Saturday, October 20, 2012

Historically Hysterical: A Review of Adam Selzer's The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History

Title: The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History
Author: Adam Selzer
Edition: Paperback (Delacorte Press, 2009)
Pages: 326
How I Came By This Book: Adam Selzer was one of the authors who came to the Teen Book Festival in Rochester earlier this year. I snagged this book from the library before it was put into the display case because after flipping through it I realized that if I didn't read it right away I was going to explode.

About the Author: Adam Selzer is the author of How to Get Suspended and Influence People, Pirates of the Retail Wasteland, I Put a Spell on You, and Andrew North Blows Up the World. He grew up in the suburbs of Des Moines and now lives in downtown Chicago, where he can write in a different coffee shop every day without even leaving his neighborhood. In addition to his work as a tour guide and assistant ghostbuster (really), he moonlights as a rock star. Check him out on the Web at

Synopsis: Do you know America? No, I mean, do you really know America? Would you recognize John Adams in a lineup? Do you have any idea what was going on around here before 1776? Hmmm, I thought not. Well, you really need this book.

With the help of this book, you'll learn a nifty mnemonic device that will let you memorize all the forgettable presidents between Lincoln and Van Buren in order! (Spoiler alert: it involves pickles!) With the help of this book, you'll learn to concisely explain what World War I was all about. (Okay, just kidding about that last one. No one can do that.)

Not only will The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History increase your sorry historical knowledge, it will crack you up and give you material you can use to throw your teachers off-balance for entire class periods. Identify their lies! Point out their half-truths! And possibly, just possibly, get some extra credit.

Review: I'm a huge history nerd. No, really. I have a B.A. in history. I read books about history. I even bore you all with facts about history (see my Villain Week Day Six post). But you know what I don't do? American history. Yes, yes, I know. I'm an American. I should know this stuff. The thing is, that I do know it. I just don't really find it interesting. I was inundated and indoctrinated with American history for, you know, 13 years of my life. (A big shout-out to my teachers from Kindergarten to 12th grade!) What I want to learn about is other people. Other periods of time. So why in the hell did I find myself devouring a book about American history? Because it's frakking hilarious.

I've never read any of Selzer's books, but his humor makes me wish that I had. In fact, I'd like to see him do other Smart Aleck's guides (perhaps Ancient Greece???? *pleading looking in my eyes*). For those of you who are looking at the title or the synopsis and going, "A book about American history? Bor-ing." you are so wrong it's not even funny.

From the first page, Selzer has you laughing out loud (and learning!) with his recounting of the history of the U.S. of A. Going from the earliest parts of history to the 2008 election, Selzer takes the reader on a fascinating romp through the ages. With features like "Stupid Hats of History," mnemonic devices like "Have this pickle, then five pickles, buddy!" (Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan), and devoting the penultimate chapter to going through the years 1947-1989 using Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," Selzer takes what I (and many others) see as a dry boring subject and turns it into something you can enjoy.

My favorite part of this book are the mini-quizzes at the end of each chapter to help you "review." You'll find such deep questions as:

  • Are you going to eat that pickle?
  • Who was better-looking, Lewis or Clark?
  • What are some good ways to defend yourself against Civil War reenactors who disagree with your interpretation of the war? Keep in mind: some of these guys never wash their uniforms so they can get that authentic odor. If you come up with a good answer to this, send it in. Fast. Please. And keep in mind that we've tried restraining orders and holographic ghosts of Abe Lincoln.
  • What sort of mustache would you have grown during the war? (Girls: You have to answer this one, too. We're just trying to be fair.)
  • Which animal did Winston Churchill look most like?

You do actually learn things from this book and it clears up a lot of misconceptions and lies that are used to indoctrinate teach American school kids. While it's obviously designed for bored middle school and high school kids, I think a lot of adults will enjoy it as well. Yes, it's basically reading a textbook. But it's a textbook with a sense of humor and an author who knows how to engage the reader.

Things I learned from reading this book:
-One of the past presidents may have been gay (and no, I don't mean Abe Lincoln). (And yes, this fact does make me cheer inside. :D)
-Czar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of England look like they could be twins.
-Barney mugging and flapper slang are the bee's knees!
-Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, is cooler than you.
-Even though he ended up doing something ridiculously stupid, General Custer was a genius who made general by the age of twenty-three. I'm twenty-six and still have trouble getting motivated enough to do laundry.

I'm giving The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History 5 out of 5 Gabriels.



  1. Glad you liked there! There a few other Smart Aleck's Guides out as ebooks:
    - Shakespeare (three different versions, for Romeo and Juliet, Caesar, and Macbeth)
    - Grave Robbing (all you need to know to launch YOUR career as a 19th century body snatcher, the smart aleck way!)
    - Naughty Playground Songs
    - Halloween Specials.

    More coming! No word on whether we'll ever have another in print, though.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Adam! I'll have to check those out at some point. As strange as this sounds, I'm especially interested in reading The Smart Aleck's Guide to Grave Robbing. Don't judge me. :D

    2. I don't judge - I LOVE grave robbing.

      As a topic to study, I mean.

  2. Sounds like an awesome book. I love history too, and especially when the History channel actually does history. I too studied European history, vs American. Funny that. But you're right I thought it was all boring too, especially all the hogwash they fed us. Propaganda in place of truth, gosh we're gullible.
    Still sounds like a book both me and my husband would enjoy, unless of course Adam is planning a history channel special! :)

    1. When I was in high school I used to chat online with a girl from Germany and she said that she LOVED American history but couldn't stand German/European history. I'll bet that if you asked someone from Brazil they'd say they hated studying Brazilian history. It's probably the nature of it all, that you get fed up with learning the stuff that you learn most often.

      It really is sad how rare it is that the History Channel does history anymore. Although, TLC isn't really The Learning Channel anymore either. :(

      It's definitely worth a read. Sometimes the humor is childish, but I like that. It's a good break from all of the grown-up books that I read for this blog.

    2. I'll actually on the History Channel in December, on some new show that last I heard was called Fear Files. I'll be talking about HH Holmes, a Chicago murderer. Here's hoping they don't edit me to make it look like I'm talking about ancient aliens or something!

    3. Knowing the History Channel, they're more likely to make it look like you're talking about Hitler or Stonehenge. Those are the only things I ever see them talking about apart from aliens.

  3. Hooray for history nerds! It's my favorite subject to learn about! I don't believe I've ever heard of this one and I'm so glad you brought it to my attention! I think my kids would really like this as well. :)

  4. Adam Selzer are you so hot talking about your history stuff we should get to know each other ;)

  5. what part of Chicago are you from adam?