Judge’s Comments for 2013 Oregon Book Awards finalists in General Nonfiction

The deadline to submit books for consideration for the 2014 Oregon Book Awards is Friday, August 30, 2013. Books with an original publication date between August 1, 2012 and July 31, 2013  are eligible. The deadline for submission to the 2014 Pacific Northwest College of Art Graphic Literature Award is also August 30, 2013. Graphic literature with an original publication date between August 1, 2011 and July 31, 2013 is eligible. Please note there are separate guidelines for the Graphic Literature award.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of award-winning books of philosophy, history, and poetry. Her book Doubt: A History demonstrates a long, strong history of religious doubt from the origins of written history to the present day, all over the world. Hecht’s The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism and Anthropology won the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s 2004 prestigious Ralph Waldo Emerson Award “for scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.”

Here are her comments on the 2013 Oregon Book Awards finalists for the Francis Fuller Victor Award for General Nonfiction.

The Political Thought of Frederick Douglas: In Pursuit of American Libertyby Nicholas Buccola
  …is a study of the ideas of one of the most important figures in American history. Douglas was born a slave, escaped to the North, and became a prominent abolitionist orator and author. Buccola shows us that some conservatives today have argued that Douglas was a progenitor of their ideas because he spoke in favor of individuals’ rights and small government. Other thinkers have responded that as a supporter of equal rights for African-Americans and women, Douglas was a figure of the political left. Buccola gives us a nuanced picture of Douglas as caring deeply about the individualist ideals of classical Liberalism, but insisting that the playing field be fair. In the beginning of his career as an abolitionist Douglas followed the “Garrisonian” idea that the United States Constitution was illegitimate because it accepted slavery. Those who followed William Lloyd Garrison’s ideas also refused to engage in conventional politics in protest of slavery. Douglas moved away from these ideas, coming to believe that the Constitution was not inherently accepting of slavery, and that it was important to work with the government in the struggle for change. From this (less radical) position Douglas argued that our society had to have a communitarian side to it: people could not just refrain from doing harm to others, they also had to actively work to end harm that was being done by others. One way he brought this belief to life was through the analogy of slavery as a pirate ship that had taken prisoners: we know it is not enough to sail away from the pirates shouting that we did not believe in piracy, we have a responsibility to wage a rescue. Buccola shows us a Douglas who was seriously on the side of self-help and the self-made man, but who believed we all had to actively work towards fairness to all, for our own sake, so that we might live in a good society. Buccola’s book is well written and deeply researched and provides a balanced and subtle examination of a crucial American thinker.


Almost President by Scott Farris
…is an absorbing history of the men who have run for president and lost. Farris shows us that they have often had tremendous influence on the history of the United States and that the memory of this has been obscured by their loss as a presidential candidate. Henry Clay, for example, was one of the greatest legislators in American history and was a profound influence on Abraham Lincoln. Farris’s chapter on Al Smith is particularly engaging: Smith was the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for president by a major political party and he endured a remarkable degree of both subtle and outspoken prejudice. It led to a landslide victory against him, but after the election Catholic America was inspired to educate the country about Catholicism and its compatibility with American values. Especially in films this effort resulted in a 180 degree turn in which Catholic priests were featured as the heroes of a number of prominent films. Many of the other chapters also shed light on broad characteristics of American history. Farris shows that Republican Thomas E. Dewey believed Americans would not tolerate a candidate who tried to roll back social security, unemployment insurance, and labor laws and Republican since have followed his lead. Insights such as these abound in the various portraits. Farris also makes the point that in their concession speeches these men allow democracy to proceed in a peaceful manner unknown in many parts of the world. Almost President is an illuminating and entertaining history.


The Bible, the School, and the Constitution by Steven K. Green
…is a scholarly examination of the Nineteenth-Century debates over church and state. The book concentrates on what was called the “School Question” which had to do with whether the Bible should be read in schools and the plethora of dilemmas that surrounded that matter. Early in US history the nonsectarian school movement was aimed at not offending various sects of Protestants – not (as the name “nonsectarian” might seem to imply) at looking after the interests of Catholics, Jews, and secularists. Among the nonsectarians, Bible reading was considered a necessary and obvious part of primary education. For Catholics, Bible reading, especially Protestant versions of the text, was sectarian even when done without commentary. Green shows that antebellum anti-Catholicism was more a symptom of nativism than the other way around—following the massive immigration of Catholics between 1830 and 1850, mostly from Ireland and Germany. The debate around the School Question died down during the Civil War only to reappear with renewed passion in the late 1860s. Protestants were divided because if public schools could be shown to favor Protestantism it opened the way for public funding to also go to schools that favored other religions, meaning the Catholic schools. Some Catholic schools were eager to cut out all religious instruction during school hours in order to qualify for public funding. There was dissention and a great variety of opinions on all sides. With much detail, Green walks the reader through the Minor trial, the movement for a “Christian Amendment” to the Constitution, and the furor around the Blaine Amendment and assesses how these influenced modern church and state controversies. The Bible, the School, and the Constitution is an important contribution to the study of religion and education in America.
The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman
…reveals a surprisingly well-kept secret: many of the great songs of early rock and roll were not recorded by the bands with whom we associate them, but rather by a small cadre of unknown studio musicians. Producers insisted that these more proficient musicians make the records, believing that their skills were necessary to make hits. This was usually to the band members’ surprise, and some were furious that they were not allowed to play on their own song’s recording. The recording sessions often took place while the bands themselves were out on tour – with the vocals put in later – such that the band could be out making the song famous while the record was being made. Famous names at the center of this story include The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, the 5th Dimension, The Monkey’s, Sonny and Cher and many other prominent groups. The collection of studio musicians was nicknamed the “Wrecking Crew” because their style put out of business the studio musicians who had reigned up until the dawning of the new rock and roll sound. Hartman’s book gives names and biographies to these heretofore unknown players and does so with clarity and grace. Session musicians such as Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine emerge as fascinating figures worthy of their own place in music history. Along the way there is much of interest, including a poignant portrait of Brian Wilson and the story of one of the few of the Wrecking Crew to make it to personal fame, Glen Campbell. The vignettes are handled with wit and fine pacing, making for a book that stands out for its content and for its literary merit.

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