Book Review: The Visual Dictionary of the Civil War (by John Stanchak): CWT

The Visual Dictionary of the Civil War, by John Stanchak, DK Publishing, 95 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, 64 pages, $18.95.

This is the book I was looking for when I was nine years old. Back then, I was too restless and fidgety to sit down with Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote. What nourished my budding interest in the Civil War (and history in general) was pictures and, even more, the objects and clothing of the past. Back in the 1960s, that meant going to museums, historic sites, and living history re-creations (like Old Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg) on my summer vacation. It also meant diving into my family’s collection of National Geographic photographic historical books. Such books were state-of-the-art then, but they didn’t fully satisfy my curiosity about how people did stuff in the old days, how their everyday world looked and felt, and what the objects they used were really like.

Back then, cutting “silhouettes”–removing objects or people from their photo backgrounds so they seem to be sitting right on the page–was done painstakingly by hand, and so was done infrequently. Digital technology, however, has made silhouette-cutting easier than ever. Armed with this technology, Dorling Kindersley (better known, perhaps, as DK) has made its fortune by giving young people (and adults) page after page of artifacts that look as though you could just reach through the paper and touch them.

John Stanchak, my predecessor as editor of Civil War Times, helped DK find and select the images seen in this “visual dictionary,” and wrote the brief, kid-friendly text. There is something about everything in this book, so it should prove especially useful to elementary school students learning about the Civil War. Who knows, perhaps one of them will fall headfirst into this museum on paper, and emerge 20 or 30 years later as an editor of Civil War Times!

Jim Kushlan

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