I don’t believe that I’ve posted on books that I’ve read, or am reading, or want to read in quite some time: it seems like this whole past year has been consumed by the dislocation of our local history rather than more pleasurable pursuits! In years past, I always rounded up what I read–even before I started blogging—as a form of reflection, and December is obviously the best time for that. This year was odd not only because of the PEM problem, but also because I’ve been on sabbatical this fall and am writing my own book—so I’ve been reading primary sources and very specialized scholarly texts for the most part, not the sort of books that are going to rate inclusion in a top ten list aimed at a general audience. On weekends and at night I worked through a more entertaining stack by my bedside. I’ve always been a content reader even when I’m not reading for work: some history outside my period, lots of natural history, all sorts of books about books, and books about art and various types of design. I like to read about food in historical or cultural contexts, but I don’t really like to cook. I like to read about beverages in historical and cultural context as well, and I do like to mix drinks (and drink them). Not much fiction, and the occasional guide depending on what’s going on in my life. The first three books on this list intersect with my professional and private interests a bit, the rest are just representative of my varied interests, and the last book is a work of fiction, and one of the best books I read all year.
My book is actually based on Renaissance handbooks, but not handbooks as specialized, and as beautiful, as the one reproduced, in its first English translation, in Pasta for Nightingales, an Italian orinthological study by Pietro Olina produced in 1622 with watercolor illustrations produced for the “Paper Museum” of the Roman collector and scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo. The text features all sorts of charming contemporary ways to relate to birds, including a chickpea pasta recipe for nightingales. This is just the kind of intersection—of folklore and emerging “science”— that I’m hoping to capture in my book. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Edward Wilson-Lee, tells the story of Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, and his thirty-year quest to assemble–and organize–the largest private library in Europe, a collection that sadly went to waste after his death. It’s not just Colón’s constant purchasing of books from all over Europe that makes this book interesting, but also his efforts to catalog them: their problem looks slight in comparison to ours, but Renaissance Europeans actually suffered (a bit) from “information overload” in the first decades of print. I’ve always learned a lot from Theodore Rabb—in graduate school and throughout my career–and the essays in Why Does Michelangelo Matter? address one of my key teaching goals: the integration of the visual arts into historical analysis. Jumping back and then forward in time: ancient history is not my favorite era, much less the horrible twentieth century, but I love Mary Beard and I wanted to read something about the Great War in this centennial year of its end, so I’ve got The Roman Triumph and Jörn Leonhard’s Pandora’s Box. A History of the First World War on my list.
I am including Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, about the devastating destruction by fire of the Los Angeles Angeles Public Library in 1986 in particular and the impact of libraries on public and private lives in general, on my list even though I haven’t read it. It just seems appropriate for this year when I was obsessed with the loss of a library (and she is such a good writer): it’s nearing the top of my bedside stack. My food book this year (so far) is Dan Stone’s The Food Explorer, which is really about a botanist bureaucrat who transformed the American diet through his discoveries in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On to drink: I’m including a mixology book because it’s been a difficult year: gin is my spirit of choice and I’m always looking for the perfect gin and lemon drink, and Gin Made me Do It helped me to refine one. I really am a material girl at heart, and an anglophile, and I live in a townhouse, so Ros Byam Shaw’s’s Perfect English Townhouse, showcasing 14 stunning homes, is perfect for me. Finally, my last pick: Francis Spufford’s amazing novel of colonial New York City: Golden Hill. Rarely do I read fiction, even rarer still, historical fiction: essentially I have to know the author to indulge in that genre. But, much like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, this book just submerged me into into its time and setting. I devoured it: you will too, I bet.