America 1908 (Jim Rasenberger)

America was quite a different place one hundred years ago. There are 300 million Americans today. We drive and fly everywhere. We talk on cell phones and chat over the Internet. For the 90 million people living in the United States of 1908, life was slower but the modern age was coming on quickly. Jim Rasenberger recreates the major events of that remarkable yesteryear in his new book America 1908 [LibraryThing / WorldCat]. He describes the year with an unfolding fascination.

Few people had heard of the Wright Brothers or had seen anyone fly when the year began, but reports trickled out of North Carolina and France in the spring and early summer. By August, hour-long public flight demonstrations made headlines around the world. The conquest of the skies changed the world in 1908, but that technological development wasn’t alone. Henry Ford debuted his Model T that year, too. Automobiles, a luxurious novelty of the rich, was suddenly within reach of the middle class pocket book.

Rasenberger writes about these major cultural shifts within the context of other news stories playing out the same year. A strange around-the-world auto race (cars were still novelties) attracted crowds on three continents, two men struggled to reach the North Pole, a very popular president (Theodore Roosevelt) made way for his successor, sixteen American battleships circumnavigated the globe, a string of horrific lynchings erupted in Abraham Lincoln’s home town, and a bonehead play in a contentious baseball game capped the National League pennant race.

Although the book is chronological in structure, it is narrative in delivery. The author unfolds the stories bit by bit as if you were reading them in a succession of quarterly newsmagazines. It’s an effective technique. The only thing lacking is the feel for everyday life. You get small doses of what the average American experienced (the nickelodeon craze, for instance) but the focus is always on the news — not the common life. The year’s news was rich that year, however, and America 1908 is a very good account of those twelve transformative months one century ago.

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