Among the excellent books published in 2009 for a general reading audience, Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (New York: Public Affairs, 2009) rises to the top. As a leading scholar on book history and the present director of Harvard University’s dozens of libraries, Darnton is well acquainted with the world of print. Formerly a secure and stable form of knowledge, the codex is undergoing a rapid transformation in the world of virtual knowledge and digital data bases. Darnton’s essays on e-books, the Google book project, open access to textual knowledge, and the future of libraries will provide readers with a trenchant introduction to the burning issues that face scholarship today. Darnton is neither a starry-eyed Romantic for libraries of yesteryear nor a techno-utopist advocating bookless libraries. His measured assessment of the current instability of print culture provides a historical perspective on the indispensability of books and libraries for future civilization. As a bonus, the collection also includes an insightful sketch on the bibliographer D. F. McKenzie, the former head librarian of the British Museum, as well as Darnton’s now-famous essay, “What is the History of Books?”
Should readers seek additional essays on libraries and learning, don’t overlook Anthony Grafton’s inspiriting Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). Grafton forcefully makes the case that virtual accessibility to texts can never replace the scholar’s need for actual books and documents. He reminds us that virtual libraries can only illuminate, not eliminate, the real thing. The “richest possible mosaic of documents, texts and images,” he reminds us, can only be pieced together in the great libraries around the world: “you will have to do it in those crowded public rooms where sunlight gleams on varnished tables, as it has for more than a century, and knowledge is still embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable manuscripts and books” (324).
Since I teach histories of Brazil and of Western medicine, the book that comes immediately to mind is Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping: the Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (U. California, 1993). This text piqued my interest in Northeast Brazil as a research subject, and students to whom I’ve recommended it have been very moved by the stories within. Scheper-Hughes is an anthropologist who volunteered with the Peace Corps in Northeast Brazil shortly after graduating from college, then returned years later as a professor and mother of three to study motherhood in conditions of extreme poverty. Her book focuses on women and children from a marginal community whom she comes to know as both ethnographer and friend. Scheper-Hughes examines the varied expressions of mother-love that are shaped by routine infant mortality. She asks how these women—passionately attached to their older children—adapt emotionally to the reality that many of their infants will die; what emotional distancing do such circumstances require? Clearly a grim study; but in the process of analyzing maternal attachment in relation to poverty, Scheper-Hughes tells her readers a great deal about the social bonds and tenacity that allow her research subjects to persevere. There are interesting analyses of the diagnostic categories used within the community to describe infants who lack the will to live, and moving descriptions of the happy fate that is believed to await “angel babies” called back to heaven shortly after birth—more a cause for celebration than sorrow, in the community’s view. Death without Weeping is a compelling introduction to contemporary Latin American culture, women’s history, political economy and popular medicine, discussed in context of the longstanding neglect of Northeast Brazil’s African population.
At the moment, I am enjoying the novel Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Knopf, 2009), set in a mission hospital in Ethiopia, 1950-70s (and then in New York City). The book’s many characters are beautifully portrayed, dramatic details of their lives set against the turbulent backdrop of Ethiopian political history—and the surgical and clinical medical details are riveting (Verghese is a physician as well as a talented novelist). This novel is a tribute to the beauty and complexity of the land where (I gather) the author grew up.
Several books of the past year merit the attention of all interested in medieval history and beyond. Richard Huscroft, The Norman Conquest, A New Introduction (Pearson, Longman, 2009) appeared on my desk and after I gave it a quick perusal will be a required book in my HIST 268 1066 seminar next spring. It concisely presents much recent scholarship on the Conquest and its impact on Western history. Claudio Stercal, Stephen Harding: A Biographical Sketch and Texts (Liturgical Press, 2008), a work I reviewed for The Catholic Historical Review, is an excellent introduction to the world of the early Cistercians and their special importance to the twelfth century.
Still another book I reviewed this year, this time for Church History, was The Passion Story: From Visual Representation to Social Drama, edited by Marcia Kupfer (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008). It is an outstanding collection of essays on the central importance of the Crucifixion to not only Christianity but also Judaism. The pieces are all by experts in various disciplines but are so visually powerful in their imagery that each merits a separate program in a series on the Passion on the History Channel, one, however, that would not have any clips from Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ because it served as the bete noire for most of the authors.
I like to have three kinds of books as my permanent companions: non fictional, mainly historical, that I read for pleasure; academic that I have to read for the joys of my job; and fictional that I indulge in during my scarce leisure moments. Among the first category I have recently enjoyed and highly recommend Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World (2009). It deals with an old story: the mapping of the world and the identification of America by Renaissance German cosmographers. But Lester tells that story with great erudition, engaging prose, and an innovative approach to maps as cultural documents. With cartography as its leitmotif, the author provides the most comprehensive picture I have ever seen of the intellectual endeavors behind the Age of Discovery. Jan de Vries’s The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (2008) is my academic book of choice for the past year. Three things I appreciate about this book are its clarity, the sophistication of its argument, and the prodigious amount of information it includes. This is an important book that presents a change of paradigm for the interpretation of the history of modern consumer society.
Finally, for those of you with a bit of leisure time and a taste for fictional intrigue, political thrillers, and unconventional heroes, I highly recommend the trilogy Millennium (2009) by the iconoclastic Swedish author Stieg Larsson, whose life and untimely death before becoming a bestselling author is a novel in itself. Larsson, a journalist who devoted his life to political activism against racism and right-wing extremism, became a posthumous success in continental Europe in 2008. Millennium is a lot of reading—three separate books of over 500 pages each—but once you become engaged in the first it is hard to resist reading the other two.
One of the books I have enjoyed most this past year was Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martine Guerre (1983), a model of social history, a thrilling story of mistaken identity, and a fascinating exploration of early modern France, all in one slim, beautifully written book.
I am currently reading Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, by Matthew Avery Sutton (2007), a lively account of one of the most significant -- and strange -- religious figures in 20th century
I recommend a book I read on my trip in Germany: Craig Childs' House of Rain (2007), an engaging and provocative account about the fate of the so-called 'Anasazi' in the Southwest. What promises to be the great, comprehensive history of the Royal Navy is being slowly published by N. A. M. Rodger (two volumes thus far, up to 1815). As for good historical fiction, which is often the best way for getting a real 'feel' for a period, I think that Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth is still very good for the Middle Ages, and the novels of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brien for seafaring in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While in Germany I finally got 'round to reading an older, great classic novel about the age of piracy, Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood.
I spent some of my reading time this break enjoying fiction, especially a series
of detective novels by Donna Leon that is set in Venice -- still working on those
as bedside reading. Highly recommended. The descriptions of food will
encourage mid-night snacking, however.
My current professional reading: Briann G. Greenfield, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century
New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009). An account of the
developing world of antique collectors, dealers, and curators from the late
nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Sherry Turkle, ed. and introduction. The Inner History of Devices (MIT Press,
2008). A collection of essays exploring technological artifacts through memoirs, ethnographies, and clinical case studies.
My latest favs are two recent books on the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century--one skinny, one fat. The fat fellow is Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought (New York, 2007), a Bancroft Prize-winning study of the period between 1815 and 1848. Unlike many historians of that period, Howe, an emeritus professor at Oxford University and UCLA, highlights not Jackson and his Democratic supporters but instead argues for the defining role of a group that he calls the “improvers”—a motley assortment of Whigs and intellectuals, evangelicals and reformers. It’s a fresh interpretation, interweaving social, political, and cultural history, and book’s zippy style will beguile you through several hundred pages.
Skinny—but in length alone—is Beyond the Farm (Philadelphia, 2008 ) by J.M. Opal, a young professor at Colby College Who would guess that a page-turner lurks in his detailed recoveries of the lives of six early national New Englanders? Not me: but when I picked up the book after lunch one afternoon, I couldn’t put it down. It’s a compelling study of coming of age, the shifting valuation of ambition, and the tenor of family relationships in a region experiencing seismic change between the American Revolution and the Civil War. And Opal writes so beautifully that Beyond the Farm reads more like a novel than an historical monograph.
Speaking of which…if you’d prefer an historical novel to the hard stuff, don’t miss Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (London, 2008), which won the Man Booker Prize this year. It offers a wickedly sympathetic portrayal of the spectacular rise of Thomas Cromwell from butcher’s sons to Lord Chancellor—and of the precipitous fall of his rival, Thomas More. Veterans of my History 205 who earned their historical chops by reading Utopia, will delight in Mantel’s depiction of More as a sanctimonious, hypocritical heretic-burner. So if you loved the HBO series on the Tudors and want to upgrade, dig in…
For a highly readable historical novel, rush to get a copy of Hilary Mantel's new Wolf Hall, which depicts the early career of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who became chief minister to King Henry VIII and architect of the Reformation in England and the royal supremacy over the church.. Vivid treatment of personalities, especially that of the enigmatic Cromwell himself, crisp (if largely invented) dialogue, underlying dramatic tension. Winner of the Man Booker Prize (2009), awarded to the best novel published by a writer in the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, or the British Commonwealth. Ms. Mantel plans a sequel, and we await it with anticipation.
On an entirely different subject, Holger Herwig's The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World, which I have just started, is very promising. Herwig is the first historian of the Battle of the Marne to consult previously closed archives in the former East Germany. His vivid character sketches, like those of Hilary Mantel, enliven the book.
Craig Child's travelogue and history, House of Rain. Childs is a self-described naturalist and adventurer who also works as a freelance journalist and sometimes archeological field worker in the American southwest. In this beautifully written book, he interweaves a narrative of his own travels between various sites once inhabited by the people we apparently wrongly call the Anazasi, with information pieced together by researchers over the last century about this vanished civilization. I am not in a position to judge what experts would make of Child's conclusions about the character of this people, but I think he makes a convincing case for understanding them within the context of the landscape they inhabited, traversed, and remade. In particular, he constructs what reviewers have called an "original theory" on the basis of walking much of this landscape. This approach resonates with the conviction of material culture historians (including myself) that actually seeing a place or an object or doing a particular activity also carried out by historical actors provides insights that cannot be gleaned in any other way. I read part of the book while flying across the Midwest on my way to Omaha, Nebraska. The section lines and railroad tracks of a post-Enlightenment landscape oddly resonated with his descriptions of Anasazi roads and signal towers.
John Montaño recently read The Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, a wonderful love story set against the background of a reporter's investigation of an incident during the Spanish Civil War--very sad and moving. He is currently reading Winston Churchill's The River War, and account of the young Churchill's experiences in Africa, including his participation in one the last cavalry charges in English military history. I have also begun Yo el supremo (I, the Supreme) by Augusto Roa Bastos, an fictional account of the Paraguayan dictatorship of the early nineteenth century; for the break I plan to continue my Latin theme by reading the latest work of his favorite contemporary author, Jose Saramago (anything but Blindness is highly recommended) and Roberto Bolaño's posthumous 2066. Today I hope to finish Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship--perhaps not the best suggestion for a general audience.
Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things Anthropologist and material culture scholar Daniel Miller examines the belongings of residents of one street in modern London. A smart academic take on material culture and consumption, but much more. Each chapter reads rather like a short story, telling a person or family's life through their possessions. Collectively, the stories encourage reflection on the roles of objects in all of our lives. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 We read this classic in my graduate seminar and I was struck all over again by how great it was. Ulrich's beautiful prose and careful historical detective work make for a great read. One woman's tale opens up into a historiographically important narrative about gender and the professionalization of medicine. W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk Another classic that I returned to with my students this fall. Dubois prefigures the long history of racial conflict in the twentieth century and offers us the rich theoretical tools of "the veil" and "double consciousness." Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology and African American Culture between the World Wars At the request of an anonymous manuscript reader, I recently picked up this book to help me think through the connection between aesthetic modernism and race. It persuasively links jazz to Le Corbusier to Mickey Mouse, arguing that white appropriation of African American popular culture defined the "machine age."
Two of the most interesting books I have read recently are about Europe in the twentieth century. Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005) is a hefty tome at 933 pages, but it is written with pace, if not elegance. There is no overarching thesis and, as a result, the narrative sometimes rambles, but the book is chock full of stories and detail. Judt offers a fairly traditional overview of Europe in the decades after 1945, although this is not just an old-style Cold-War analysis. Judt questions the intentions of West European leaders and governments, as well as eastern bloc regimes. Still, he delivers up a standard Cold War line about the perfidy, brutality, and failure of the Communist states. If Judt’s interpretations are fairly standard, so is his approach. The book is weighted toward political history--history from the top down--in which powerful men and political parties are important, and their actions determine the fate of populations. Social history takes a back seat in this book, although Judt does integrate some great descriptions of movies to highlight popular trends.
In contrast to Judt’s heaviness, Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (New York: Knopf, 1999), is crisp in the writing. Whereas Judt dismisses Communist regimes as an artifact of exploitative Soviet colonialism, Mazower argues that socialism (and fascism by the way) provided powerful models for democratic economic and social reconstruction in Europe, if not for political organization. Leaders in both halves of the continent were compelled to respond to the populist impulses of these mass movements, or risk being thrown from power. Mazower is much more attuned than Judt to the successes of the Eastern bloc regimes in raising the standards of living of their populations, and he argues that these regimes collapsed, in part because of their successes, and not just their failures. Mazower is also much more optimistic about the prospects of European federalism than is Judt. Taken together, these two books provide thoughtful contrasts about recent history.
One other recommendation might fall under the category of guilty pleasures, sixteen of them, to be exact. The Sixteen Pleasures, by Robert Hellenga (New York: Soho, 1989) is an absorbing novel about the flooding of the Arno in Florence in 1966, and about the adventures of a young American book conservator, Margot Harrington. Margot gives up a rather airless life in Chicago to volunteer her services in saving precious books from the floods—one of the “mud angels,” as these people were called. Margot ends up working in a convent library, where she discovers a fifteenth-century book of erotic drawings and poems. All the copies of the book were supposedly banned and destroyed by the Catholic Church. Upon discovering this tome, Margot’s life plunges into a series of adventures and machinations, at once racy, full of intrigues and plots, and often funny. As the story unfolds, the author provides a great deal of fascinating detail about book, fresco, and art conservation, and about the shady world of rare book dealing in Europe.
Recently, I have also enjoyed Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions (New York: Viking, 2001), by Charles Gallenkamp. Funded by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as a who’s who of wealthy patrons from the 1920s, Andrews organized a series of famous scientific expeditions to the Gobi desert and other areas of “Outer” Mongolia. Andrews was a larger-than-life character, with a larger-than-life ego, and his story makes for good telling. Gallenkamp’s book is not a scholarly history, and it is certainly about Andrews. With a few exceptions, local populations are more or less faceless. Still, the book evokes well the time and place of Western China and Mongolia during the 1920s--of civil war, hunger and brutality, bandit war lords, Bolshevik-style revolution, and the intrigues of foreigners--Americans, Japanese, and Russians--to spy, plunder, and exploit the area. Oh yes, and to uncover some of the most spectacular paleontological finds in history.
I can’t stop thinking about Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, which I finish just around the time of the earthquake in Haiti. I read the book because of my interest in sound, believing—falsely, it turned out—that a novel in which an entire society is overtaken by an inexplicable epidemic of blindness would, by necessity, extensively explore the sonic and aural dimensions of sightlessness. In fact, the novel returns again and again not to sound but to smell, which I didn’t expect at all but was fascinated to find.
The book reminded me of Haiti because of its graphic descriptions of what happens when an entire society quite suddenly stops functioning. The words anarchy and chaos are too cliché to evoke the material impact and immediate crises such a situation produces. The book details what the precipitous breakdown of a society actually consists of, what its effects are, especially in the face of a total absence of leadership or centralized authority. Although the situation in Haiti remains dire, I’m glad to say it does not appear resemble any longer the absolute, abject social dissolution found in Saramago’s pages.
One of the most stimulating books I read in 2009 was John Darwin’s After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). Darwin takes a broad view of the shifting distribution of power throughout the world since Tamerlane’s death in 1405. Other historians have argued that Europe’s rise was far from inevitable, and that its relative advantage was established later—around 1800—than previous wisdom often suggested. But few have argued the case in such a subtle, learned, yet always accessible way. (The book won a major national history prize in the U.K.) Conceiving of Europe as the western third of Eurasia is just one way that Darwin challenges his readers to develop a new sense of proportion about the way different parts of the world have related to each other over the past six hundred years or so. He also underlines the idea that throughout this period—if not throughout most of human history—empires of varying kinds have been a near-constant (and nearly inescapable) feature of world history and global change.
Without doubt the most eye-catching book I read this year was The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet (Princeton University Press, 2008) by David Okuefuna. The book collects some of the most striking images produced in the 1910s and 1920s by photographers working for French philanthropist Albert Kahn. Not only did these photographers cover the world in their attempt to fulfill Kahn’s desire for “an archive of the planet”; they did so using the new autochrome technique for making color images. Thus we get to see the serge blue of the French soldiers’ uniforms in their trenches during the Great War, the lush green landscapes inhabited by desperately poor Irish villagers or prisoners on the Mongolian steppes, and vividly colored clothing from Vietnam to India to West Africa and beyond. For a historian of the period the effect is a little like the moment when Dorothy leaves monochrome Kansas and opens the door to Oz.
In recent years there have been a number of interesting books on the formation of American racial and national identities during the first half of the twentieth century. Gary Gerstle’s book of 2001, American Crucible, is especially good on this subject, and Samuel Huntington’s book of 2004, Who Are We, is an astute commentary on how the identities have shifted in the wake of the civil rights movement, multiculturalism, globalization, and massive non-white immigration. Huntington is guarded in expressing views that are politically incorrect. One can find more explicit expressions of heterodox opinions at Vdare.com and AmRen.com.