Historiann Challenge

History prof and blogger Historiann issued a challenge for historians to self-interview about books they’ve recently read, in response to a recent New York Times Book Review interview with Civil War historian James McPherson. I suspect my reaction to the McPherson interview itself was a little different than Historiann’s, but since I am mysteriously still waiting for Vanity Fair to select me for the Proust Questionnaire, I could not resist the invitation to interview myself.

What books are currently on your night stand?

Well, the “night stand” is metaphorical but some of the books I’m currently reading include Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent novel, The LowlandPankaj Mishra’s collective intellectual biography of Asian thinkers responding to Western imperialism, From the Ruins of Empire; and for more academic purposes, the late Michael Katz’s revised edition of his very important book The Undeserving Poor. Of course, I am also always reading a bunch of stuff here and there for research. 

What was the last truly great book you read?

Well, the revised version of The Undeserving Poor is pretty great, although I’m still finishing it. It is one of those books that is both generative for scholars working on similar topics and accessible to non-expert readers, which is a hard balance to pull off. It traces the long history, in the United States, of efforts to classify poor people as either “deserving” or “undeserving” of help. Even though the classification methods (morality, sociology, genetics, etc.) and the identity of who is considered “undeserving” are always changing, the impulse to classify itself seems to be a constant.

Who are the best historians writing today?

I am going to sidestep that question and say that I think historians are, collectively, some of the best scholars writing today about topics of public concern, like inequality and racism. History is unique among academic fields in that (with exceptions in some subfields) it doesn’t have a highly elaborate, specialized vocabulary and set of theoretical models without which you can’t understand the arguments being made. That’s not to say there isn’t jargon or theory in history, and there are certainly internal disciplinary debates being played out through historical writing that may be somewhat opaque to outside readers (like the perennial questions about “agency”). And of course, there are certainly arguments to be made that historians don’t do as much as they could to reach the broad public. Still, I would bet that the average person could make a lot more sense of a recent article in the Journal of American History than they could make of a recent article in a flagship sociology or economics journal. Of course, there’s a lot of value in the knowledge produced through more specialized discourses, but there’s also value in expertise that is (relatively) accessible.

What’s the best book ever written about the Civil War?

Well, I am not a Civil War historian so I probably should have changed this question, and I definitely don’t presume to know which of the thousands of books on the subject is the best. But, I will say that my personal favorite book about the Civil War, which is an admittedly idiosyncratic choice, is Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical ClubIt’s in large part an intellectual biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., which also makes it one of my favorite books of legal history. Although there’s a long tradition of writing that portrays the Civil War as uniquely traumatic for the South, Menand argues that the Civil War represented a generational trauma for Northern intellectuals, who suddenly had to rethink everything they thought they knew and rebuild a new way of thinking about how to cope with modernity. In different ways, they all came to think of ideals as more provisional and experimental than they had before. But Holmes in particular came to be pretty pessimistic about ideals. The last line of the book is great, although I won’t ruin it for you.

Do you have a favorite biography of a Civil War-era figure?

See above?

What are the best military histories?

I am also not a military historian so I probably should also have changed this question. But I really like Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory. I guess that’s not the kind of thing most people think of when they think of military history. I remember finding John Shy’s book A People Numerous and Armed really thought-provoking when I encountered it in my graduate coursework.

And what are the best books about African-American history?

Well, there are so many great books in this field. Among recent books in this category, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns does a great job of telling the long twentieth-century story of African-American migration out of the South and into the cities of the North and the West, through the experience of particular characters. I think that, along with World War II and the United States becoming a world power, that story is really the key story for understanding the United States we live in today.

During your many years teaching, did you find that students responded differently over time to the history books you assigned? 

I haven’t yet been teaching for “many years,” but I will say that in the teaching experience that I have had, I have noticed interesting shifts even compared to when I was a college student, which was about 10 years ago. My senior year of college, I took a historiography seminar with Anthony Grafton and one of the books we read was George Chauncey’s Gay New York. I remember my mind being really blown by the experience. The whole idea that you would look at categories like homosexuality and heterosexuality as socially constructed categories with a history, that have changed over time, was really new to me. A couple years ago I assigned part of it to undergraduate students, and it didn’t seem, at least to me, that they saw anything remarkable about studying the history of sexuality. They seemed to think it was self-evident that this was a dimension of the human experience that has changed over time and that is worth studying. That is, in itself, a testament to the cultural influence of the groundbreaking work done by Chauncey and other historians of sexuality, like my Stanford professor Estelle Freedman.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

I would read basically anything as a child, from serious books to junk mail. (Actually, I guess that is still true.) I always had kind of a sociological curiosity as a kid, and so I think I just saw anything in print as more data for understanding all the different types of people who are out there and the different kinds of things going on in the world. I was fortunate because my parents always had books and magazines everywhere so I would just read things I saw lying around. I also used to hang out at our local branch of the Atlanta public library and just kind of go through the shelves in the children’s section finding things I hadn’t read yet. I was never super into sci fi or fantasy, but I do remember really liking everything by Madeleine L’Engle, and also The Dark Is Rising series. I liked a lot of Beverly Cleary books, not just the Ramona books but these more obscure books that she published about older kids – I seem to remember one about a high school girl who spent a year in California. I read a lot of the kind of prefab “Young Adult” series, too – Sweet Valley High, Babysitters Club, and stuff like that – going back to my sociological curiosity, I always liked anything with a whole fictional world with different characters and schools and neighborhoods. I do remember that I started reading Anne of Green Gables about fifty times as a kid and never finished it or thought it was very interesting, which might say something about my personality.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

Hmm. Maybe The Fire Next Time, which I read the summer before my senior year of college. Substantively, of course, it’s a great book because Baldwin had such a clear-eyed understanding, not just of race, but of all of the various myths that American culture tells about itself. But I also think Baldwin is an interesting model of someone who refused to be put into any kind of a box. You never get the sense he had any opinion he hadn’t come to through independent thought. He shows that you can have a complex and rigorous way of looking at the world that is also still very idiosyncratic to you. But if I could name three, I would add two other books I read around the same time – Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and also Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which I think is one of the great Southern novels in a way, but it gets overshadowed by the movie.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Haha, I am going to skip this question. I have a really hard time understanding what it’s even like to be the president or why anyone would even want that job, so I am not sure I am best suited to offer reading advice to an incumbent president.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

I would probably invite Faulkner, assuming we could coordinate the dates so he wasn’t double-booked with James McPherson’s dinner party. I might also invite Jacob Bacharach, who wrote a hilarious novel, The Bend of the World, that came out earlier this year. And probably James Baldwin. I think that would be an interesting dinner party.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Oh, I am constantly putting books down without finishing them. I guess that is one benefit of grad school, where you learn by necessity how to triage which books you do and don’t need to read and at what level of detail, and not to feel guilty about it. At one point in college I had this sort of Jimmy Gatz self-improvement type project where I made this giant list of all the books that I felt that I should read. I am not sure if I’ve gotten very far on it, but on the plus side, I have since read lots of other books that I didn’t even know about then. But I basically like most books, even the ones I don’t finish; it’s just a question of what I like about them. Even a really bad book tells you something interesting, because it tells you that you live in a world where someone sat down and wrote that book and it got published.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

See above? That said, I guess the main big book that I have always been meaning to read, and never have, is Moby-Dick. I started reading it once while traveling, but I didn’t get very far. My past self has been fortunate to read lots of amazing books, so I like the idea of leaving some equally amazing books to my future self, too. I am looking forward to reading Moby-Dick one day because it combines a lot of my fascinations into one – marine life, America, tragic quests.

What do you plan to read next?

Outside of research, where I am more systematic, in my personal reading I don’t really plan what to read. I usually just walk into a bookstore and walk around until something “feels” like the right book for me at that time. That’s why I don’t really like buying books online (well, that and certain ethical concerns that I have about a certain online retailer of books).