When I tell people I'm a history teacher, what I find most annoying is their response, "Oh, I really like history now, but I was really bad at all the dates and stuff in school." Now, why does this irk me so, you ask? Simply put, history has very little to do with dates. It's about the skills of comparison and contextualization, continuity and change over time, and the myriad of personalities that shape the course of human history. Now that I've been teaching for five years and dealing with the pressures of state test deadlines, days lost to ice on the bridge, and pep rallies, so much has to be skipped over or given cursory attention at best. Which, as a history nerd, kills me. That said, allow me to present you with a few books to help you catch up on what you may have missed in school.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Charles C. Mann (2005)
How new really was the New World? Mann says it wasn't an untamed wilderness by any stretch. The native peoples actively participated in shaping the environment, and they benefited from those changes. Mann's 1491 challenges the existing ideas of a sparsely settled wilderness.
American Colonies: The Settling
of North America
Alan Taylor (2002)
Alan Taylor offers the most concise and readable history of the Colonial period in all the different regions — from the West Indies to the West Coast. While you might not read it cover to cover, it's really worthwhile to see how wacky the Puritans were. Once you read several chapters of this comparing different regions of Colonial America, you'll start to understand differences in present day America.
David McCullough (2006)
While you could cheat and have this read to you on CD (actually, that's not a bad option) the joy of reading McCullough is his compelling tone that brings the historical personalities of the American Revolution to life.
For Cause and Comrades:
Why Men Fought in the Civil War
James McPherson (1998)
It's impossible to escape the issues of the Civil War. They come up in modern political discussion and even the Go Back to Ohio movement. But while there are innumerable works written on the different facets of the war, James McPhearson's short (under 200 pages) study focuses, as the title would suggest, on why men fought in it — for both family and freedom, homeland and heritage, neighbors and nation. McPhearson's work is a really good tome that uses statistics to back up his evidence and helps us get back to and appreciate those individuals who helped define the nation into what we know today.
Standing at Armageddon:
A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era
Nell Irvin Painter (1988)
If you're like my class, maybe the Gilded Age isn't the most enthralling. Perhaps the only word you can recall from studying it is the term "robber baron," even though you can't remember what a robber baron even is. And yet, so many of the issues we face today — new inventions, gaps in wealth, issues of equality, and the changing position of America's role in the world — are the same issues that were discussed during the Gilded Age. Standing at Armageddon really shows how average individuals took on challenges of industrial greed and exploitation and how both local and federal government responded.
World War I
The Guns of August
Barbara Tuchman (1962)
This August marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the first World War. The so-called Great War defined the 20th century as it brought about the end of Colonialism, a restructuring of the Middle East, the root causes for WWII, and the birth of the Communist state. And all of that happened as European powers drifted to war, often against their own will as described in this great book. It's definitely a must.
World War II
Why the Allies Won
Richard Overy (1997)
For those of us who have been inundated by the History Channel's detailed minutia of tanks, Patton and Rommel, and the Nazi's secret wonder weapons, this book by Richard Overy helps us regain some perspective about the largest conflict in human history. Accounting for everything from the Arsenal of Democracy to the bitter Russian front, this is a brilliant read for those looking to get a larger and clearer picture of WWII.
Cold War to Present
Rise to Globalism, 9th Edition
Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley (2011)
This is a pretty handy read that focuses not just on foreign policy issues for the U.S. but takes you through isolationism, the Second World War, the Cold War, Vietnam, the War on Terror, and all that jazz in between. Bonus points: the prose in Rise to Globalism is engaging. A lot of the things in this book are overlooked in the classroom and consequently in the regular American conscience.
All this being said, if you really are looking to brush up before school is back in session, then I would strongly recommend first The Story of American Freedom by Eric Foner (1998). Foner's central question is, "Is freedom the freedom to do what you want? Or the freedom from want?" Mind blown. When asked what makes America America, freedom is inevitably going to come up as one of those buzzwords. Foner walks us through the entire narrative of U.S. history in his attempt to answer this question. That said, if you want to be contrarian and have fun arguing at cocktail parties, drop a little Howard Zinn, one of the most controversial and compelling historians of the 20th century. Writing from a bottom-up as opposed to a top-down perspective, he gives agency to the underdog. His seminal work is A People's History of the United States 1492-Present (1999). Read it, love it, and hate it, but please be aware of it.