I haven’t done a reading list in a while and I have really been reading, so it’s time. It’s been a voracious reading summer for me: it’s as if I was emptied out by writing my own book and I need to fill myself up! There are the usual random categories you will be familiar with if you’ve been following me for a while: history, architecture, decorative arts, design, a marked preference for nonfiction over fiction. This summer I seem to be more interested in the public aspects of all these things: public history, urban planning, media. History has become so very contentious in our time, and I feel my deficiencies in American history knowledge very keenly. I’m also troubled by the constant tide of development here in Salem, and looking for new urban ideas, strategies and policies that lend themselves towards unification rather than division. My major collecting focus has always been pottery, but for some reason I’ve become obsessed with fabric this year, not so much as an objection of consumption but of production. And I have read some fiction, though not much. So here’s a working list of what I have read or am planning to read before I go back to school.
History is very, very, very public in general and Texas history in particular:
Well the top three books are not only public histories but also personal histories, and that makes them very compelling, although a bit uneven in places. Denmark Vesey’s Garden is magisterial (thus I had to amplify or “quadrify”? it); it’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, examining the very complex story of “how slavery has been remembered in Charleston, South Carolina from 1865 to the present” in the words of its married historian authors. I’m finally realizing now, probably long after most American historians, that slavery really has to be examined historically at both the macro and the micro levels to fully grasp both its existence and its impact.
But BIG history is also important and interesting (and very useful for teaching):
I don’t really understand the modern world so I try to read as many books with the subtitle “the making of the modern world” as possible. This is actually a pretty large genre: you would be surprised at just how many books claim that their subjects “made” the modern world, beginning with a study of Genghis Khan. These are this year’s “making” books: I read everything by Linda Colley and my understand of the 18th century is basically based on her interpretation, so I would have read this even without its “making” subtitle, but I certainly would not have picked The Butterfly Effect without its making claim: Melillo makes a pretty good argument for the centrality of insects.
I’m particularly interested in material history this year: just loved these two books—they are big history too.
These histories of fabric are a bit more than the standard commodity global histories that we have seen over the past several decades (oysters, alcohol, drugs) in that they are about production as much as consumption, and like food, fabric is pretty essential.
Two books with Napoleon in the title, which are not necessarily about Napoleon:
Actually the first book is about Napoleon, but more about the painting he stole from a Venetian monastery, Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, which ended up, and still remains at the Louvre. I believe that it is hanging right across from the Mona Lisa, another Italian painting that ended up in Paris. I’m always looking for works at the intersection of art and history, especially stories that involve theft, and Saltzman’s work was perfect. The center figure of Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime, was an art thief, but much more: apparently master (and short) thief Adam Worth was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Moriarty.
Insights into vexing problems:
Besides the changing environment, on which I think I can have minimal impact beyond my personal and household habits, the two pressing issues which concern me the most are deliberate ignorance and disinformation and ugly architecture. Information literacy has become a much more important focus of my teaching over the past few years, but deliberate, willful ignorance and disinformation still confounds me. I’m looking for some historical context with Ovenden’s book, which I haven’t read yet. On a more local level, Salem has been experiencing a building boom over the past few years with the construction of steady stream of really ugly—or even worse, generic—buildings. Despite the fact that nearly everyone I talk to in town is wondering how we are getting all these monstrosities, there seems to be no opportunity for public discourse. Expectations are very low: why don’t we want beauty in our lives? Sometimes critics are labeled busybodies, but I believe that architecture is public, and so I was particularly struck by the title of Timothy Hyde’s book, Ugliness and Judgement. I’m looking for ways to be a more educated and effective critic: Hyde was helpful as was Charles Montgomery’s Happy City.
And finally fiction!
Well, I read Station Eleven because it seemed timely: it’s about a post-pandemic world! And it is a wonderful book, but not for me: I am not a future-dweller. It drove me back to a comfortable period, and some classic works of historical fiction which I never read, never even considered reading before this odd year. Norah Lofts was an amazingly prolific author of historical fiction and mysteries, and the second volume of her “House” trilogy, which follows the history of a Suffolk house and the residents who lived in it from the fourteenth century to the twentieth, is a Tudor-Stuart treat. In the same vein and tradition, Hilda Lewis’s Mortal Malice is more focused on one of the major scandals of the Jacobean era: the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury while a royal prisoner in the Tower of London, a scandal that involved not only poison but also affairs, plots, and Sir Francis Bacon. It even attracted the attention of Nathaniel Hawthorne centuries later. It’s hard to turn this scandal into a bad book, and Lewis does not disappoint.