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.




No, my PhD topic will not be the various and sundry ways to execute people.  Tempting as it may be.

As I wander home from work, I cogitate on various topics.  Initially, I had to resolve how I would use the money potentially won in the lottery.  Since you can win different amounts, you need to have a general game plan – should the occasion arise.  Now that I have my financial plans firmly in hand, I am ruminating on topics for classes.  What do the little varmints of today need to learn?  How can I use a history curricula to properly influence the next generation?

After spending a week cleaning up other people’s messes at work, two themes emerged:  accountability and responsibility.  I find it shocking how people blithely ignore potential problems and just want until a client complains about a problem.  The concept of preventing/resolving the problem before the client sees it is novel and unwelcome.  My contribution to the workforce of the future is an examination of leadership.  Why is one leader (in any realm:  business, government, sciences) considered more effective than another?

My current theory revolves around execution.  The “vision thing” is critical to inspire people to join your cause.  Pragmatically implementing the programs/tasks to realize the vision is another critical skill.  Some leaders are bogged down by the practicalities of implementation.  Others lack charisma or inspiration.  Great leaders (FDR, JP Morgan, Attila the Hun) give their followers 1) a vision and 2) a plan to achieve the vision.  If that plan isn’t executed properly, history is a harsh judge.

The Moscow Rules

During the happy days of the cold war, in the game of spy v. spy, the CIA developed a list of rules for its agents posted in Moscow.  These 10 rules actually provide a reasonable methodology for living your work life:  attentive, flexible, slightly paranoid. 

The Moscow Rules are:

  1. Assume nothing.
  2. Never go against your gut.
  3. Everyone is potentially under opposition control.
  4. Don’t look back; you are never completely alone.
  5. Go with the flow; blend in.
  6. Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.
  7. Lull them into a sense of complacency.
  8. Don’t harass the opposition.
  9. Pick the time and place for action.
  10. Keep your options open.

Animal Kingdom

You don’t have to be a lion tamer to manage people, but sometimes it helps.  Learning how to train animals can give you an advantage in training/managing people.  To avoid confusing animals, some trainers suggest distinguishing between the No and Wrong commands.  Wrong means that you are doing something incorrectly and need to make an adjustment.  No means that you are doing something naughty and need to stop immediately.  Wrong is a helpful, non-judgemental command, while No implies punishment or misbehavior.  Distinguishing between the two words really does help in dealing with people and animals.

Animals have helped leaders throughout history.  Animals have become symbols of power and victory.  During and after the time of Alexandar the Great, he who controlled the most battle ready elephants was considered the strongest leader.  Marina Belozerskaya explores this topic in her book:  The Medici Giraffe.  From Rome to Greece to Egypt to Mexico to France to the United States, Belozerskaya shows how leaders used animals to show strength and power.  Runaway elephants helped derail Pompey’s political career, while a giraffe secured papal influence for Lorenzo de’ Medici. 

Some of the stories are familiar.  Belozerskaya interpretes the animal’s contribution and details the living conditions for both the animal and the people of the time.  She exposes how great leaders can see opportunities for seizing or securing power in the most unlikely of places.  Her prose is crisp and descriptive. 

A pleasure to read, The Medici Giraffe unites the majesty of the animal kingdom and the quest for power in the human kingdom to illuminate a previously little explored path to political power.