When he went looking for a book about the history of Boston, Needham resident Daniel Dain said he found hundreds that told different parts of the story, but nothing gave a comprehensive history. So he decided to write it himself.
“I was interested in understanding the city better. I love showing people around the city. I wrote it really from the perspective of a tour guide,” said Dain. But his hefty 800-page “A History of Boston” is not the kind of guide book to pack on your next tour of the city. It’s a guide to Boston across more than four centuries, from before its founding in 1630 through watershed periods of success and decline, including everything from politics, economics, immigration and race relations to sports, movies, music and restaurants.
“It’s a long book,” Dain said. “But you don’t have to just sit down and read it from beginning to end. You can pick it up in different places. If one’s interested in revolutionary Boston, go read the chapter on the Revolutionary War. If you’re interested in the Industrial Revolution, read that section. Or if you’re interested in race relations, there are 100 pages that talk about race relations in the region.”
Dain, a real estate attorney and co-founder of the Needham Land Trust, says you can’t tell the story of Boston without telling the story of the whole region. “When trying to define a city, it’s hard to draw a bright line, so in that respect I consider the nearby towns and places like Needham and Newton and Wellesley really to be part of Boston in so many ways.”
Dain illustrates how geography shapes history, highlighting why land from Needham was taken to fill in Boston’s Back Bay.
“I tell the geological history of the area as well because you could only use the gravel from Needham Heights to fill in the Back Bay because geologically the hills around Boston are the same kind of glacial deposits and gravel,” Dain said. And when Route 128 was built, “the first suburban industrial park in the country gets built where the Needham land had been taken. That sets the entire trend of these suburban, by-highway access ramp industrial and office parks, which changes the character of the American suburbs forever afterwards. And that starts in Needham.”
To bring the history of Boston to life, Dain suggests reading his book with a web browser at hand or with plans to take a field trip. “I encourage people to be active participants in reading about the history, and that people would benefit both from reading it with access to the internet or a willingness to go visit these places. So, if I mention talking about the history of art in Boston, if I mention a painting, go look up the painting on your phone. Or if I mention an historic place, visit that historic place, or if I mention a Boston movie go watch that movie.” He includes a list of 74 historic sites and tours.
Dain had to deal with the enormity of capturing Boston’s history in one book. “I think achieved a book that had a central narrative running through it that reads almost like a novel much of the time, so good are the stories that collectively make up the history of Boston,” he said. “I cut anything that felt like it led the reader too off that narrative path.”
He hopes readers will use the book to gain a better understanding of the region and to consider history as something that is not just in the past, but something that is constantly evolving. “The way we interact with it and what gets embraced changes over time.”
“A History of Boston” will be published Sept. 19. Peter E. Randall Publisher 832 pages $55.