What I’m Reading this Summer

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.

13 responses to “What I’m Reading this Summer

  • Katherine Greenough

    Dear Donna, You must be a very fast reader! I will definitely read “Happy City” because like you with Salem, I am extremely frustrated, after 45 years of community activism, that Boston completely ignores its own zoning laws and that the designs of new buildings are jarring and inevitably ugly. The Seaport district is a prime example of how Boston ruined a 1000 acre blank slate at the doorstep to downtown.

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    The book about Napoleon and the painting he stole from a Venetian monastery sounds fascinating because I too am always looking for works at the intersection of art and history. I even have a key term in my blog called “stolen lost or faked art”. Plunder by Saltzman sounds perfect.


  • Laura

    I have been so busy working (retirement next year!) that I’ve just had time to scan your essays in the emails only. But when I saw What I’m Reading… even though it’s 5am and I need to start work…nope gotta go read this! They are one of my favorite blog installments (along with your road trips and photos and commentary thereof).

    I’m pleased that I already have half of the books (great minds think alike 🙂 ), but excited by those I don’t, and as I always do with your recommendations, selected some to add to my library. Ugliness and Judgment, Happy City, The Butterfly Effect, and Denmark Vesey’s Garden, and the series of Norah Lofts books, which really intrigued me, given the reviews I scanned.

    I’m looking forward to reading the Butterfly Effect, cause even though I volunteer in a nearby woodland garden conservancy, I’ve always been terrified of bugs. How I got through the 17-year cicada thing recently, with them dropping on me (not to mention crowd-pee-ing from the trees!), I dunno. But it did motivate me to change my attitude and become fascinated rather than terrified!

    Thanks again for your wonderful recommendations. I look forward to more leisured time to devote to your blog!

    • daseger

      Wow, congratulations! I hope you have GREAT plans! The Butterfly Effect was the least likely choice for me, but I did enjoy it and learned a lot. Yes, I was thinking of you and my other southern friends & family during the cicada season, and also contemplating a road trip down there, but it just didn’t come together.

      • Laura

        Thanks! I plan to read more, get back my reading German skills, and become a master embroiderer, and volunteer more in the woodland conservancy. Good that you missed a trip down here during Cicada season–it was awful. They even got into my apartment!

        I wanted to ask you if you’ve heard of this new book on the Howe family (Lord Howe who lost the American colonies) which resources his wife’s archives of letters and focuses on her https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/20/books/review/the-howe-dynasty-julie-flavell.html. “Given her intelligence and wily pragmatism, had she been granted a free hand to negotiate with those fractious colonials, perhaps things might have turned out differently.”

      • daseger

        I have not! Thanks–I think I would like it.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    What a great list. I am also primarily a nonfiction reader so your suggestions are timely. Unfortunately I bypassed THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT by Edward D. Melillo yesterday at the local library. After reading Laura’s above comments, I think that I will try it.

    Richard Ovenden’s work on book burning and THE THREADS OF LIFE by Clare Hunter also look intriguing.

  • Paul Dyer

    Thanks for sharing this list of books. It’s always fun and interesting to see what someone else is reading. And some of these sound quite intriguing, like The Butterfly Effect and The Golden Thread. Fabric and history, there’s something I never thought about!

    • Stephen Fisher

      Finally, I hope, a book that challenges the mythology of the Alamo! Tell us about it when you have read it. i have long believed that the Alamo story is a self-serving, historically inaccurate, and opportunistic one. I will have to read this myself, thanks for the list!

  • ShiraDest

    I’ve loved Annette Gordon Reed’s work, and now I’ll have to check out the ‘big history’ books on fabric! Thank you for this list!

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