From the Stacks: History

I love blogging about the books I read each month and Eliza really likes sharing her reads with you, but I don’t feel like there’s enough about books around here. Books are a huge chunk of my life: I spend as much time with books every day as Jake spends reading on the web. Between reading to the kids and reading myself, I probably spend an average of an hour or two a day with books (that’s not even counting magazines and blogs!). Books deserve a bigger chunk of space on this here blog, wouldn’t you say?

There’s going to be one more book series at the Nerd Nest: From the Stacks, a monthly feature where I share some of my favorite books from a particular genre or on a particular subject.

I’d love to thank Amy of Lemon and Raspberry for the inspiration to start this series: I got the idea when talking to her in the comments of our Evernote post. A month ago. That’s how long it takes for things to go from idea to reality around here.

I love reading history: it’s much more interesting than dry textbooks make it out to be. Today, I’m sharing 10 of my favorite history books. These books have all changed my understanding and perspective of history in some powerful way.

1. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993) by Ronald Takaki

A Different Mirror This is my favorite American history book. Takaki writes a social history of America from a perspective rarely found in history books: the perspective of racial minorities. The book is divided into chronological parts, with each chapter focusing on a different American racial minority. Takaki, a professor of Ethics at the University of California, Berkeley, uses a plethora of primary sources including quotes, songs, letters, telegrams, and photographs. With these and his in-depth research (you know a history book is good when it has over 50 pages of references), Takaki paints the multicultural history of America. The book challenges the notion that America was built by white people and gives an honest look at America’s poor treatment of racial minorities through her history. To too many Americans “America” is seen as European in ancestry. Takaki himself is often asked “where he’s from” because, as an Asian American, he doesn’t “look” American, even though his ancestors came to America in the 1880s (before mine did, that’s for sure). Without knowing the social history of multicultural America, it is hard to form an inclusive national identity. Through this inclusive history, a better view of what it means to be American can be seen.

2. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005) by Tony Junt

Post War Post War is an amazingly comprehensive contemporary history of Europe from 1945 to 2005. I love how interesting Judt’s writing is. Even though the book covers a wide range of events, it never gets dry. The pacing is amazing! Judt also works hard to present the history without bias. The text is higher level and requires a base knowledge of World War II and its aftermath, but it’s well worth the work. Knowing contemporary history makes understanding current events so much easier!

Want to know what I thought of the book as I was reading it? I read a section in April, May, June, and July 2011.

3. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995) by James W. Loewen

Lies my teacher told me This is a history book by a sociologist, so of course I love it. Loewen examines 12 best selling American History textbooks, finding them to be chalk-full of misinformation, myths, and an ethnocentric and marginalized view of American history. He also includes the accurate history that’s left out of those textbooks. It’s tradition for us to read “The Real Thanksgiving” section of this book out loud in the car as we drive to family parties each year on the holiday. If you’re American and you only read one history book ever, this one should be it, as it will correct the places your high school education failed you. This book was recommended to me by several very good high school American History teachers when I conducted a study on the pedagogy of teachers while I was in college.

4. Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 by (1986) Heda Margolius Kovály (Author) and Helen Epstein (Translator)

Under a Cruel Star Under a Cruel Star is the memoir of a Czechoslovakian Jewish woman that escaped the Nazi camps during a death march and returned to take part in the Prague Uprising. Kovály then suffered under the oppression of the Soviet Union; her husband was unfairly persecuted in Slánský Trial. This book really put the Cold War into perspective for me. For those in Europe, especially those living in the satellite states, the immediate takeover by the Soviet Union after persecution by the Nazis meant a lifetime of suffering for many without pause. When you look at dates in a paragraph in a textbook, that doesn’t really come across. This book makes that time period much more real to me.

5. Little Man What Now (1932) by Hans Fallada

Little Man, What Now? This book is technically not a history book. It’s a novel. But it gave me an understanding of something that was very difficult for me to understand: How did the Nazis come to power? I’m more interested in the social aspects of history. This novel, written by a German and published the year before Hitler came to power, follows a normal newlywed couple struggling in the financial turmoil Germany experienced in the aftermath of the first World War. It helped me to understand better than anything else how everyman could allow the rise of fascism. The couple are mostly concerned with everyday life–they talk about their meager budget in detail–and Nazism is something that rises seemingly harmlessly in the background. Until it’s too late.

6. The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (2002) by Helmut Walser Smith

The Butcher's Tale The Butcher’s Tale is a case study into an unsolved historical murder. The event occurred in 1990 in a small Prussian town: a boy was found dismembered; his blood had been drained in a seemingly ritualistic way. The book is interesting for the murder-mystery alone (who doesn’t love a good real-world-murder-mystery?): the author goes through all of the possible suspects and their possible motives. But what is more interesting is the townpeoples’s quick turn on their Jewish neighbors: anti-Semitism which tore the town apart. The murder took place three decades before the Holocaust and gives context to the rise of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.

7. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel I actually sold this book because I was angry with it, but now I want to buy it again. I know, I know. Crazy. This has a special place in my book heart as the first entire history book I read just for the fun of it (I’m not counting primary sources; I read a ton of those). Diamond attempts to explain why Eurasians were able to conquer the rest of the world. As the title suggests, he argues that developing advanced weaponry, living in conditions that allowed for greater disease spread and immunity, and differing environmental advantages and disadvantages gave Eurasians the tools to conquer. When I first read the book, I LOVED it because Diamond was using anthropology and science to explain the possibility of colonialism: defeating notions that it was cultural or genetic superiority that made these things possible. But that was before I learned to read history critically (you have to view histories as ARGUMENTS and not FACTS). It took reading James Morris Blaut’s Eight Eurocentric Historians and a second read through of G, G, & S for me to realize that Diamond’s arguments aren’t all that valid. I didn’t come to that on my own, an AMAZING history professor I had told me to read it when I tried to use Diamond as a source on an essay (that professor was my Kryptonite: he’d read practically everything, so there was no BSing him). I still enjoyed the book, Diamond still makes some interesting arguments, and, ethnocentrism aside, there’s some darn good history in there. If you pick this up, just make sure to read with a critical eye.

8. Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality and Desire Among Working-Class Men and Women in 19th Century London by Fançoise Barret-Ducrocq

Love in the Time of Victoria Okay, so this isn’t quite as interesting as the title makes it out to be. There’s nothing juicy going on here. But it IS about love and sex. Most of people’s visions of the sex lives of England in the come from moralist novels. But, as this book shows, that wasn’t exactly the reality. Fançoise Barret-Ducrocq used documents found in the Foundling Hospital, where woman separated from their children. These records told the circumstances under which the child was conceived, which paints a surprising view of the courtship practices and sexual mores of the Victorian poor.

9. Night (1960) by Elie Wiesel

Night This memoir is a first-person account of Elie Wiesel’s survival of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the second World War. It’s probably the darkest book I’ve ever read; the work is truly haunting. Wiesel looses his humanity and his faith in God and man as he lives through one of the worst experiences any humans have been suffered through in all of history. This book is not only a study in history, but also in the nature of man. I’ve read this about six times (once out loud to Jake). It’s that good. Jake and I both also love the two companion books to Night: Dawn and Day.

Legends , Lies & Cherished Myths of World History by Richard Shenkman

Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths This book is light for history: it’s good bathroom reading. The chapters are quick and easy, challenging myths about world history that most believe to be true. Most of the factoids are silly: Cleopatra didn’t really have Elizabeth Taylor bangs, for instance, and Marie Antoinette never said, “Let Them Eat Cake.” This is definitely meant more for entertaining than as a revisionist history, but you’ll appreciate the debunking of all of the misconceptions you’ve been holding. And you’ll be a hit at cocktail parties with all your newfound random not-so-useful knowledge (I know I am).

Most of these books were assigned readings for college classes, so they’re heavily slanted to European and American history. This is because my world history classes only assigned textbooks. If know of great Asian, African, and world histories, I’d love to read them.

Do you like reading about history? Do you have a few history favorites?