25 Good History Reads
After summer fiction comes fall friction: Many textbooks are boring, so hurrah for authors who have not forgotten the story in history
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Our surveys show WORLD members are great readers, so we’ve now regularized our review process: Three pages of reviews every issue, and four times a year additional articles on children’s books (late winter), fiction (early summer), history (early fall), and Books of the Year (late fall).
Early this summer we published 30 suggestions for beach reading, almost all fiction. Now, early in autumn, here are 25 suggestions for armchair history reading when imminent chores and news flashes are done.
Let’s start with an easy read: In an age of publishers putting out lugubrious tomes that take on vast stretches of history, Hadrian’s Wall (Basic, 2018) shines as a crisp, 150-page gem of historical detective work. Adrian Goldsworthy explains how and why Romans built the wall that stretched for 73 coast-to-coast miles across northern Britain, what it was made of, who stood guard on it, and what wall life was like.
Goldsworthy weaves into that the travails of the Roman Empire, including the advice that dying Emperor Severus apparently gave to his sons: “Love one another, indulge the soldiers, and despise everyone else.” (“Within a year, the older brother had murdered his younger sibling. He was in turn killed in 217, stabbed to death by a centurion in his own bodyguard, and this was the start of generations of civil war.”)
Mortal Republic by Edward Watts (Basic, 2018) tells a story familiar to America’s founders but not to us: How Romans step-by-stuttering-step killed their republic and fell into tyranny. Rome’s government, like America’s, originally had checks and balances that led to negotiated settlements of power struggles, but by Julius Caesar’s time the struggles had become violent. When people then search for a way out, dictators are glad to step forward.
Four other books tell stories that cut against the history many of us learned. In December, Oxford University Press comes out with F.S. Naiden’s Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great. I had learned that Alexander could build a huge empire in only a decade because of his military brilliance, but Naiden shows how he used religion astutely in Egypt and Babylon to become in the eyes of their populations a priest and a demigod.
I had thought medieval Spain was the arena for clear clashes between Muslims and Christians, but Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain by Brian Catlos (Basic, 2018) paints a more complex picture: Muslims, Christians, and Jews fought not only each other but (at times) their co-religionists. Catlos displays Islamic Spain as neither a “paradise of enlightened tolerance” nor merely an arena of military combat, but a place where Christians in the 13th century began winning the culture war: “While Islamic culture would continue to … appeal to the Christian upper classes, the Muslim aristocracy slowly … took on the manners and appearance of their Christian neighbors.”
The third book that upset one of my mental apple carts is Taxing Wars: The American Way of War Finance and the Decline of Democracy by Sarah Kreps (Oxford, 2018). Kreps shows that we used to pay for war by raising taxes, but now we add on debt and pass the bucks to future generations. That, plus technologically decreased casualty rates, may make it too easy for us to intervene in places where we may make things worse.
The most enjoyable of the four table-turning books is Mike Lee’s lively Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government (Sentinel, 2017). The Utah senator unveils heroes who could come from central casting for a diversity chorus: a duelist tried for treason (Aaron Burr), a libertarian drunkard (Luther Martin), a feisty woman (Mercy Otis Warren), a Native American (Canasatego, who taught Ben Franklin about the decentralized government of the Iroquois), the original gerrymanderer (Elbridge Gerry), and a slave (Mum Bett).
NOVEMBER BRINGS publication of As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press) by Daniel Rodgers. John Winthrop was the preacher, and his chapel may have been the main deck on the ship that took him and other Puritans to Boston in 1630. Much of the sermon is relevant to contemporary issues of work, charity, welfare, and class: Rodgers toward the end hits us over the head with his political preferences, but until then his work is a model of clearly written scholarship.
A cover blurb describes Stephen Brumwell’s Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2018) as “the defining portrait of Arnold for the twenty-first century.” If that’s true, it’s because some existentialists no longer define treason as treason: Brumwell writes well, but calling Arnold “a man of honor” is a stretch.
Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt (Regnery History, 2018) is financial expert Gregory May’s gift to a country that may soon drown in debt. Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin emphasized both macro fiscal reforms and micro frugality, refusing to reimburse officials for furniture and firewood because the law made no specific appropriation for those things.
Some historians compare leaders from two centuries ago and now to assert that past standards were higher. The approach gives us targets for aspiration, but I tend to hum the tune made famous in the great movie Casablanca: “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory.” David and Jeanne Heidler’s The Rise of Andrew Jackson (Basic, 2018) comes through on its subtitle: Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern Politics. They show how Jackson’s supporters refused to acknowledge his vices and Jackson was blind to some of his opponents’ virtues.
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History (Liveright, 2018) provides pages of delight with some pedantry mixed in. Chang and Eng Bunker, joined by a band of flesh at the bases of their chests and sharing a liver, came to the United States in 1829. They made money on the freak show circuit before settling in Mount Airy, N.C.—later better known as the model for Mayberry of The Andy Griffith Show—and owning 32 slaves.
Author Yunte Huang’s account lags when he forays into 19th-century sociology and economics, but he describes well the twins’ entrepreneurship and speculates about their marriages in 1843 to two sisters. The bonding scandalized both Southerners and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: He scolded the minister who married them for being “besotted by the impurities of slavery” and thus willing to “solemnize so bestial a union as this.” Nevertheless, the marriages were productive: Their coupling was necessarily odd, but the two couples did have 21 children and now perhaps 1,500 descendants.
Jared Brock’s The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War (PublicAffairs, 2018) is the story of how Henson escaped from slavery, rescued many others, and helped to establish a Canadian settlement, Dawn. Harriet Beecher Stowe said Henson’s story gave her some of the specific detail that went into Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson said, “I have been called ‘Uncle Tom,’ and I feel proud of that title.”
Henson was also grateful to God: Secular books often minimize the importance of Christianity in the lives of their subjects, but Brock shows how when Henson encountered the Bible his “heart pounded in his chest. … He had never heard such talk before. Did Jesus Christ die for me? He paced back and forth. What would have compelled someone to die for a slave? ... A transformation occurred in Josiah Henson’s heart.”
Eric Rauchway’s Winter War (Basic, 2018) zeroes in on another time of crisis, the period from November 1932 to March 4, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural day. Defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover tried to push FDR away from reshuffling the American economy into a New Deal that Hoover foresaw as disastrous. Rauchway favors Roosevelt but reports Hoover’s position accurately.
Terrence Wright’s Dorothy Day (Ignatius, 2018) looks at a woman who didn’t think FDR went far enough. Day, co-founder in 1933 of the leftist Catholic Worker movement, criticized capitalism but stopped short of socialism: She favored private ownership but saw small businesses and farms failing to compete on price with big businesses and farms. Consumers have generally not been willing to pay more so as to maintain or develop a system fostering individual and family economic independence.
Sarah Churchwell’s Behold, America (Basic, 2018) shows how demagogic publisher William Randolph Hearst first popularized the “America First” slogan. By 1940 the America First Committee had more than 800,000 members, including Walt Disney, Henry Ford, E.E. Cummings, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Churchwell could not resist dropping in arch references to Donald Trump.
Daniel Flynn’s Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco (ISI, 2018) connects a homicidal socialist who posed as a man of prayer and a gay politician who preyed on teens. They supported each other in San Francisco, but Jones now lives in infamy for his orchestration of 918 suicides and homicides in the South American jungle, while Milk received honors: a California state holiday and a U.S. Navy ship named for him.
BACK TO EUROPE: Eamon Duffy’s Royal Books & Holy Bones (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018) looks at developments in medieval history about which I’ve wondered. Were those who went on crusades often “penniless younger sons” who wanted to “grab land and get rich quick”? No: Going on crusades was expensive, and many headed east after their families mortgaged land: Religious motivations, particularly the offering of indulgences, were important. What exactly was the Black Death? Probably “not a bacterial disease at all, but a viral infection similar to the devastating haemorrhagic fever spread by the Ebola virus.”
Jesse Norman’s Adam Smith: Father of Economics (Basic, 2018) is a scholarly biography with current applications. Smith pioneered in pointing out the virtues of capitalism but also the threat of what’s now known as crony capitalism. He would have been both awed and annoyed to learn that one lobbying group “generated $1.2 billion in government contracts and assistance to its clients in a single year, for just $11 million in fees: a return of over $100 for every $1 spent.”
In October Basic publishes Adam Zamoyski’s 700-plus-page but very readable Napoleon: A Life, which shows how France’s tired post-revolutionary leaders in 1796 recognized they were riding a tiger—but didn’t expect him to eat them. Zamoyski shows how Bonaparte’s “dramatic descriptions of every engagement, exaggerating the obstacles” and singling out his courage, fit well with the government’s need for wins and heroes. Bonaparte developed innovative battle plans but was not omniscient, although he sometimes thought so—and the mistakes he made from 1812 on doomed him and France.
Stephen P. Halbrook’s Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France: Tyranny and Resistance (Independent Institute, 2018) shows how Nazis made a French citizen’s possession of a weapon a capital crime, and how a seemingly benevolent 1935 law requiring gun registration had fatal consequences for brave resisters five years later.
Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century (Princeton, 2018) shows how World War I defeat did not lead to repentance in a country that had become theologically liberal or atheistic, but plans for revenge. For several years ordinary non-Jewish Germans rode high and thrilled to accounts of military victory, but their comeuppance was severe. All Germans suffered for a decade starting in 1942, and for those in the east torment lasted for nearly a half-century.
Matthew Hockenos’ Then They Came for Me (Basic, 2018) is a biography of Martin Niemöller, famous for saying that he was wrongly silent when Nazis first attacked Communists, then trade unionists, then Jews, “and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Hockenos, though, reveals that what held back Niemöller was not self-protection but ideology—Niemöller voted for Adolf Hitler in the 1920s and welcomed his rise. He fell for dictatorship again in 1967 when he visited North Vietnam, praised Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, and received later that year from Soviet officials the Lenin Prize. Hockenos says Niemöller did change somewhat as he aged, but it’s legitimate to call him one of “Hitler’s early enablers [who] refused to distance himself from radical nationalism and anti-Semitism—even on occasion after 1945.”
Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations (Random House, 2018) is 753 pages of impressive research by a journalist/lawyer fascinated by Israel’s ability to do laser strikes on terrorists, often in Europe, but his summary displays his overall perspective: “The story of Israel’s intelligence community as recounted in this book has been one of a long string of impressive tactical successes, but also disastrous strategic failures.” Maybe.
Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl (Basic, 2018) is a model of journalistic/historical research into another innovation that ended badly. Plokhy’s narrative of the worst nuclear disaster (so far) provides a blow-by-blow understanding of how in 1986 the Soviet reactor blew. Chernobyl shows us moral man and immoral society: Firefighters, scientists, and soldiers risked (and sometimes gave) their lives to extinguish the inferno, while Communist authoritarians, whose mismanagement created the mess, tried to control news about it. The result: Dozens died, thousands fell ill, and fallout sprinkled half of Europe.
FINALLY, an oldie but goodie about what could have been a much worse nuclear day: Thomas Reed’s At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War (Presidio, 2004) sometimes gets bogged down in administrative detail, but the former secretary of the U.S. Air Force chillingly shows how close we came to megadeath nuclear disaster. Praise God from whom our survival flowed.
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