The National Parks – America’s Best Idea was written by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns who produced the acclaimed PBS documentary of the same name (for a review of the documentary, click here). It follows the documentary closely, so those who’ve seen it will recognize the book’s six chapters chronicling the evolution of the National Parks from Yosemite to modern day. The book is more than just a companion to the documentary, though. It’s 400+ pages are packed full of historic photos, paintings and diagrams alongside compelling and well-written history. Like the documentary, the text is a mixture of the author’s words and those of the people who made the history. People like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. And like the documentary, the historic photographs are interspersed with beautiful full-color photos of the modern-day parks in all their glory.
Needless to say, if you enjoyed the history and images in the documentary, you will certainly enjoy this book. If you didn’t see the documentary, the book stands on its own as an excellent and well-illustrated history book. While written as one continuous text, the arrangement of the book makes it easy to sit and read bite-sized portions without being lost. Each park has its own story, including heroes and villains, and it’s easy to find an enjoyable story just by flipping through the book until a photo catches your eye. Additionally, the book is full of one-page vignettes about one particular piece of history, so you can enjoy the book whether you have 5 minutes or 12 hours.
From the moment I read the preface by Ken Burns, I connected with this book. He describes with words in ways I cannot the sense of awe and wonder, of memories and family, of connection with something beautiful and bigger than ourselves that touches something in our spirit. That same fascination that drew him to this project is the same thing that drives me to want to see all the National Parks and share them with my boys so that they, too, will realize they are something magical. In the words of Ken Burns, “I have found, in places where the narrative of human lives and those of their ‘brotherly’ rocks seem just as important, that some inexpressible something is retained, repairs are made, and we are all, as John Muir so fervently wished, kindred spirits.” It is the same feeling that drove the early advocates chronicled in this book to devote their lives to preserving these places for all of us, and this book uses that connection with our National Park experiences to draw you in and restore a little of that unexplainable feeling even though you’re sitting back in your favorite chair.
I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who loves National Parks, nature or modern history. My one and only disappointment (and the only reason it does not get 5 stars) is the color photos. While the subject matter and composition are excellent, the reproduction is not as crisp as it could be and does not do them justice.