"The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal" (John Wiley & Sons), by Tom McBride and Ron Nief. Mindset Lists began as a simple way to help professors at a small Wisconsin college better relate to their students. Now, on a larger scale, the lists have proven to be a mesmerizing way to retell American history.
College officials Tom McBride and Ron Nief developed the first Mindset List in 1998. It offered scores of one-liners describing events that happened before the incoming freshmen were born, reminding professors that references to those events could draw blank stares.
McBride and Nief made fresh lists every year, describing cultural references the entering class had — or hadn't — grown up with. The lists of music, pop culture, technology and current events became increasingly popular, serving as lighthearted reminders of the latest generation gap.
Eventually McBride and Nief realized their technique could tell a larger story about the evolution of U.S. culture. So they went back and created 10 new lists spanning the last 130 years. They envisioned how the lists would have looked for high-school students ranging from the Class of 1898 to the Class of 2009. For good measure, they developed one for the Class of 2026 as well.
They compiled the results in "The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal." The book is an eminently pleasing — and often absorbing — look at life in the U.S. through the generations. Rather than simply recount what happened, the authors describe how each new generation's view of the world evolved and diverged from that of their parents.
— Class of 1918: "The average speed limit for automobiles has doubled from 20 mph to a blinding 40 mph."
— Class of 1931: "Families, however infrequently, have always been able to make telephone calls across the country."
— Class of 1957: "They haven't used a bottle of ink since seventh grade."
— Class of 1983: "They've never needed to worry about being drafted."
— Class of 1996: "There have always been Elvis impersonators, but no Elvis."
— Class of 2009: "Swiping has always referred to how you buy something, not how you steal it."
Each chapter starts with a Mindset List and then follows with narrative that adds the full context.
The authors' writing style is especially effective. For example, instead of blandly listing the life expectancy in the year 1900, they note that the Class of 1918 rarely knew its grandparents for long, if at all.
The book seems to have something for everyone. Beyond the big-picture history lesson, there's the nostalgia of reading about your generation and the enlightening aspect of learning about the world your parents and grandparents knew. You'll also feel old when you're reminded that items from your childhood are considered ancient by kids today.
But such is life. Indeed, that seems to be the authors' main point — that life moves on, that all new things inevitably become old.
However, in McBride's and Nief's capable hands, the lesson is delivered soothingly. They remind us that no matter when we grew up, we should appreciate our generation's contribution to the nation — that no matter when we lived, we were part of history in the making.