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01 November 2011


When I was in college and taking lots of history classes, I realized that if the class did not include a war it was considered "social" history (and it wasn't as important).

I think Time's "social history" list is interesting, because many of the books are ones that changed the way people thought about important issues. But I'm with you, CR, that these books don't seem like history even in the vague way it's usually defined.

Oh, Venta, you've said a mouthful there, with War opposed to Social History (and social not as important, ha), etc. Very interesting. The Time list has a different section for War, so that's why I suppose they were stretching for history titles. Really, I have fewer problems with the titles they picked than the categories they forced them into.

Two books that I loved that are often called 'social history' are Andrea Tone's Devices and Desires, which is a history of contraception in America (http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780809038169-2) and Linda Gordon's The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9780674005358-1) which is a brilliant excavation of a very specific incident but that nevertheless also illuminates the region and American society as a whole. I also really like Oleary's To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism (http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780691070520-5) and Peiss's Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture, about the history of cosmetics in America (http://www.powells.com/biblio/71-9780812221671-0).

I guess I really like this category, whatever the hell it is!

Hooray for underdogs! And thanks for all your great suggestions. I agree re. Nicholas and Alexandra (and his post-Glasnost/DNA era follow-up, The Romanovs) -- biography is often the best way to read history, in my experience. So high on my list would be Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith, about Victoria Woodhull, and Titan by Ron Chernow, about John D. Rockefeller. I also adore a couple books that deal with history but don't know how they'd be classified -- Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz -- that's really about history's ongoing reverberations, specifically the Civil War -- and The Future of the Past by Alexander Stille, which is about how cultures preserve their legacies, physically and otherwise. Sarah Vowell's tone verges too far into casual snark at times but I like her approach, too, in Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates (haven't read the Hawaii book yet).
One thing's for sure: your list is way more interesting than Time's.

I've not heard of any of those! This is so exciting! And they all look great--thank you for listing them. I should read more history in 2011, with titles like this around.

I agree. Underdogs rule. In that vein I also did really enjoy Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit"--I forgot to list that.

Thank you for the great suggestions too. I loved the Horwitz book--that's what I call Immersion History--author learns history by engaging directly with it. And I didn't know about "The Romanovs" title--I've got to get it!

I think all of the titles everyone's suggested have been more interesting than the Time list, but I suppose we have the advantage of not calling these the "best" books--just the best-ish. :)

The good news about the Romanovs is that it's relatively short, for Massie. And he deals with the whole Anna Anderson/Anastasia thing, interesting for a non-conspiracy-theorist who never paid much attention to that story.

Of Time's list I've read only Nickle and Dimed and Working. Several others are on my TBR pile. I've probably read more in the War category.

Whether history or social history, I've read all three volumes of Taylor Branch's history of the civil rights movement beginning with Parting the Waters. Some of the chapters in these books (like the march on Selma/Edmund Pettus Bridge and bombing of the Birmingham church) are so powerful it takes your breath away.

Of your list I've read Queen Isabella and How the Irish Saved Civilization. I recommend Weir and the Cahill books.

In addition to biography, you can learn lots about history from GOOD historical fiction. I'd never even heard of the battle between Maud and Stephen in England until I read Brother Cadfael. Sharon Kay Penman is good too; so is Patrick O'Brien

Why oh WHY did you have to reveal what it is you still haven't recovered from in that particular book I'm not going to name? I WAS eating lunch!

Massie has a new bio of Catherine the Great arriving shortly.

Alison Weir, like Carolly Erickson, is stretching her writing chops by penning historical fiction, often on the same subjects she has written bios on. Why not? It might reach a wider audience.

Excellent, you know me, I like the short books. Ironically I had more patience for the big thick books, fiction and non, when I was younger.

I agree that Taylor Branch is a good author; I've only read one of his volumes, but that was due to time constraints, not because it wasn't good. Thanks for the reminder.

Yeah, historical fiction. I've read some of it but only incidentally--it's not a genre I seek out. It varies too widely in quality for someone like me, who doesn't read a lot of it, to trust it, and of course, 98% of it seems to be about WWII. NOT my subject area, as we know. Although your recommendation for Penman is good to note--others have suggested her to me as well. Thanks!
(I've always wanted to watch the Brother Cadfael series. Have you seen them? Are they any good?)

Hilariously, there's an article about rats in the new New York magazine, citing the very fact you don't want to think about:

I completely understand why authors of historical NF turn to fiction. They've done all the work, why not? The fiction probably does still sell better, I'll bet...

Alison Weir wrote a bio of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and then in 2010 she wrote a novel about her, which must have gotten a local newspaper review because there were several requests. I tried to push the bio, but it wasn't "new".

Oh my goodness. When did everyone become such a slave to the new new thing? I always miss this trend because I often could care less when things are new. Maybe I've been trained into liking the old because you often have to wait for the new when you're getting it from the library!

Chiming in late, but hey, I love history books -- unless they're about the U.S., which hasn't been around long enough to really have a "history" and World War II, which considering how it still dominates our thinking and feeling and policies and national discourse, ought to count as "current events."

(Why yes, I have a bit of an attitude about this. How did you guess?)

It's hard to pick a "best" because when I'm deeply interested in a subject, I tend not to notice minor matters like accessibility and readability. But here are some I love:

Anything by John Julius Norwich. My favorite is his Big Fat three volume history of Byzantium (I'd skip the abridged one-volume version; it omits a lot of the juicy gossip and bizarre anecdotes that makes the trilogy so nifty), but his book on Venice (PARADISE OF CITIES) is just lovely.

Huizinga's WANING OF THE MIDDLE AGES. Yes, Tuchman's DISTANT MIRROR is more fashionable, but I think her research is flawed, and Huizinga pulls off immersing the reader in a totally alien culture, the sort of thing that only the best sff world-building can achieve.

KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST by Adam Hochschild. If you want to understand modern Africa (and trust me, you do), this will get you the background you need. But be warned, this is more horrifying than any Stephen King, more gripping than any Lee Child, and more heartrending than anything by Jodi Picoult.

What else... oh, if you *must* have a war book, try QUEEN VICTORIA'S LITTLE WARS by Farwell. This will give you a better sense of what goes into trying to maintain a global empire, putting down every mutiny and avenging every insult; what makes it really delightful are the ... very strange and eccentric ... characters who were charged with carrying out military matters on the fringes of the "civilized world."

Wow, Hapax, I must now read ALL of those. Could you create a few extra hours in the day for me? Thanks for all the great suggestions. If they're all as good as King Leopold's Ghost, which I have read (and which should have been on my original list), than we're in for some great reading.

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