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Bookworm: Roosevelt for the history buff and/or outdoorsy-type

‘Crap’ is history and nostalgia rolled into one

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness”

  • By David Gessner
  • c. 2020, Simon & Schuster
  • $28, $37 Canada; 339 pages

The hike you took felt really good. The sun rose as you left, and so did your spirits; your mind unclenched and you breathed in scenery that no camera could ever capture. It was just what you needed and, as you'll see in "Leave It As It Is" by David Gessner, to thank the one who made it possible, you may have to hike back over a century.

"Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt's American Wilderness" by David Gessner.

Not quite two years after he took office, the President of the United States dismissed his Secret Service agents and went camping with a man he barely knew.

It was May, 1903, and Theodore Roosevelt had wilderness on his mind: not long before, he'd asked naturalist John Muir to be his guide at Yosemite and Muir was eager to have the ear of the President. No one knows the details of their discussions during three days together in the outdoors but shortly after they returned, Roosevelt was convinced that Yosemite needed the protection that Muir wanted it to have.

"TR" had already been thinking about such things; after visiting the Grand Canyon earlier that month, he gave a speech in which he told a crowd that there was no way anyone could make the canyon better.

In this 1904 file photo, Theodore Roosevelt campaigns for the presidency.

"Leave it as it is," he said, undoubtedly with force and conviction. That's how TR did things, says Gessner: he bowled them over with brashness. Few people ever said "no" to Roosevelt and made it stick; creating national parks and protecting Western lands was likely a done deal the minute the idea entered TR's mind.

Admittedly fascinated by Roosevelt, Gessner uses a road trip in the president's honor as the glue to hold this book together. He knew, of course, of his hero's legacy, but he also knew TR as a fallible human who held racist views, and there were other controversies. Roosevelt was bold and cocky, a hunter and rancher as well as a president, but he also knew business. And, says Gessner, "for a brief three-day window in May 1903 the business of the United States... was nature."

Reading "Leave It As It Is" is somewhat like hiking through the woods, blindfolded.

You know where you're going eventually, but you'll backtrack and retrace your footprints and take a lot of questionable steps to get there. It's confusing sometimes, hard to follow but equally interesting.

Remove the blindfold, however, and you'll see that author David Gessner's writing is lovely, as though a poet guided his fingers in writing this book; you may, in fact, forget that you're reading a history book, rather than one that's more about nature. Furthermore, Gessner's admiration of Roosevelt is wide but so is his willingness to humanize TR with flaws, an honesty that's somewhat rare in books about bigger-than-life people.

Together, the two sides to this story are good, but better if you're a history buff, an outdoorsy-type, or you have a deep interest in nature. "Leave It As It Is" holds a fine story but for the wrong reader, it may be quite a hike.

“Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America”

  • By Wendy Woloson
  • c. 2020, The University of Chicago Press
  • $29.99, higher in Canada; 388 pages

The stockings were hung by the chimney with haste.

Yep, this year was different than other holidays and Santa was a bit locked down, so you stuffed some trinkets inside Noel-themed stockings – tchotchkes, candy, a few cheap toys – and the kids won't care, as long as Santa came. Only you need to know that the stuffers inside were last-minute grabs, so read "Crap" by Wendy A. Woloson, and don't feel guilty.

“Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America” by Wendy Woloson.

If you were an average American in 1750, the chances are that you took extremely good care of the things you had. Getting goods new or as replacement was sometimes a months-long process and money wasn't always plentiful, so you made do. Then peddlers came a-calling with carts full of "low-priced petty wares" that offered not just novelty but "the idea of material abundance" and they taught early Americans to be consumers.

Once it became relatively easy to go to a physical location, "variety stores" taught buyers that the word cheap was no longer a synonym for "dirty." By that time, because peddlers' wares were often basically worthless junk, Americans were somewhat used to inexpensive goods that weren't meant to last forever; following the Civil War, less-expensive products were downright acceptable, even desirable, and one-price stores and "five-and-dime" emporiums welcomed browsers and shoppers alike.

Marketers and shop owners were getting wise at that point, though: they began to realize the appeal of loss leaders and the psychology of "free." It didn't take long for them to see that the cost of giveaways such as calendars, pens, dishtowels, glasses, and thermometers was far less than the amount happy (returning) customers spent, and so entire industries sprung up to supply merchants with giveaway items. Buy-this-get-that made it easy and cost-effective to gain loyal customers and free, fun merchandise easily taught kids to be good consumers by bugging Mom to visit certain stores or buy certain kinds of cereal.

Because kids, as every parent knows, are natural collectors...

You don't even need a holiday to know you're surrounded by things you don't need. Some of those items are already on their way to the thrift store, while others bring you joy. "Crap" explains how and why the two categories differ.

We are a nation of collectors, says author Wendy A. Woloson; so, she discusses plates, spoons, figurines, and Beanies that were made specifically for collect-o-mania. Souvenirs are up for examination, as are other childhood tchotchkes and those too-good-to-be-true things you always just had to order from the backs of comic books. Woloson writes about goofy gag gifts; gender differences in marketing novelty items, such as joy buzzers; and she looks at the influence Oriental factories made on American trinkets.

This book is as gleeful as emptying the cereal box in a Saturday morning, and finding the "free prize" before your siblings do. It's as special as a drink from the glass that mom got for you at the gas station. It's history and nostalgia rolled into one, so read "Crap."

It'll knock your stockings off.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.