From Publishers Weekly
In his latest, columnist and author Burke (Twin Tracks) looks at the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence through his history-as-networking perspective, "an approach I've been using for thirty years... that's recently become known as 'six degrees of separation.' " Spraying historical tidbits like buckshot, Burke looks for the hidden links behind (seemingly) everything; in chapter three, for example, Burke begins with unremarkable signatory William Whipple, considers his part in the Battle of Saratoga, pursues the defeated British general "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne back to his playwriting debut, penned in celebration of the earl of Derby's marriage, for whom a new annual horse race would be named in 1780; from there, Burke is indeed off to the races: the next four pages cover, among other topics, the first strip cartoon, Napoleon's favorite surgeon, the Order of Saint Margaret, the invention of the Geiger counter and the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association which, in 2002, named as its president a man named, yes, William Whipple. The effect is less like connecting the dots than surfing the Web at breakneck speed: an impressively dizzying reading experience with little depth. Readers looking for analysis, or even a sustained narrative, will be disappointed in these overstuffed micro-lessons, but they're perfect for trivia buffs (or those who just wish books were more like the internet).
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The latest in Burke's Connections brand (Twin Tracks, 2003) links every signer of the Declaration of Independence with a contemporary namesake. Burke's irreverent, caffeinated prose is again on display as he reduces the pledgers of "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor" into pithy summaries of their crasser concerns, such as smuggling. Then off Burke goes in pursuit of their modern counterparts. Perhaps Google easily yielded commoner names such as Roger Sherman, who as of 1996 was a church organist, but where does one find a modern Button Gwinnett, especially since the original, killed in a 1777 duel, left Burke scant leads to trace? Leave it to Burke's encyclopedic mind to meet that challenge, and suffice it to say that entertainer Danny Kaye ties up Burke's Gwinnett problem. Loosely chronological, Burke's matchmaking strings together names from 230 years of literary, scientific, and political history, continually springing the unexpected on the reader, sometimes at the cost of a groan but never at the expense of entertainment. Taylor, Gilbert