Alternate History


One of the ironies of capitalism is that socialism sells, especially when plugged by millionaire movie stars and rock idols. That helps explains surging sales for A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present, a leftist chronicle by Boston University professor emeritus Howard Zinn. Originally published in 1980 and revised in 1995, the book has sold more than 500,000 copies–a total that is climbing rapidly due in no small part to a prominent product placement in the popular 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon, who co-wrote and starred in the movie, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder are among the celebrities who have publicly touted the book to their youthful fans.

As a result, the book has become standard fare not only at left-leaning independent bookstores throughout the country, but also at mall-style chain stores. Of course, glitterati advocacy alone can't account for such success–and certainly doesn't explain the weekly additions to the list of reader reviews found on (where the book maintained a sales ranking of around 500 for some time). Mostly favorable, the reviews include comments such as, "This is the ONLY U.S. history book that matters," and "brilliant."

Why do people love it? Despite its anticapitalist mentality, A People's History is a great example of product differentiation, entering underserved markets, and giving people what they want.

Zinn has a master storyteller's touch and he tells the tales of folks often left out of other texts–Indians, black slaves, poor whites, women, and immigrants–from their perspectives.

And, in the best Hollywood tradition, the book is packed with violence, sex, and intrigue. Consider, for example, Zinn's NC-17 treatment of Jamestown residents during the colony's "starving time" in the winter of 1609-1610: "One among them slew his wife as she slept in his bosom, cut her to pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured all parts saving her head."

Now that's entertainment. So much so, in fact, that media baron–and arch-capitalist–Rupert Murdoch is among Zinn's fans. Indeed, Fox has inked a deal to develop a mini-series based on the book.