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The National Parks: America's Best Idea [Paperback]

Dayton Duncan , Ken Burns
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

May 3 2011
The companion volume to the twelve-hour PBS series from the acclaimed filmmaker behind The Civil War, Baseball, and The War

America’s national parks spring from an idea as radical as the Declaration of Independence: that the nation’s most magnificent and sacred places should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone. In this evocative and lavishly illustrated narrative, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan delve into the history of the park idea, from the first sighting by white men in 1851 of the valley that would become Yosemite and the creation of the world’s first national park at Yellowstone in 1872, through the most recent additions to a system that now encompasses nearly four hundred sites and 84 million acres.

The authors recount the adventures, mythmaking, and intense political battles behind the evolution of the park system, and the enduring ideals that fostered its growth. They capture the importance and splendors of the individual parks: from Haleakala in Hawaii to Acadia in Maine, from Denali in Alaska to the Everglades in Florida, from Glacier in Montana to Big Bend in Texas. And they introduce us to a diverse cast of compelling characters—both unsung heroes and famous figures such as John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ansel Adams—who have been transformed by these special places and committed themselves to saving them from destruction so that the rest of us could be transformed as well.

The National Parks is a glorious celebration of an essential expression of American democracy.

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Review

Praise for the PBS series:

“Stunning and restorative, like the parks themselves.” —Timothy Egan, The New York Times

“A masterful historic document, a vivid portrait of the land set against the stories of those who worked to acquire it and then protect it against those who still would dismantle or compromise it.” —David Hinckley, New York Daily News

“Beautiful and erudite . . . Underneath its wonder, The National Parks is really about how Americans learned (or failed to learn) proper stewardship of nature.” —Hank Stuever, The Washington Post

About the Author

Dayton Duncan, writer and producer of The National Parks, is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker. His nine other books include, with Ken Burns, Horatio’s Drive and Lewis & Clark. He has collaborated on all of Ken Burns’s films for twenty years as a writer, producer, and consultant. He lives in Walpole, New Hampshire.

Ken Burns, director and producer of The National Parks, founded his own documentary company, Florentine Films, in 1976. His films include The War, Jazz, Baseball, and The Civil War, which was the highest-rated series in the history of American public television. His work has won numerous prizes, including the Emmy and Peabody Awards, and has received two Academy Award nominations. He received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award in 2008. He lives in Walpole, New Hampshire.

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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The first national parks. Sept. 30 2009
Format:Hardcover
I have been anticipating the TV show but did not realize there was also a book. The book covers the same material, but it was nice to be able to linger over the pictures and narrative. The book examine and illustrates how radical the idea of persevering large tracts of spectacular wild land came to being. The U.S. was the first country to have national parks. In this books the reader meets the famous and not so famous people who fought to preserve the wild places: John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Ansel Adams and Stephen Mather.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  94 reviews
125 of 129 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gorgeous book on the history of the National Parks Sept. 20 2009
By Tim Martin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a beautiful book! Mr. Duncan and Mr. Burns have done a wonderful job telling the history of our National Park system. The book clearly shows the depth of the 30-odd years that they have been working on their project. As the sub-title of the book indicates, this is "an illustrated history." The illustrations alone are worth the price of the book. You won't see the usual travel guide and brochure shots in this book. Instead you will find hundreds of historic and contemporary photos of the National Park system. I cannot imagine the amount of research that went into assembly and organizing all of these photos. They are simply gorgeous.

The text is very informative and provides you with a good history of the National Park system. You will learn a lot about the history of our nation when you read this book. Each chapter also has an interview with someone who is part of the Park Service or has close connections with the Service. These interviews (no surprise here) help bring to life that topics of the text. Being a Ken Burns project, the text tells the big story through little stories: history is personalized and seen through the eyes of the participants.

Simply put, this is a book to linger over and savor. It is a coffee table book in the truest sense: you will want to keep it within easy reach. This is a book to inspire you to daydream and ponder. It will enrich your experiences of our National Parks and you will find yourself planning years of vacations! If you have any interest in our National Park system, you must buy this book. You will not regret it for one second! Enjoy!
86 of 92 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute treasure Sept. 22 2009
By Scott Chamberlain - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Let me first point out that I'm just reviewing the companion book to Ken Burns' PBS show--having not (yet!) seen the show I make no attempt at discussing how it relates to the TV program. This is simply a look on how the book holds up on its own merits.

And let me say it is an eye-popper! As a coffee table book alone, it succeeds wildly, with all kinds of stunning photos that make you want to grab the kids and hit the road. What is particularly enjoyable is that it uses a whole range of illustrations--besides glorious contemporary photos of these magnificent landscapes, there are fascinating historic photos in B&W and photos of the various cranks, caretakers and visionaries whose lives were so deeply entwined with the park. There are also a number of beautifully reproduced photos of paintings from the Hudson River school of painting back in the mid-1800s that not only sparked interest in America's landscapes but created one of the first great artistic movements in our country.

And as always, it's amazing how landscapes can communicate such profound, and profoundly human emotions, even when there are no people depicted. The simple visual of a lone tree, buried under a heavy canopy of snow and placed against a blank winter landscape can convey loneliness on such a powerful unconscious level. Or how a sunrise on the rim of the Grand Canyon can convey majesty beyond any human description. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.

But what makes this so much better than a photo essay of great landscapes is the wonderful written content that frames the illustrations. The text brings these magnificent parks back into the realm of human beings. Again and again we read about how determined individuals, communities, businesses and even bureaucrats *created* these parks, fighting tooth and nail to preserve these natural wonders for us all. Along the way we meet all kinds of fascinating people, and learn to admire their fortitude--or chuckle at their eccentricities. The text is well assembled and flows smoothly, and is as large in its scope as the Grand Canyon itself. Absolutely riveting.

But this also brilliantly shows the character of Americans--we the people. This is a tour-de-force civics lesson on patriotism, of making the country better and making the government serve us, and should be joyously read by every American. Which, I bet, was precisely Ken Burns' goal all along.

This is a book that everyone--left, right, northerner, southerner, African-American, Latino, Caucasian... EVERYONE--should love and cherish. What an incredible country we share! And what a spectacular book that does justice to it!
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If You're More Into Books Than Movies... Oct. 20 2009
By Tim Challies - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Ken Burns is easily the cream of the crop when it comes to documentary film making (take that, Michael Moore!). The Civil War, The War, Baseball...his credentials go on and on. Each of his documentaries has been amazing in its own way. His latest film is called The National Parks and like its predecessors, it is accompanied by a coffee table book. I was rather surprised to see that book, with its $50 price tag, spring onto the list of bestsellers and remain there for a couple of weeks.

Coming in at over 400 pages and weighing about as much as a small car, The National Parks is chock full of both text and pictures. The book follows the same format as the film, offering six chapters that cover roughly the same material. Chapters average fifty or sixty pages and they are split roughly evenly between text and photographs. The text is interesting enough, describing the genesis of "America's best idea." The photographs are often stunning, showing some of the most amazing scenery America has to offer. My only complaint, if we can label it that, is that the paper used in the book could use a bit more gloss in order to really make those pictures pop. Nevertheless, even as they are, they provide amazing evidence of the beauty to be found in America's parks.

What gripped me as I read the book was the beautiful simplicity of the idea behind the National Parks. In days past and in other nations, the richest people, the most powerful people, had been able to have their nature preserves, their areas of unbroken and pure land. They had been able to set aside these little bits of paradise for themselves and had been able to enforce privacy, ensuring that the commoners were kept far away. In America, though-the land of free-vast areas of land were set aside specifically for the common man. The National Parks were to be held in trust by the nation for the benefit of all Americans in all of time. The parks were an investment in the future. One needs only look to Niagara Falls to see what happens when such stunning scenery goes unprotected. There is hardly a square inch of the Falls that is not in some way defiled, in some way exploited. It is due to the efforts of those who fought for the National Parks that Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Badlands and all these other areas remain largely undefiled. America's best idea is really in some ways her simplest. Many generations have benefited from it already and many more will continue to do so. America would not be what she is without her National Parks.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Attractive Subject - Oct. 26 2009
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
It's hard to go wrong providing a book about our national parks. The narrative covers the history or our parks - now numbering nearly 400 sites and 84 million acres. It is not a tour guide, nor a list of inns and lodges to stay at.

Duncan and Burns visit each of our major parks, beginning with Yosemite, telling of early travelers (James Hutchings - 1855, in the case of Yosemite) and their experiences, the efforts required to have the area set aside and preserved for everyone, and their sometimes incompetent initial administration. Perhaps surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson is included - he paid King George 20 shillings for Virginia's Natural Bridge, a limestone arch 215 feet high spanning a gorge carved by a tributary of the James River. Jefferson viewed it as a public trust, and it has since been preserved and added to our park system. Early threats to our national treasures are also covered - eg. by the 1860s every overlook on the American side of Niagara Falls was owned by a private landowner charging a fee.

Returning to Yosemite, readers also learn that John Muir applied for the job of sawmill operator at Hutchings Yosemite Inn in 1869, and went on to become our foremost naturalist. Yellowstone's initial preservation efforts benefited from a group hoping to boost volume on the planned Northern Pacific train route.

Duncan and Burns continue their story and photos - across the nation.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The National Parks America's Best Idea Oct. 26 2009
By John Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book is a thorough and comprehensive explanation of the origin and development of the National Park System. The photos are top notch. This will be a great reference book for helping to plan visits to the various national parks and other national sites.
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