Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States, by Dave Barry, New York: Random House, 178 pages, $15.95.
"At this point Mexico owned the territory that we now call 'Texas,' which consisted primarily of what we now call 'dirt.'" This is history? Only in the warped mind of Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize–winning humorist for the Miami Herald. His latest book, Dave Barry Slept Here, may not do to history what Airplane! did to disaster movies, but it's a good start.
Barry has a noble purpose. Relaying the sad truth that Americans know little about their own history ("78 percent of [high school students tested] identified Abraham Lincoln as 'a kind of lobster'"), Dave tries to set us straight. He presents a book that leaves out all the dull parts (mostly the facts).
You can astonish your friends with the following anecdotes (which Barry made up): Abe Lincoln's family was so poor that he grew up in a log cabin made of one log. Andrew "Dale" Carnegie made a fortune by conducting seminars in which he taught people how to win friends by making steel. And Jimmy Carter claimed a large attack rabbit chased him while canoeing. (Oops, that really happened.)
Barry even has the audacity to occasionally stumble upon the truth. For example, he explains how the Founding Fathers paid the Revolutionary War debt. Alexander Hamilton came up with an idea "so brilliant—and yet so simple—that it remains extremely popular with governments to this very day. 'Let's print money with our pictures on it,' Hamilton suggested."
And here's how Barry explains the Monroe Doctrine:
"1. Other nations are not allowed to mess around with the internal affairs of nations in this hemisphere.
2. But we are.
Barry is an impressive humorist. In the spirit of Mark Twain, Monty Python, and "Saturday Night Live," his humor is fast, irreverent, and not cynical. He's quite willing to make himself part of the joke.
Perhaps the greatest danger the reader faces is his uncontrollable desire to read portions of the book aloud to friends or loved ones. AVOID THIS TEMPTATION! Unscientific statistical sampling has shown that these readers start giggling involuntarily during the performance, blowing the punch lines and diminishing Barry's humorous impact. By all means buy this book, but let your friends enjoy it on their own.