Summer Reading for Historians

Yes, we are all ecstatic that the semester is over.  For those history grad students pondering the link between history and fiction/literature (shout out to Derrida), here are a few non-history tomes to keep the juices flowing over the summer.

As a blanket statement, all historians should read War and Peace.  In 1869, Tolstoy published his rumination on the nature of history.  Believing that history belonged to the people, not just generals, politicians, and kings, Tolstoy was basically trying to write a social history – comparing the life of the military with the life of the civilian.  His humanizing portrayals of the tsar, Napoleon, and the Russian generals will forever alter your perceptions of those folks.  I know W&P can be scary, so our other 5 books are perfectly manageable.

1.  Babel Tower – AS Byatt.  For the linguists in the crowd, Babel Tower explores themes of language.  The third book in the Frederica Potter quadrilogy has our intrepid heroine forging a life for herself in the intellectual circles of 1960s London.  Gender and women’s historians will enjoy the re-creation of the limited choices intelligent women had during that time and can debate how much has changed since.  You don’t need to read the other books in the quadrilogy to understand this book.  The Frederica Potter quadrilogy is a rarity in literature, with its headstrong, generally unsympathetic heroine who makes some horrible choices but never compromises her intellect.

2.  The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood.  Any Atwood is worth reading.  Historians may be more familiar with Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin.  Again for the ladies in the crowd, I will merely quote the blurb on the back:  “Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin:  she can’t eat. … Marian ought to feel consumed with passion, but she really just feels … consumed.”

3.  Cycles-The Science of Prediction – Edward Dewey.  Economists typically study this book.  Humanities folks may be a bit overwhelmed by the formulas and graphs.  You can skip those pieces.  The key point is that human behavior/events occur in predictable cycles.  Yes, history repeats itself.  You may disagree with Dewey, but his arguments and evidence are fascinating.

4.  A Summer of Hummingbirds – Christopher Benfey.  That’s right.  Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all moved in the same circles.  Benfey’s book is part biography, part analysis of the creative process, and part social history.  He explores the impact of post-Civil War life on American art and artists.  Learn how artists incorporated their lives into their works.

5.  Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov.   A classic of Russian pseudo-biography, Nabokov actively explores how we remember and recreate memories in this memoir of his childhood and early adult years.  Nabokov explains how he uses his fiction to memorialize people but is concerned that his personal memories slip away after he has fictionalized someone.  Make sure you get the Everyman’s Library edition with the extra Chapter 16.  Nabokov writes a review of Speak, Memory in the voice of a literary critic.

 

Oppression/Confirmation

I spent most of last week in pharma country, giving presentations to the oppressed souls who foist “medicine” onto the unsuspecting public.  Most of the people in the rooms had the same look of panic, fear, and desperation.  Some aggressively foisted their uncertainties onto the poor vendor (me).  Others appeared resigned to their fate or were making the best of their situation.  The trip definitely confirmed my decision to flee corporate life.

For our intellectual exercise this week, we shall tie the idea of dying empire to the corporate world.  Empires falling are classical historical areas of study, but are typically restricted to nations or tribes.  I argue that corporations are similar.  When the corporation becomes too large or unwieldy, its leaders shift focus from the original goals of the company to merely perpetuating its size.  We must grow larger, assimilate other companies, and expand our power into governments, banks, etc.  Employees live in their own bureaucratic world, ignorant of their counterparts in other departments.  My job is to ensure this form is filled out properly, and I don’t care that my intransigence is derailing a key project.  Team spirit is lost.  We are all cogs in the wheel.  Eventually, the corporation will self-destruct via greed, over-expansion, or chicanery.  (Yeah, I’m cracking out the vocab!  GRE test date is April 2.)  As Rome fell, so fell Tyco, Enron, etc.

For those who prefer a more artistic expression of corporate oppression, the works of Sinclair Lewis, King Vidor’s The Crowd (a film), and Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons explore the ideas of 1) losing oneself in the corporation, 2) the transition from a rural/simple life to the urban/hectic life, and 3) business as an empire.  Orson Welles’ film of Ambersons is excellent, too – though bastardized into a mere 90 minutes.  That’s a topic for another day.

For the historians in the crowd, Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is legendary.  Read it now.

I’m thinking about some book reviews for next week.  Maybe my top 10 favorite history books.  We shall see.