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Monday, June 19, 2006


4th of July, Asbury Park

Serendipity. The last time the subject came up was when I wandered into a gift shop (not even a book store) next to a bike shop which was my real destination, and discovered a marvelous book named How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher. Well, it's happened again. Flying across the country on the way to visit my mother in New Jersey, my connecting flight was delayed by an hour, so naturally in wandering around the airport I walked into a bookstore. And there, hiding on a bottom shelf, a book caught my eye -- 4th of July, Asbury Park, subtitled A History of the Promised Land, and presenting a history of Asbury Park from its founding in 1870 until the present. Now you have to understand that my mother is very interested in New Jersey history, and that we used to spend time in and near Asbury Park every summer of my childhood. So...the perfect gift!

Well, it turned out to be a lot more than that. With a long flight I naturally started to read it, and found I couldn't put it down. Because this book is much more than the dry history of a medium-sized Jersey shore town, it's the history of America writ small. Fundamentalist religion, capitalism as reflected both in the drive toward development, and also in the political power exercised by the capitalist class, segregation and racism (including lynching and the Ku Klux Klan), anti-immigrant prejudice and efforts to limit immigration to people from "desirable" countries, demonization of people based on their religion, the role of the media (including the surprising role of Stephen "Red Badge of Courage" Crane), corruption, mob power, and last but not least music (and not just Bruce Springsteen, but John Philip Sousa, Count Basie, Frankie Lymon, and more), all played key roles in the history of Asbury Park. And with the exception of lynching, virtually everything in the book could be drawn from the pages of today's papers.

I guess you figured out that I finished the book before giving it to my mother, and that I'm strongly recommending it, not just to those who spent their summers on the Jersey shore, but to anyone interested in reading about the development of the United States over the last 130 years, as viewed through the events in one town. And, as I suggested above, it's a real page-turner, not dry at all but quite well-written. It's only out in hardcover right now, but the publisher's website (linked above) has it coming out in paperback next month.

One final point -- this is just one more reason why I try never to buy books from Amazon.com. Could I have saved money on the book? Yes. And one day, the day the last bookstore closes because everyone is busy saving money, I'll have saved myself right out of ever being able to walk into a bookstore and have an experience like this, wandering randomly and finding a splended book on a subject I didn't even know I was interested in, and certainly wasn't looking to find anything about, and ending up better-educated and entertained as well.

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