Thursday, September 6, 2007

Book review: The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw

Copyright 1998, Random House, ISBN 0-375-50202-5

This is a book from my parents' vast collection of books, which I obtained soon after my mother passed away and my father is divesting himself of many of his earthly possessions as he moves from their home of more than 45 years into an assisted living home.

This book is about the generation of people who lived their teenage years during the Great Depression and arrived at adulthood during World War II. This is my parents' generation. Although one might argue rhetorically whether any generation can rightfully be called greater than any other, it's obvious that the unique crucibles of depression and war shaped the attitudes and characters of the people of this generation, sometimes for the good, and sometimes otherwise.

Living during the depression can affect a person any of several ways. It can instill a lifelong attitude of frugality, or it can condemn a person to a lifetime of defeatism. The frugal survived, the defeatists didn't.

World War II was a war we had to win. Had we lost, we'd probably all be speaking a German-Japanese pidgin dialect of some sort and living under unspeakable tyranny. The people fighting this war and contributing to the war effort, both on and off the battlefield, learned dedication to duty. That sounds trite, but Tom Brokaw does an excellent job of explaining how this dedication built character.

The people described in the book are, of course, exceptional people. They're the people who later became politicians and industry leaders. But the same forces that shaped their lives also shaped the lives of the whole generation of plain ordinary folks nobody will ever remember.

Reading the book has given me a better understanding of why my parents were like they were, and why they raised me like they did.

They insisted on frugality, for instance. Why pay extra for a double-dip cone when a single-dip satisfies, even if you've got the money? Why throw a tantrum demanding fancy toys when a few pieces of scrap wood nailed together, supplemented by the fertile imagination that every kid has got, will do just fine?

They taught devotion to duty. Get that geography lesson learned, not because there's any immediate tangible reward, but because it's the right thing to do. Go help Grandma do her grocery shopping, not because she'll give you a candy bar, but because she needs help.

Many people of this generation have built up substantial pots of savings, which their children (my generation) will inherit. Do I deserve to inherit anything? Of course not! I feel like a vulture even thinking about it. I hope my father uses his money for his own enjoyment during his remaining years. He inherited absolutely nothing whatsoever from his parents, and he's already given me everything a parent rightfully owes his children. I've got no right to ask for more.

Tom Brokaw has, in my opinion, somewhat whitewashed the descriptions of several of the political and industry leaders. He's glossed over the miserable failings of several politicians who, as we've read in newspaper articles, messed up scandalously. But that's okay. He's provided me with an understanding of how societal forces can shape people.

Perhaps I'm unduly arrogant, but I think I'm a bit smarter for having read the book.

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