey?