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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Monday, September 14, 2009

Book Review: Born Losers by Scott A. Sandage

Title: Born Losers: A History of Failure in America 
Author: Scott A. Sandage 
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: September 14, 2009

In Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, author Scott A. Sandage points out that the nineteenth century, despite being an age of capitalism, industrialization, and promise, was also an age of great economic hardship and loss for men and women who together created a culture of failure that personally and morally defined them. Society and the government held people individually accountable for failure despite circumstance, and relief was hard to come by because the government did not have the systems in place to manage it. When failure occurred, it was “a reason, in the man.” The prevailing idea that “no one fails who ought not fail” identified men to such a point that failure was a matter of personal worth, morality, and virtue. That only a man himself could be blamed for failure no matter the cause created a multitude of dynamics: drive vs. risk, innovation vs. safety, and failure vs. the possibility of any future success. Once failure was stuck to you and became a part of your identity, it was a hard label to shake. Especially with the birth of Tappan’s very first credit report agency that sent out personal information to aid in assessing the possible risk and success of others. Sandage’s greatest strength lies in his usage of primary source documents and the many stories and examples they provide his book. They, large in number, not only give creditability to the story, but they raise interest so that the book is enjoyable to read. It is an illuminating and fun look at something that is normally depressing in nature--failure and stigma placed on personal identity. It is obvious by the number of sources used and documented that Sandage has put a great deal of research into the book. In the sense that it is well researched and documented, it is a reputable piece of scholarship for something paid little attention to. Sandage also suitably links the identity of failure to today by tracing how ideas and perceptions formed into what modern people think and feel. There is a clear connection between past and present, which gives the book modern day relevancy. I would have liked, though, a section to provide a less narrow focus. Perhaps not for the whole book, because the subject itself makes it necessary to focus on specifics, but a chapter to help place failure within the larger scheme of things. While Sandage provides a great number of failure stories, his success stories are few and far between such that it is hard to get a grasp of whether failure was as prevalent and powerful as made to seem suggested by primary source evidence and first hand accounts. It is impossible to tell from the book if failure, while still being a serious issue of self identity and crisis, was a small percentage as compared to relative successes. The evidence given begs the question: would the government have acted faster to aid those in need if failure was truly so prevalent? The answer is: I don’t know. Nevertheless, the question and answer could have been addressed to further illuminate the culture of failure and its political ramifications. It would have also helped to frame the larger scope of American life and identity to pay more attention to the successes and contributions of women, the poor, and laborers. While not as numerous or as devastating as riches to rags middle class male business failure/success stories, as culture defined these things, it would still serve to paint a more complete image of the situation experienced by all of America, not just business men. This would also include black men and a more in depth look at how failure and success came to define them during the Antebellum and Reconstruction years. Sandage does not try to define, “what is failure?” That is not the point of the book or his reasons for writing it. The book is about how failure was perceived and how it came to define people and their worth. Failure is simply what it is: a lack of success. Born Losers was written to tell the other side of America in an age of trumped success and unlimited possibility. Sandage is not only a great historian, but an excellent storyteller. There is no droning of dry, fact-by fact history here. Sandage paints a picture that reads as easily and fun as a novel, even more entertaining because he is speaking of something real and relevant. There is a lot of humor in the story, but none done out of disrespect. The book, while funny and fun, stays respectful to the people involved. You will definitely feel like you got something out of this book by the time you put it down, whether it be from the vast knowledge or the pure entertainment value. We all love to laugh at tragedy, after all, especially when it is not our own.

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