An early computer game that my kids enjoyed in grammar school (about 30 years ago!), was The Oregon Trail. The player had to navigate the challenges (dangers!) of travelling by covered wagon across the western prairie, over the Rockies, to a new life in Oregon territory. It was a tougher world then for school kids as players regularly were knocked off (died) from snake bite, wagon accidents, altercations with native people, and teachers did not shield them from such gruesome realities.
Rinker Buck never mentions that computer game (he is older than that generation). He developed his passion -- obsession -- for the Oregon Trail when he encountered ruts noted to be from that long ago era and walked the trail for several miles as he "rested" during a trip across Kansas.
His memoir/history of the trail --The Oregon Trail: An New American Journey (Simon and Schuster, 2015)-- is a testimony to how motivating a passion can be -- his and those of the early pioneers.
Rinker wisely recognizes early on that he cannot make this the two thousand mile trip from St. Joseph, Missouri to Baker City, Oregon on his own. The one man he knows who is the master of the lost art of team driving is his eccentric brother Nick. Nick is a respected craftsman/carpenter, an expert in handling a rig, and a revertible "mule whisperer," but left to his own devices, he is one slob of a man. Rinker's fastidious nature is illustrative of his compulsive and dysfunctional temperament. Add into this mix three mules -- a breed that earns the reputation of being, well, mulish -- a scruffy Jack Russel named Olive Oyl (Nick's dog, of course), and a rig that is supposed to do what has not been done in over 100 years. How they not only survive each other and the extreme challenges of this grand adventure, but actually thrive in the process makes for a compelling memoir.
But for those who love history, Rinker's sharing his avid research and reading about the Oregon Trail people and lore is most satisfying. Readers learn about the history of mules -- that wise old farmer George Washington enters in to the story. We experience sandstorms and violent thunder storms, and flash floods that are truly terrifying when not protected in a house or today's "outfit" -- a tightly enclosed car or truck. We revisit the story of the short lived but legendary Pony Express, the rise and expansion of Mormonism, and develop a whole new appreciation of how big and how diverse (in every way) this country is. Thanks to the devotees of the Trail who Rinker befriends, we learn the stories of individuals who made it to Oregon, or died trying.
It is a credit to a reading public that this book rose to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list -- widely by word of mouth. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is a page turner -- even though we know how the stories -- the history and Rinker's and Nick's -- turn out.
Readers will appreciate that there is no answer to this question. Often the "best" book is what is the current title I'm reading. For example, I just finished Andrea Wulf's astounding The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World. I knew the name from The Wild Trees: The Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston (there's another fav!) with Humboldt College and Humboldt's forest. And there is the Humboldt Channel. But who knew that Alexander von Humboldt was the most famous man in the world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries? Kings and presidents courted his favor --- Thomas Jefferson was a huge fan. He influenced Darwin, and Emerson, Muir, and many others. He was one of the last great polymaths (one of those minds that is brilliant in multiple arenas) and avidly engaged in and integrating art, history, poetry, politics, with a range of sciences like botany, ecology, and more. Wulf makes the case the because of his interdisciplinary methods coupled with his hands on learning, von Humboldt was the first to promote the concept of nature as a global force.
"One of Humboldt's greatest achievements had been to make science accessible and popular. Everybody learned from him: farmers and craftsmen, schoolboys and teachers, artists and musicians, scientists and politicians.... Humboldt was not known for a single fact or a discovery bu for his worldview. His vision of nature has passed into our consciousness as if by osmosis. It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared."
Perhaps because I think and learn with an interdisciplinary approach (and teach that way), I found this man's story to be totally compelling. As Wulf writes," In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt's insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary."
If you pay attention to trends in education, you recognize a push back from the STEM movement -- science and math as the "most important" subjects, as thinkers like Tony Wagner at Harvard promote the importance of interdisciplinary thinking to achieve creative products.
I wrote a column, Book Notes, for many years for local central NJ weeklies. Newspapers are a dying breed, but the desire to share thoughts on books lives on.