Sunday, April 18, 2010

It All Started With Columbus - Richard Armour


1953 (but also 1961, and 1971); 129 pages. Full Title (1971 Version) : It All Started With Columbus - A Merry Mangling of American History from Columbus to Nixon. Genre : Humor. 1971 New Price : $1.95. 2009 Used Price : $2.00. Overall Rating : 7*/10.
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This is Richard Armour's whimsical, tongue-in-cheek recounting of American History. 130 pages of wordplay, puns, and details (both real and contrived) covering 5 centuries of New World happenings.
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What's To Like...
It's good, old-fashioned, 50's, clean humor. If there was something "purer" than a "G Rating", this would get it. That's quite a feat when you consider that Armour has to deal with topics like slavery, Communism, Hitler, and Custer's Last Stand.
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Despite the book's brevity, every US President gets at least a short mention here. As does every war. Armour shows no partiality - you can't tell if he was a Republican or Democrat in real life.
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The footnotes are funny (maybe this is where Pratchett got his inspiration for the footnotes in the Discworld series), and there are five zany-funny "tests" scattered throughout the book. If only my college history exams had been this easy and entertaining.
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This is not a historical reference. Armour invents "facts" to set up his puns. The sense of humor is witty, but unvarying (think Red Skelton monologues, if you're old enough to remember his TV show), so adults may find it a bit tedious after a while. Except for a couple "bundled" offerings at Amazon, all of Armour's books seem to be out-of-print. I found this one at a used-book store. The next-best bet for these is your local library.
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Excerpts...
William Penn, on the other hand, came to America to collect some land the King owed his father. He belonged to a frightened religious sect known as the Quakers. So that he would not be forgotten, he gave his name to the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Pennsylvania Station, and the state prison, which is known as the Penn. (pg. 11)
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John Quincy Adams was the second Adams to become president. He is not to be confused with his father, John Adams, who was the first Adams but the second president, or with his Uncle Sam Adams (who was not the real Uncle Sam, except to his nieces and nephews). It was fortunate for us, if not for the second John Adams, that he had the Quincy, which the first John did not. (pg. 49)
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About the only good thing for which Harding is remembered is the Disarmament Conference. This was a meeting held in Washington at which each nation sought to disarm all the others. There was great enthusiasm, and the delegates all went home with souvenirs which they melted down and made into cannons. (pg. 103)
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What this country needs is a good street sweeper. (closing sentence)
This was a nostalgic read for me. There are six "It All Started With" Armour books, and the local library where I grew up had most of them. When I was 10-13, I was into this kind of humor, and would borrow these time after time and wear them out in memorizing the puns. So to some degree, I have Richard Armour to thank for my love of reading and libraries.
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There are some people who believe that nowadays we don't find a joke funny unless there is sex, cussing, booze/drugs, and/or racial stereotyping in it. Maybe so, but 50 years ago that wasn't true, and IASWC is proof of it.
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Although I still enjoyed IASWC this time around, I didn't find myself laughing out loud at any point. Perhaps my tastes in humor have changed. Or perhaps I've read this book once too often. We'll give it seven stars, and recommend it to any adult who still enjoys clean puns and wordplay; and especially to anyone who has kids aged 8-12 who like history and joke books.

4 comments:

Lula O said...

I seem to be devouring history a lot lately, and have been looking something my kids would like. This one sounds like great fun. Sounds like a history variety show!

Hamilcar Barca said...

the humor is geared towards young readers. if they like American history, i think they'll enjoy IASWC.

Amazon has bundled together a couple of Armour's books. but other than that, your biggest challenge is going to be finding this.

Steven R. Harbin aka coachhollywood67 said...

I remember seeing this book in the library at my school years ago, but if I read it I don't remember doing so. I'll definitely try to find a copy and check it out.

Hamilcar Barca said...

i hope you find it! it's a wonderful, light read. something refreshing after you've read a long, slow, serious book.