I always do a book post at this time of year for several reasons: it’s fun to go through the mental process of compiling “best of” lists, I like to offer gift suggestions, and the time between semesters is always one of intense reading for me. This year, I’m a little late for gift suggestions, but the two other inspirations apply: I read some great books over the past summer and I have my usual stack of unread books right by my bedside, all ready for December 26. This was the year that I published my own book, so I had more time for reading, but now I’ve just finished proposals for two new books, so the next year might not be so free (hopefully). I want to take advantage of the time that I have to read as much as I can, and I’m driven to learn more about: 1) Ukraine (because war); 2) commodities and trade in the pre-modern world (because saffron, the subject of one of my proposed books; 3) information dispersion, broadly defined (because academic+general interest); 4) the history of science (because academic+general interest); 5) early American history (because Salem, the subject of the other proposed book); and anything to do with design (just because). No fiction recommendations here, sorry: I like fiction, I try to read fiction, but I just don’t seem to be able to finish novels at this point in my life. I put them down because I get curious about something: there are dog-eared spine-cracked books all over the house! So here goes: this is a “best of” list of what I’ve read or was on my radar in 2022 rather than what was published this year, and it’s pretty academic, but there are some fun and beautiful books here too.
Ukraine: I read Yale historian Marci Shore’s The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of the Revolution this past summer (and into September—it took me a while): I really learned a lot. My Ph.D. is in European comparative history, but boy, this book made me realize how little I know about Eastern Europe—and the twentieth century. The Ukrainian Night places the Crimean crisis of 2014 in historical context and thus also provides the context for the current crisis, and it is very much a personal, “intimate” history rather than an academic tome. I picked up Polish journalist Pawel Pieniazek’s Greetings from Novorossiya (2017) for more personal history of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and Timothy Snyder’s introduction: the latter (also at Yale) is my guide to everything Ukraine on Twitter (still). I imagine we’ll get “first-draft” histories of the Russian assault and Ukrainian response soon.
The demand, supply, consumption, and exchange of a range of commodities in the late medieval and early modern world are all academic and personal interests of mine, and 2022 was a banner year for books on all sorts of economic history. Any former student of mine will tell you that I believe that the Black Death was the most consequential event ever, for a variety of reasons, so I have been waiting for Belich’s book forever. It’s brilliant, and ties together all the trends and themes I have been teaching for years. I wanted to assign it to my undergrads this past semester, but I thought it would be a bit much for them. Future grad students, however, are duly “warned.” In terms of economic dominance in the world the plague made, it’s increasingly all about the Dutch, so Pioneers of Capitalism. The Netherlands 1000-1800 is a welcome book too. I like its long time span: too often the Dutch “Golden Age” seems to spring from a rather shallow pool. Anne Gerritsen’s The City of Blue and White has been by my bedside for a year or so, but I recently moved it to the top of the stack.
The City of Blue and White is definitely calling me, but it will probably have to wait until I have finished Pamela H. Smith’s latest book From Lived Experience to the Written Word. Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World as I’m reviewing it for an academic journal. I wish I had read this book before I wrote my own, but Smith is a prolific and active scholar so I had the benefit of her prior publications. She teaches at Columbia, where she is also the Director of the Center for Science and Society and its Making and Knowing Project, which “explores the intersections between artistic making and scientific knowing.” There’s nothing new about “maker culture” and it was far more robust and fluid in the early modern era, when making became knowing. Jumping up a century or so and into the realm of visual information dissemination, I am obsessed with the new book series from San Francisco’s Visionary Press : Information Graphic Visionaries, edited by RJ Andrews, who told Print magazine’s Steven Heller that he is “obsessed with craft. To me, the most fascinating thing is to understand the story behind how something came to be.” That’s just how I feel, so I wish I had put these three books on my Christmas list. I’ll just have to buy them myself, beginning with volume on Emma Willard’s history maps (the “Temple of Time,” above, is just one) which are just fascinating in so many ways.
Speaking of ambitious and confident Victorians who believed in progress passionately, Iwan Rhys Morus’s How the Victorians Took Us to The Moon is a survey of nineteenth-century British innovators as well as the innovative “spirit” of their era. It’s a bit biographical for me but that approach definitely increases its accessibility. The other history of science, broadly and brilliantly focused, which I purchased this year is Lorraine Daston’s Rules: A Short History of What We Live By. I thought it would be a good aid for teaching, but I just devoured it, and find myself picking it up often: reference and readability: you can’t beat that!
My Salem State colleagues and I are collaborating on a book of essays for Salem’s 400th anniversary in 2026 and I’m going to have to do a deep dive into several periods of American history for my contributions. Since I’m not an American historian, I need some foundations, and I really like the “American Beginnings” series from the University of Chicago. Three series books are above: the first two explore a topic that my colleague Dane Morrison has been working on for a while: how trade to the East in particular and maritime history in general contributed to the formation of American identity. Dane has a book out this year too: Eastward of Good Hope. Early America in a Dangerous World. Salem was absolutely central to this expansive trade and thus to America’s emerging identify, and this is the broad context that we want for our book.
I’m just realizing that this is a very serious list so let’s lighten it up a bit! I’m not sure it’s an actual genre, but my favorite books to read for pleasure are “house stories” focused on houses and their evolution over time, along with, and because of, the people who lived in them. Here are three examples I picked up this year:
I absolutely hated the recent Netflix series on Anne Boleyn, Blood, Sex & Royality: it is that same weird hybrid documentary drama approach last seen in The Last Czars, which remains the most appalling historical “thing” I have ever seen. It’s so odd to see the main characters, actual historical people, engaging in intimacies followed by the commentary of a talking head. Anyway, one of the talking heads in Anne’s story, Owen Emerson, is one of the authors of The Boleyns of Hever Castle, which I absolutely love. I bought the book after I viewed the program, just to get all the horribly imagery of the latter out of my head, and it did. Clive Aslet’s The Story of the Country House is just wonderful, and I think Ruth Dalton’s Living in Houses. A Personal History of English Domestic Architecture (over four centuries) is going to be great too: I do hope I have time to read it. As you can see, I really need some stories of houses outside of Britain, so please send recommendations! Merry Christmas to all, and to all: try to reserve the week between Christmas and New Year’s for yourself: for reading (or whatever else you like to do).