History professors’ recommendations for those who love reading history

We asked faculty to nominate books they have read this year that they enjoyed and would recommend to our alumni.

Larry Poos suggested Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould's Teeth (2016), which was on his bed stand for nighttime reading last winter. It’s a story about tragicomic bohemian interwar New York, and about determined historical sleuthing, all written so brightly and cleverly that other history professors will believe it isn’t quite fair! Dr. Poos reports that Lepore’s take on micro history and the historical trail here and elsewhere “have had a significant influence on how I’ve thought about my own obsessive quest for the principal in my current book project,” in which he is untangling the legal and familial mysteries behind the three wives of Ralph Rishton in sixteenth-century Lancashire.

Kate Jansen particularly enjoyed two books recently. The first, Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad (2016), is a harrowingly powerful literary novel that re-envisions the slave narrative by imaginatively braiding together history and fiction. The other, Marco Santagata, Dante: The Story of His Life (2016), is the latest in a long line of Dante biographies, a genre that dates back to the fourteenth century. This one is by one of Italy’s leading Dante scholars. Dr. Jansen says, “I am learning something new on practically every page and am eager to bring all that new knowledge into the classroom!”

Jenny Paxton nominates Barry Cunliffe’s Facing the Ocean (2001). In a highly readable, well-illustrated text, Cunliffe explores the connections between the various communities of the European Atlantic coastline over the past five thousand years, demonstrating how their common experience of living close to the ocean shaped their cultures.

Julia Young recommends Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime (2016), an autobiography by the Daily Show host that is surprisingly raw, and also provides both a primer on apartheid for those Americans that know nothing about it, and mordant commentary on its absurdities and tragedies. She also stumbled upon Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room (2009) and writes, “Just when I thought I couldn’t read another WWII novel, I was totally captivated by this story about a Czech family that builds a modern house and then must leave it - at which point the protagonist of the novel becomes the house itself.”

Caroline Sherman offers two suggestions that appealed to her in the recent bleak midwinter. In fiction, she was amazed by J.L. Carr’s short novel A Month in the Country (1980), in which a veteran of World War One is hired to remove the whitewash that covers a medieval painting in an English parish church. It’s a beautiful meditation on why we want to recover the past although we cannot even manage to comprehend the present. In history, she loved David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (2017). We live in an age of civil war, but we have little beyond platitudes to help us understand them. Armitage explores how various wars, revolts, revolutions, invasions, and violent engagements (from ancient Rome to today) have been conceptualized as “civil war”--and why.

Our newest faculty member, Sam Fisher, adds to our list Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction (2016). It’s an intellectual history of reactionary thinkers – people motivated by the idea that the key to the future is resurrecting an idealized past. A wonderful book for thinking about the pleasures and perils of doing history and applying it to contemporary life, it underlines both why good history matters and why over-investment in the past we study can backfire.

Philip Rousseau enjoyed two books recently. First, Sean McMeekin, The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923 (2015), which, he writes, “tells you exactly what its title suggests, but with a (to me) richer insight into the Russian involvements during and after the World War. It is beautifully written, and puts all the Lawrence of Arabia/Gertrude Bell stuff in a much wider context, transforming in the process the fuller picture.” Second, Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life (2015), which “is a brilliant construction of the autobiography Aubrey never wrote, skillfully cobbled from his chaotic papers, most surviving through the successive incarnations of the Ashmolean Museum. It’s in some ways a sad book, but deeply English, and brings out both the sweet nature of the disorganized and debt-ridden man himself and the paradoxes of war, regicide, popery and encroaching death that marked his century. Above all, it brings one in close company to an ‘ingenious’ man (as he would have put it), when England was slowly reshaping its dramatic past in a scientific mode.”