Only Yesterday: How The Past Really Is Prologue

by Randy Murray on September 14, 2010

I am generally loath to recommend books to friends or acquaintances. There are few people, other than my friend Penny, to whom I can reliably say, “You’ll love this book,” and have it turn out to be true. But Penny and I have a long relationship and a shared love of books. We know each other’s tastes well. I don’t know you, or know you well enough to understand which books you’ll love or benefit from. So in general, I’ll share what I’ve read and enjoyed, but I won’t push books on people. And I typically don’t buy books for friends or press them to read specific ones.

But today I’m breaking that rule. I have a book that is not only a very entertaining read, but it is a vitally important book. This book covers territory that the modern reader cannot help but see as parallel to today. Without putting too fine a point on it, I insist that you read it, and read it soon.

Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen is a breathtaking work. And it was published nearly 80 years ago.

So why do you need to read an 80-year-old book about the U.S. in the period from 1919 through 1931?

  1. Because our modern world has almost all of its roots in this period. The rise of radio, advertising, mass media and mass hysteria, the instant celebrity and hero, all of these things first took root and flourished in the 1920’s. All of you social media darlings who think you’re creating something new and different would benefit from reading about the start of it all and see how nothing is really new.
  2. To ask yourself, “Do we ever learn anything?” Prohibition and the rise of the mob (The war on drugs), the Red Scare and the rise of the KKK (anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-Islamic hatred and fear), President Harding’s corruption and that of his entire administration (any number of bad deeds that the Bush administration committed that enriched the bankers and some stockmarket players and impoverished the rest of us), and of course, the market crash of 1929 and the start of the depression (need I go on?).

More than this, as you read the book, keep in mind that Lewis is writing this book in 1931. His clarity of mind and his unflinching look at the decade that he had just experienced is astonishingly accurate. Few today writing about the 1920′s could be as unbiased and accurate as he was. This man doesn’t appear to be of his own time. He seems unaffected by prejudice and politics. I’m not sure how he did this, but I found it to be completely astonishing. I have a new literary hero in Fredrick Lewis Allen.

Most important, this work is a roadmap of our own current time and the near future. It is completely clear that we are wearing ruts through history, maybe not exactly in our predecessors’ footsteps, but not far off their beaten trail. The more fool you if now, knowing that such a work exists, you do not immediately purchase a copy, read it, and think deeply on all of it.

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The Only Yesterday: How The Past Really Is Prologue by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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