History – Genre Study

June 4, 2013

Half the group identified themselves as natural history readers.

Benchmark Discussion

  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild is a great example of explanation history. Hochschild recounts the grim history of the Belgian Congo, shedding light on colonial exploitation and the power of public outrage. Dense, dry, horrifying, little known history. Up to 8 million deaths. Called explanation history – gives you the facts and puts the history into larger historical context.
  • The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester explores the pivotal moment when geology was understood. William Smith, a canal digger, noticed patterns in the striations of the earth and, even faced with great bad luck and terrible odds, went on to publish one of the most important documents of his era. Map is incorporated into dust jacket design. Well-researched, erudite, contextual, tedious.
  • The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw is a classic example of social and cultural history. Brokaw interviewed or solicited recollections via letter from hundreds of men and women who came of age between the Great Depression and WWII. Their stories are captured here and recount sweeping world changes and the motivating power of a common set of values and goals. Book was part of whole media roll-out. Many personal stories addressing various aspects of WWII history. Well-written utilizing oral histories. Addresses impact of war on a generation and the impact to country afterwards.
  • One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski is a fun example of microhistory. Exploring how the screw was invented (not till the late Middle Ages) and its many uses (guns, watches, water carrier), Rybczynski offers an entertaining look at the most common of tools and the huge impact it has had. Micro-history. Short. Illustrated. Written from current times to the past. Surprisingly interesting. Author is a journalist asked to write about most important “tool”.

Other history books read:

Lisa – Cod by Mark Kurlansky. Micro-history. Cross section of natural history and civilization. Well researched, detailed, contextual.

Jason M. – Loose balls: the short, wild life of the American Basketball Association by Terry Pluto. History of the American Basketball Association. Based on oral histories with numerous people involved in the league. Appeals to basketball fans. Funny, quick read.

Lilly – The age of Edison : electric light and the invention of modern America by Ernest Freeberg. Pivotal moment history. Conversational tone that is easy to follow. Well-researched. Illustrated. Broke down impact of electric light on life in interesting way. Conversational, interesting, about electricity.  While Edison didn’t invent the light he marketed it well.

Frank – A century of dishonor; a sketch of the United States government’s dealings with some of the Indian tribes by Helen Jackson. Local author, written in 1883, huge impact on American thought, female historians have a tendency to take the history and present them in a powerful and thoughtful way. Shaming, local, enlightening.

Portia – House of stone : a memoir of home, family, and a lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid. Author died covering the Middle East as a journalist last year. About a Lebanese family history and immigration. Written like a novel. Poetic writing about the past. Story is about author’s endeavor to rebuild family home on the border of Lebanon and Israel. Published posthumously. Anthony Shadid tells the story of how he rebuilt his Samara great-grandparents’ home in Marjayoun (in southeast Lebanon) while on a year’s leave from the Washington Post, for whom he was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East at the time (2007).  We meet an interesting cast of characters of present-day townspeople –relatives, neighbors, friends, expatriates, artisans, traders, and distinguished professionals –and gain some insights about the region.  But the narrative in the italicized passages/sections of the memoir take us back to bygone times and distant places as the history of Isber and Bahija Samara’s home and family (intertwined with the Shadid family) unfolds poignantly. Like his great-grandfather, Isber Samara, Anthony Shadid cheated death a few times (as a war correspondent).  Sadly, he died at age 43 while covering the crisis in Syria in February 2012.  This book was published posthumously in April. He is buried between two olive trees in the garden of the house of stone in Marjayoun.

I cannot imagine anyone reading the first few pages of the book (Introduction: Bayt) not wanting to read (and reread, perhaps) the whole book.  It is poignant, poetic, insightful.

Janet – The book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree. If you are interested in the history of the book – this is for you. Well-written, well-researched. Focuses on printing presses. Not technical but about the business of printing books. Interesting, informative, well presented.

Susan – American gospel : God, the founding fathers, and the making of a nation by Jon Meacham. Starts with founding fathers but then goes on from there. Well researched with extensive bibliography and appendices. Not well written or edited. Choppy and not cohesive. Well researched, interesting tidbits, not successful.

Ben – Crying : the natural and cultural history of tears by Tom Lutz. Very broad while staying focused on tears. Gives many perspectives including physiological, anthropological, etc. Not a history of things that have happened but a history of the thought about tears. Hard to follow. Very academic while not being absolutely scholarly. Thorough, dense, interesting.

Steven – Railroaded : the transcontinentals and the making of modern America by Richard White. Dense, “muck-raking”, history through eyes of the public – often skewed. Explanation history and might work well for those that like History of America by Zinn. Thorough, angry, relevant.

Julie – Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. Long, thoroughly researched. Author is economist not a historian, does not give credit to others who have done research. Not a biography but a social micro-history of that time period. Not personal but political. Well liked by conservatives. Detailed, narrow point of view, well-researched.

(Best Coolidge biography in Julie’s perspective is by Sobel and then Fuess for an older one.)

Elise – A coffin for King Charles; the trial and execution of Charles I by C. V. Wedgwood. Charles I who was an enigma with a temper. Book sets the story of him personally and how he was a scapegoat for the time. Non-conformists.

Paula – Finding Atlantis : a true story of genius, madness and an extraordinary quest for a lost world by David King. 17th Century Renaissance man who believes he found Altantis in his home of Sweden. He did manipulate facts to match his theory. Well written, detailed, history of Sweden, politics, mythology.

Faith – Hard Times by Studs Turkel. Transcriptions of oral histories of the Great Depression. Written in the late 60s. Interviewed a huge diversity of people. Masterful interviewer who lets voice of interviewee come through. Organized by themes. Fascinating, empathetic, immediate.

Dylan – Letters from an American utopia : the Stetson family and the Northampton Association, 1843-1847 edited by Christopher Clark and Kerry W. Buckley. Local history story based on 75 letters found bundled together years later. Stetson’s were a family from Connecticut who became involved in abolitionism. Lived in Northampton for 3 years and gives a good sense of our community at the time. Letters are written to family. Personal, context, local.

Molly – The big burn : Teddy Roosevelt and the fire that saved America by Timothy Egan. About a large fire in Idaho set in context of the politics of the time. Includes the start of the National Forestry Service, conservation movement. Well researched, lots of notes. Reads like an action adventure story. Narrative.

Why do people read history?

In helping patrons it makes sense to think about why people read the books they do.

Motives of the writer can reflect the motives of the history.

More academic approach works well for some readers, especially for those that read extensively in a certain area.


Does the book have an agenda?

Journalists treatment versus historians

Size of the cast

How do you do reader’s advisory for history?

Pulitzer winners, catalog searches, ask someone who knows, Novelist Plus, reviews, look at bibliographies of another book on the topic, browsing, Harvard Guide to American History (older but classic reference source), books from the RA collection,

Biography/Memoir – next time in September


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