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Book Review: Measuring America by Andro Linklater

I just spent a week in the Blue Ridge Mountains at Boy Scout camp with my youngest son, Truman, and while he was off practicing first aid and woodcarving I got to sit under the cool shade trees and read! (Yes, yes, I also recertified in Red Cross CPR and kept a watch on all the Scouts, but the chance to sit and read quietly away from any computer or deadline was a real treat!)

One of the books I read was this study of how measuring expressed populism, economics and democracy — a book that sounds horribly dull until you start reading it. This was a mirror image of Dava Sobel’s popular “Longitude” book from 1996 — but better. Linklater told me things about Jefferson I didn’t know and wrapped politics and big ideas and economics into the simple act of surveying land. (This book gives you a great feel for how the young George Washington surveyor image connects with the old George Washington land speculator.) I was taught in college all about Jefferson’s belief that a nation of small farmers would preserve our virtue and our democracy, but this narrative connected all that to my gradeschool lessons about the metric system in the 1970s! And I’m from Ohio, so Linklater’s opening passage that set the action in the Northwest Territory was particularly fun. And he never forgets the Native Americans who inhabited the land before the settlers started marking the trees and claiming the streams, so he keeps the book from shrinking into just European intellectual history. (Don’t worry – the ideas are big, but the many illustrations help the story speak in a language that a modern reader understands.)

The only trouble is: Linklater gets at least one big, basic fact wrong, and that calls me to question every single absorbing detail he offers in the book. This English author tells us in two separate passages that Jamestown was founded in 1609. No. It was 1607. What else so basic did he miss?

(His story is further hampered by the book jacket, which sets the expectation that this will be about “How the United States Was Shaped By the Greatest Land Sale in History,” which caused me and friends to expect something about the Louisiana Purchase. But Linklater is not talking about the greatest land sale, he’s talking about the greatest land SURVEY, which converted America’s vast public lands into private property. It’s not one sale, it’s millions and millions of sales in individuals. That’s not Linklater’s fault but the marketer’s.)


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This entry was posted on Monday, August 11th, 2008 at 12:45 pm and is filed under History Book Review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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