Christmas crowds: they must be good for something, right?


Crowds of peasants amble through Sleeping Beauty’s castle

A reader writes:

Dear Historiann,

For a Christmas gift exchange, I’m buying a present for someone I don’t know very well . When I asked someone who knew her much better what would work, I was told, books, and history – “not too academic, but not dumbed down”. She’s read a lot about the (American) Civil War, and history generally. So I would like to crowdsource my Christmas shopping to your readers. What recent books would you put in the category of not dumbed down, but not too academic, interesting to a curious informed reader?

Well, friends:  what do you think?  I assigned Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering:  Death and the American Civil War (2008) to a senior seminar a few years ago, and it went over really well.  I found the book fascinating and *I* could see the interventions she made in the historiography, but I don’t think they would distract a non-academic reader.

(Whether or not one would want to give a book about death for Christmas–well, that’s another question, isn’t it?  Maybe I should brace myself for a follow-up Dear Historiann letter, in which a reader wonders why a Secret Satan Santa gave her a book about death and what it might mean about their relationship.)  

Another idea:  I love the books of Joan DeJean, who’s a serious scholar but writes clever, accessible books about ancien régime France and the high life in the courts of the Bourbon kings.  I remember buying her book The Essence of Style (2005) on a whim, and loving it.  As in, it was un-put-downable I loved reading it so much.  (And DeJean’s books might be a little more Christmas-season appropriate than titles about death.)  Readers, do you have any ideas for my correspondent?  Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.

To any friends or family members who read this blog, I’ll just state outright that I haven’t done any Christmas shopping and I’m not at all stressed out about this.  Children excepted, If I manage to give you something before Martin Luther King day, I’m going to call it good enough!  I’ll admit that I’ve been almost completely in denial about the holidays because it’s in the 60s and 70s and sunny here, but also because I’m on sabbatical from a lot of things.  Like cooking, and worrying about Christmas.  Fa la la la, la la la la!  

I should do this every year!

But there’s another reason I haven’t been worrying about Christmas this year, and that is that I’ve been working on giving myself–and my editor–the best Christmas present of all–a 100% complete book manuscript.  Yes, I am selfish–but selfish feels really, really good.  Selfish selfish selfish!  (Remember that post?  That was a good one!)

20 thoughts on “Christmas crowds: they must be good for something, right?

  1. I haven’t read it myself yet, but Greg Grandin’s _The Empire of Necessity_ (on the actual slave revolt fictionalized in Melville’s “Benito Cereno”) got a shout-out on NPR (Fresh Air, I think) yesterday, and seems to have garnered a number of favorable reviews. Megan Marshall’s _Margaret Fuller_ also gets high marks from Fuller scholars (as well as the Pulitzer committee). Of course, although I’ve ordered one and own the other, I haven’t actually gotten around to reading them.

    Agreed on _This Republic of Suffering_: excellent and accessible book (and, yes, teachable; I’ve used the chapter that appeared in _Southern Cultures_ successfully in the classroom), but, well, it’s about death (and, even worse, not being sure whether your relatives are dead or not). Not exactly Christmas fare.

    Congratulations on the nearly-done book manuscript! That is, indeed, the best possible Christmas/New Years/MLK/Valentines/etc. present to yourself. And nice sabbatical management: you have time to start on another project (which is, I know, how things are supposed to go, but often they don’t).


  2. nice sabbatical management: you have time to start on another project. . .

    That’s the plan! Honestly, I’ve not-planned or actively used poor planning through most of my academic career, but I’ll take credit for my brilliance and discipline this time, nevertheless.

    I need to choose to write books from archives that are in pleasant places to visit, and/or that have money and fellowships to help sponsor my travel to and from Colorado. My last book–the one I just finished–failed on both counts!


  3. For the Civil War, I would recommend Edward Ayers’ “The Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863.” A beautifully written and nuanced look the war from the perspective of folks living in Franklin County, Pennsylvania and Augusta County, Virginia. I also don’t recall it being too academic, but it has been a few years.

    Melissa Mohr’s “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing” also fits seems to fit the bill. Its intelligent (I believe its based on Mohr’s diss) and funny, but marketed to a popular audience.

    Finally, if your friend is into fashion, Linda Przybyszewski’s “The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish” might be a hit. I’ve not read it but Przybyszewski’s a super smart prof from Notre Dame who is very interested in vintage fashion. She can also be a bit snarky (and I mean that as a compliment), so it may be a fun read. It also has been marketed toward a popular audience.


  4. I’m not a scholarly historian but I too love to read about history- Civil War or otherwise. Two books that I recently read and enjoyed were:

    Stephanie Camp’s — Closer to Freedom. It is about slavery so it is applicable to the civil war.

    Although Historian wouldn’t be so vain as to recommend her own book, I would highly recommend it. I finished it several months ago and would highly recommend Abraham in Arms. Although it is not about the civil war, it is still a very interesting, readable history book.


  5. I will thoroughly obnoxious and recommend two of my own books. Oh, hell… I’ll recommend three (it’s the “holidays”!)




    And for the record: the KW book is the only one from which I earn any money. I sold the other two for a pittance and will never earn anything else from them. Stupid me.


  6. On very different topics: Lindsey Hughes’s lively and somewhat horrifying biography “Russia in the Age of Peter the Great.” A terrific historian who died too young. And Katheryn Schulz, “On Being Wrong.” Not academic at all, but very intelligent and thought-provoking.


  7. As the original questioner, thank you! My mind went completely blank as soon as I was assigned this task. And it’s hard when you know a field to know what will work for readers who are not professionals (as we know from assigning books for class.)

    Just because other people may want such books, the one I thought of — but which doesn’t seem to be in paperback yet — is Keith Wrightson’s Ralph Tailor’s Summer.


  8. In the book department, there’s also Megan Kate Nelson’s *Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp* (Georgia, 2005) and *Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War* (Georgia, 2012).


  9. Thanks, everyone for your suggestions. I would NOT recommend Abraham in Arms for a general reader, but I will accept John Aubry’s opinion graciously!

    I saw Linda Przybyszewski’s The Lost Art of Dress recently–I will probably pick it up just for fun. (I miss being affiliated with a library that will let me take the books home!) The “third book” BT mentions will have to do with fashion at least in part.


  10. I think you might be able to swing a courtesy reader’s card at Cal Tech’s Millikan Library, Historiann, at least I seem to remember having one once, although I don’t have a distinct memory of actually borrowing books from them, which I probably would have. I liked to ascend to whatever high floor there they kept the D’s, E’s and F’s (what a painful classification for history books, in this grading season!!), as much to enjoy the panoramic view of the town and adjacent mountains as anything else. *My* general readers in History 34XYZ have read and enjoyed AIA, and will read your second book the second it’s out!


  11. Well, I am not a historian but I do read quite broadly and I both enjoyed and learned from Abraham in Arms. So there.

    Both Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature and John Barry’s Rising Tide (the latter about the mighty Mississippi River) slice through time periods and places that might be of interest to this reader.


  12. I’d recommend a historical biography – those are often written with a non-academic audience in mind. Not about the American Civil War, but my husband (who is not a historian!) recently read and thoroughly enjoyed The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss (it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Biography). He also read Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father, by Stephen Hackel (related to an exhibit at the Huntington), though the history of the treatment of the Native population was hard to read about.

    Also, Historiann, you should be able to do a lot of Christmas shopping right at the Huntington, which has a great gift shop (though in temporary quarters for now). I was planning to shop there myself on the members’ shopping day a couple of weeks ago, but the torrential rain kept me home that day. I still hope to get over there sometime!!


  13. Mark Fiege’s book is a great suggestion–thanks truffula. I interviewed him on-blog and published the results a few years ago when the book first appeared. The OAH also featured a panel on the book and posted a video of the session (minus the Q. and A.).

    Yeah, it would be hard to “enjoy” a book about Serra, whatever your point of view or political position (i.e. devout Catholic, anti-imperialist, whatever–there’s something for everyone to hate there.) Thanks for the recommendation, though, Kathie–even if it’s another deathy book-bummer!


  14. All these great suggestions! To which I’ll add the “winner”, Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages, which I really enjoyed, and which raises great epistemological questions. I thought about the Wonder Woman book, having just read a review in the NYT, but decided to go for something I’d read already.


  15. Great choice! I really enjoyed Book of Ages too. More than any other recent book, it highlighted how unhealthy 18th C cities were. SPOILER ALERT!!! Jane Franklin Mecom had a huge family of 8-10 children, but outlived all but one. And IIRC, only two grandchildren outlived her–the children of a different daughter.

    Lepore doesn’t make this point, but I will: to have that kind of reproductive history and still spend old age worrying about whether or not someone will care for you seems especially heartbreaking and poignant. Women who spent nearly all their reproductive years pregnant or nursing one infant or another who still left only three living descendants? What a tragic waste.

    Sorry for making this book seem more death-y than it really is. Of course, Lepore’s focus is (as it always is) on readers, writers, and epistemology, and Benjamin and Jane kept up a lively correspondence through their lives. (BF too left very few heirs: His son before marriage, William, and his daughter Sarah Franklin Bache. A younger son died of smallpox at age 3 or 4.)


  16. There is a video of Jill Lepore’s recent lecture on the _Wonder Woman_ book at the Radcliffe Institute. The lecture is titled “How Wonder Woman Got Into Harvard” and it is available at With interesting introductory remarks by Lizabeth Cohen and Susan Ware. Takes a little clicking around from that point, but it could probably also be found by a regular YouTube keyword search.


  17. I don’t know about the original person who posed the question, but I’ve compiled a great list from these comments. Thanks!

    One of my favorite histories for non-historians (which has nothing to do with the Civil War) is Brumberg’s The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, which the non-history majors in my seminar this term confirmed, yet again, is a great read.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.