Classes have just ended and after grading I will attack the big pile of books by my bedside: I’ve already dipped into one or two but I have a full month with very few obligations ahead of me to really indulge. As I’ve been consumed with writing my own book (out in February) over the past few years, along with teaching and everything else, I haven’t had much time to read generally and broadly, so I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks. My list below is about as general and broad as I get: when I don’t have to read history for scholarship or teaching I tend to read histories of periods and places which I do not write or teach about. I’d love to read more fiction over the next month, but nothing has caught my attention except for the sole work of historical fiction below—and only because it’s related tangentially to my next project.
So here we go, beginning with two books that fall into the category of personal history:
Mr. Atkinson’s Rum Contract is an amazing personal history of Richard Atkinson’s own family, including his namesake forebear, a British merchant with considerable interests in the West Indies in the late 18th century who acquired the lucrative contract to supply the British army in North America with rum and other essentials during the American Revolution. This is a “warts and all” family history, as the family fortune was based as much on slavery as it was on sugar and land, of course, and one told in a truly captivating manner. Lotharingia is the last of Simon Winder’s surveys of central European travelogue history, following Germania and Danubia. I liked both of these books: they are rather breezy but still engaging and it’s easy to skip over the occasional boring bits. Lotharingia is the “land in between” established by the terms of the Treaty of Verdun in 843, which divided Charlemagne’s empire between his three grandsons: younger brothers Louis the German and Charles the Bald received lands east of the Rhone River and West Francia, respectively, while the eldest brother Lothar received the imperial title and “Francia Media”, a long strip of territory encompassing the Low Countries, parts of modern Germany and France, Switzerland, and much of northern Italy. A place of shifting boundaries and perspectives, for sure.
Since we are back in the early middle ages, I must admit that I have to do some work over the break: I’m teaching our early world civilization survey for the first time in a decade or so, so I must delve into some global history: Silk Road scholar Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000 will be very helpful, and I’m hoping that Gary Paul Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels and Caravans, written from a more personal and cultural perspective, will provide me with some great “spicy” anecdotes.
And speaking of spices, I also want to use this break between semesters to do some background reading on my next project: a history of saffron in medieval and early modern England. A storied spice, a wonder drug, used in medical and culinary recipes and as a dyestuff, saffron has many threads to follow—through economic, social, cultural and even political history. I’m going to start with its most obvious attribute, its color, and then expand into some textile history. I’m not sure whether or not Atlantic sericulture will have much bearing on my understanding of saffron cultivation, but I’ve met Ben Marsh so I want to read his magisterial book (and you might know him too, from his family’s viral pandemic rendition of “One Day More”—he’s a Renaissance Man!) And then there is A Net for Small Fishes, Lucy Rago’s fictional account of the “Overbury Affair” in which Mrs. Anne Turner, she of the conspicuous yellow ruff, was implicated in the murder by poisoning of courtier Thomas Overbury and executed in 1615. There’s even a fictional Salem connection, as Nathaniel Hawthorne includes Anne Turner in The Scarlet Letter as a friend of suspected witch Mistress Hibbins, even teaching her how to color her ruffs yellow. Anne Somerset’s Unnatural Murder is a more straightforward account of the murder of Overbury set against the backdrop of poisonous Jacobean court culture.
I think I always include books about gardening on my lists, and this one is no exception. I like whimsical, personal books about gardening as an activity, but also cultural histories of evolving landscapes and horticulture: The Morville Hours is a perfect example of the former, and The Acadian Friends of the latter. It would be nice if someone would buy me the forthcoming Architects of the American Landscape and Nature and its Symbols, a reference book from Lucia Impelluso and the Getty Museum.
Finally, two texts focused on the interpretation of history for the general public, a constant concern and interest of mine. The United States is in the midst of a real reckoning (as opposed to a pandering PEM-esque reckoning) about its history and understanding of slavery, and Clint Smith’s bestselling How the Word is Passed is the very next book I want to read about this important process. Here in Salem, there’s very little reckoning; just an increasing amount of ghosts! All summer long, I was hearing ghost stories on the streets of Salem and I feel like I’m surrounded by their professional proponents. This fall, I went to a talk by a very prominent head of interpretation at a very prominent New England heritage organization and in the Q and A I asked him about ghost stories as history and he replied that ghost stories are history. While I understand and agree with that statement to a point, I’ve gone beyond my comfort level and so want to read up a bit more on dark or “paranormal tourism”: Haunted Heritage is about the scene in York, known as Great Britain’s most “haunted” city, so it should be just the ticket.