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.

Tom Cohen suggests Robert Caro, Working (2019), which tells the story of his forty-plus years of work as a biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. Among other things, the book provides an excellent guide to the challenges and joys of archival work.

Jennifer Davis reports being very excited about Janet Nelson’s King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne (2019). This is the first really successful effort to write a biography of Charlemagne, a methodologically sophisticated exploration of a pivotal early medieval European ruler, with ample attention to his personality and relationships with his family and friends. It’s a gripping and very readable portrayal of Charlemagne as a genuine human being.

Kate Jansen has just begun reading The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages (2013, English translation 2018) by François-Xavier Fauvelle.  Fauvelle uses artifacts to write the history of the African continent into the history of the global Middle Ages.  He argues that the period from the seventh to fifteenth century was a golden age in Africa but because the written documentation is so scarce, this important history has been forgotten and neglected.  She reports: “It is a much needed corrective, which I am scrambling to find a way to braid into my undergraduate teaching.  And now that I think about it, I'll use it for my graduate teaching too!”

Arpad von Klimo recommends Heléna Tóth’s An Exiled Generation. German and Hungarian Refugees of Revolution, 1848-1871 (2014). The famous exiled politicians of the European Revolutions of 1848/49, like Lajos Kossuth or Friedrich Hecker, were celebrities in the liberal part of the world, in London, Turin, or New York. The great merit of Heléna Tóth’s book is to tell the story of those thousands of political refugees who were never famous, not even during the time when a public rally or a speech by Kossuth and a few other “48ers” electrified huge crowds in New York or Philadelphia. More than that, Tóth provides a very thorough social and cultural comparative history of the two most prominent groups of political refugees, Hungarians and South-West Germans, and situates this narrative in a broad transnational context which includes both the local places of departure, including a few small towns in Baden and in Wurttemberg, as well as the most important destinations of exile: Switzerland, Istanbul, London, New York and Boston. He also suggests “the hilarious British movie ‘Death of Stalin,’” which is fantastic and banned in Russia and Kyrgystan.

Jenny Paxton recommends Wallace Stegner's The Angle of Repose (1971). This novel explores the process of reconstructing the past through the efforts of a retired historian, confined to a wheelchair, to explore the tragic life of his grandmother, an artist married to a mining engineer in the the Old West. She adds: “It's the perfect novel for a historian!”

Larry Poos nominates Paul Freedman’s Ten Restaurants That Changed America (2016).  Food history is one of the fast-growing new niches within historical research, and this book shows why.  “I originally read it as preparation for a new course (Food: A Global History), but it’s excellent from many angles.  The history of restaurants in the U.S. encapsulates culture, economics, gender, and geography – from Delmonico’s to Schrafft’s, the emergence of successive immigrant foodways to the culinary mainstream, the rise of soul food to the decline of French haute cuisine.  Warning: it’s likely to make you hungry, and not just for history.”

Caroline Sherman read Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (2019) and promptly added it to her HIST 601 syllabus for the week on gender and power. It’s a riveting, disturbing read, full of cautionary tales for historians about the assumptions we make about the past.

Lev Weitz also recommends Fauvelle’s Golden Rhinoceros, which he describes as “a series of vignettes that add up to an astoundingly rich portrait of the understudied, under-appreciated civilizations of medieval Africa in all their diversity and complexity. Tales of enterprising merchants braving the Sahara for lands full of gold, Nubian kings commissioning frescoes for churches on the Nile, and South African goldsmiths crafting the priceless, eponymous golden rhinoceros will have you turning each page more quickly than the last.”

Julia Young just read and immensely enjoyed A Good Provider is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century (2019) by Jason DeParle. It’s a wonderfully written, meticulously researched, and extremely readable book about how migration impacted on a Filipino family over the course of thirty years. DeParle follows them from the slums of Manila to Dubai to Houston, Texas, all the while contextualizing their experiences through the lens of global immigration history.