The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence
11 CDs (13 hours). Narrated by Grover Gardner.
Iain over at Tantor Audio (a new TMP advertiser) asked if I'd like to try out one of their audiobooks. I said, "Sure," and next thing I knew, a package was on my doorstep.
Now, I have to admit here that it's probably been 25 years since I've tried a commercially published audiobook. The ones that I remember came on tape cassettes (yes, it's been that long), and were almost always abridged (i.e., condensed) versions of the original book or story.
So I'm surprised when I open the package and see a sturdy black plastic folder - not unlike a DVD folder, but squatter and much thicker - and, inside, 11 CDs in a binder.
11 CDs! Yes, this definitely isn't an abridged book!
Iain was very encouraging about listening to the audiobook while I was at my workbench, so I decided to give it a try.
Normally, I listen to music while I paint, and I was skeptical about whether I could follow a book and get things done at my workbench simultaneously.
My workbench is next to my computer, so I used my computer system to play the CDs. I used iTunes to play the files.
I thought that the CDs - or the tracks - might be organized by chapter, so was surprised to see that the first CD simply had 23 3-minute tracks numbered 1 through 23.
So I started up the first CD, started work on my next workbench project, and...
I have to say this really works well for me. I found that for the most part, my attention was mostly on the audiobook, but that I was moving along as rapidly as ever on my miniatures. Perhaps more rapidly, since listening to the audiobook made the time pass very amiably, so that I spent more time working at one stretch than I ordinarily would.
If I realized that I had drifted off and missed something on the CD, it was simple to listen to that track over again. I also found myself using the pause button when life's interruptions came along.
I had been concerned that, with a history book, I would miss the maps and other graphics that normally come with a traditional book. However, since the book I was listening to was on a relatively modern subject, I found it easy enough to pause the audio and switch to Google Earth to find most locations. This provided better information than mere maps could have, although I was not able to find every location mentioned in the book.
I listened to most of the book on two pleasurable evenings, plus a half dozen shorter sessions. One challenge was that there was apparently no way using iTunes to set a bookmark to show where I had left off. At first, I tried to remember the track number; but later, I just played the CD from the start - the experience was enjoyable enough that I didn't mind repeating five or ten minutes of the audio.
I experienced one irritation with iTunes - sometimes, the software would do a "fade out/fade in" between tracks, just as it would for songs. I looked, but couldn't find a way to turn this feature off.
The Book Itself
So let's get down to the book itself. I've long had an interest in the War of 1812, but I needed a good overview of the war to pull together the bits and pieces in my mind. So the audiobook I selected to try out was Union 1812 by A. J. Langguth.
This book is a sequel of sorts to the author's previous Patriots (about the American Revolution), but I found this book perfectly understandable without having read the previous volume.
Langguth's approach is to outline history by introducing a series of historical characters - some famous, some critical to historical events, others simply witnesses to history. His starting point is George Washington in retirement after the Revolutionary War, and several chapters follow the early American presidents as the author lays down the history from the Constitutional Convention until Congress declares war.
As the book now branches out to cover the diverse theatres of war - the Great Lakes, Canada, the frontier, negotiations in Europe, New Orleans - the author is able to introduce us to a fascinating gallery of characters. If you thought the Civil War had plenty of bumbling generals, the War of 1812 has plenty of its own. Ross, the active and competent British general in Canada, and Tecumseh, the tragic chief of the unified Indian tribes, are particularly memorable; and though I had previously formed a dislike for Andrew Jackson, I had to grudgingly admire what he accomplished.
While Union 1812 covers many campaigns in some detail, the author does not cover all of the fighting (there is no mention of Lundy's Lane, for instance).
The author doesn't merely end the book when the war is over, but tells us what became of the people we've been introduced to, and gives us a summary right up to the beginning of the Civil War.
The author has a keen eye for detail, passes along many worthwhile anecdotes, and writes with humor and irony - well matched by Grover Gardner's excellent narration.
My one criticism is that, as I listened to the book, I would have liked a bit more on how the strategies changed for each side as the war progressed. The coverage for the Americans tells us what happened, but I was left a bit vague on how involved the chief political and military figures were; the British coverage focuses primarily on generals and admirals, and not so much on how British strategy was determined.
My bottom line, however, is that this was a marvelous, character-based way to gain an overview of the War of 1812, and to see it in the context of American history. While the audiobook format has some limitations (hard to quote excerpts or look up a specific chapter, for instance), I found the experience more pleasurable than reading a traditional book - and I think I might even listen to this one again.
This audiobook is also available for download at discount from audible.com.