The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914
I don't know about you, but for most of my life I had no idea of how incredibly big and dangerous and expensive and controversial and exciting the Panama Canal project was, or about the spectacular failures and side issues associated with it. I'd even visited the Panama Canal, but it just didn't register with me, from where I was at, that this was really much more than the result of tedious ditch digging for maybe a few years and then the building of fairly standard structures. I waved at people on the ships in the canal and they waved back at me on shore, and I had great fun watching the locks open and close, but until I stumbled across McCullough's book several years ago I never really thought about what it took to build the locks or the waterway. Shame on me.
I was in need of an education and this book gave me one, not just on the canal itself but on the swirling activities of people and governments jockeying for influence or trying to shift blame or find a way out of disaster, or taking credit whether it was due or not. (People are interesting, aren't they?)
It was also a good read, as I recall. (David McCullough's books generally are, if you don't know.) What more could you ask of a nonfiction book for laymen?
As it happened, the Panama Canal opened just as World War I broke out. The news of the great triumph in the Americas got buried underneath news of despair and horror in Europe; another reminder, I guess, that our ancestors didn't have a calm, rational world to work in any more than we do, and that their best plans and hopes got dashed now and then, too.
This is one of the author's early works, c. 1977, but it's still in print. In fact, it's in print in paperback, hardback, and several varieties of audiobook. And yes, a David McCullough book read by Edward Herrmann is my idea of good casting, if you're wondering. (I haven't heard this particular audio book, but I have enjoyed Herrmann's narration of other projects.)
As of post time, Barnes & Noble also had a bargain book version of the audiobook available. Precise format isn't listed but I'm guessing it's audiotape: The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914.