What kind of books are you looking for when you’re choosing for your history reading group?
The first year that I did the history reading group, I did a survey at the end and it was very instructive. One of the things that I found out from the group was that they liked biographies, but not too many. We have two semesters, so we do one biography in the fall and one in the spring.
The lovely thing about history is that everything has a history, so everything belongs to me. In many ways, I am trying to open their eyes to how much there is when you say history, because all too often people think of biographies, or political and military history. But there’s social history, cultural history, economic history, the history of medicine. That has turned out to be enormously popular: in fact, if I could have listed six books, I would have included a history of medicine.
The other thing that I discovered from doing the survey is that the group didn’t want anything that was too recent. We did one book the first year on the Iraq war. Everybody was happy to have read it and to have learned more. But, at the same time, they said it was a little too much like reading the morning newspaper. So, I choose things up to about 1980, a 50-year gap. Most historians, I think, would argue that we really need about 50 years to get a sense of something—unless you want more of an eyewitness account. So that works quite nicely.
It’s as broad a category as possible. I do American history and world history. With American history, we can get too insular—all of us can by just doing our own country. It’s important to see where it fits into the rest of the world or the rest of history. Then there’s what people call ‘big history’ and small history. Big history is big, sweeping arcs, which could cover a century or, as you’ll see with one of these books, 5000 years. It gives you somewhere to place things. Then there are books that cover something rather compactly. Now, if you were to ask the history group, they would tell you that they prefer the small history, because they feel they know something really well. They grumble a bit when it’s clearly a big history book. But then it’s fascinating in discussions, because they will reference back, and say, ‘Do you remember such and such? Wasn’t that at the same time as so and so?’ And, of course, that’s the best thing about a good, big history book.
The other thing I had to teach the group is that a) there will not be a test and b) it’s okay to skim history. History is not great literature. We do touch on a particular writer style some, mostly in terms of, ‘How do you handle 5000 years of history without drowning people in minutiae? How do you handle covering a battle without drowning people in minutiae?’ As it turns out, most of them will still drown you. So, I had to tell them that historians skim, we don’t read every word. This was a big eyeopener to them. They will bring it up on occasion themselves. ‘I remember you said to skim.’ Also, it’s okay if you don’t finish the book. It’s not like we’re talking about a novel, where you need to know the ending to be able to reflect back. I tell some of them, ‘You’ve only made it halfway through, fine. You know what the book is about and you can always return to it when you have more time.’
These are the things that sort of swirl around in my mind as I’m choosing the books.
Let’s turn to the books you’re recommending for others interested in setting up a history reading group. The first is The Guns of August by the American historian Barbara Tuchman, about the outbreak of World War I. Why is this a good book for a history reading group?
This is the gold standard. Barbara Tuchman’s name comes up and this particular book—which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963—comes up over and over and over again. If you ask any number of historians, ‘If you could put your name on another history book, what would it be?’ inevitably, this is the book they choose. The first paragraph of The Guns of August is the equivalent of “Call me Ishmael” in Moby Dick. It’s the paragraph that everybody knows.
“One of the things that you need to learn reading history is that historians write long books”
One reason the history group has functioned well, I think, is that we really live in a golden age of narrative history. Because of the popularizing of history, we began to get back to history as storytelling. Many people give Barbara Tuchman credit for being the person that did that. She was not a professional historian. She was incredibly well-educated and well-read and researched everything you could possibly research, but she wrote it as a story. The historian Margaret Macmillan said that reading Tuchman, when she was a graduate student, was like history going from black-and-white to Technicolor. That’s what narrative history does for you. So, all of the books that I’ve selected are beautiful examples of narrative history, in terms of the style of historian. Narrative history, storytelling is more memorable. The best ones, it’s like reading a novel, only it’s 100% true—or at least as much so as we can make it.
For those who haven’t read The Guns of August do you want to explain a little bit what it’s about?
The book begins with King Edward VII of England’s funeral and the three cousins that are there: George of England, Wilhelm of Germany, and Nicholas of Russia. That’s the last time that that family will be together. The book itself focuses on, literally, August: from the frantic meetings to try to keep war from occurring, to the frantic meetings to make sure that your military is the first one in the field. And then it concludes with early September, the first battle of the Marne and the beginning of trench warfare, and the realization that this is not going to be a six-week war.
You see everything unfolding through the eyes of multiple sources in every single country. You understand what they’re facing, the choices they’re making, and the sort of inevitability of it all. Once they got on that train, it just kept going. It’s a fascinating study in diplomacy. It’s a fascinating study in military planning and she just sprinkles it with the most interesting, strange facts about that time period.
I noticed that none of the books you’ve chosen, as far as I could see, are by academic historians. Was that on purpose? Do they write for a slightly different audience?
It’s a slightly different audience. Popular history rewards historians that write narrative, because they sell really, really well with the general public. The academic world in history is about close research, original ideas, etc.. It does not reward narrative history. Now, once you’ve proven yourself, if you want to write narrative, that’s allowed. But you’re not going to get narrative history or storytelling published in a peer-edited journal.
They need each other. The best of the popular historians need the grinding through the boring details that the academic historian is going to do. That’s the research. Then you’re allowed to tell the story. I liked what Barbara Tuchman said, that the historian should be more of an artist than a scientist. That’s part of the difference.
Do you like Tuchman’s book about the 14th century and the Black Death, A Distant Mirror, as well?
I do. I enjoyed the first half. Then, when she just focuses on one figure, Enguerrand de Coucy, I think it loses something. We actually just read that this year with the group. Because the plague is so important, it seemed like a really good time to read it. It turned out to be a lot of fun. We had a PhD student who is a medievalist, and so it was lovely. I turned over most of the questions to her. And she filled in things that I didn’t know. I mean, I’m always learning too, as you can imagine. So I do like it. I think the group was less enthusiastic.
Let’s move on to the next book you’re recommending for history reading groups: The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, which is by John Pomfret. He was a journalist for The Washington Post in China, and I very much enjoyed his reporting, but I haven’t read this book. Tell me about it.
It’s a big history book, we’re going from 1776 to the present. China’s history fascinates me. I’ve always wanted to go. The reason I jumped on this book as soon as I saw it is that what particularly fascinates me is the relationship between the US and China. It’s way more complex than people realize and Pomfret does a fabulous job of covering it. His own experiences in China are interspersed in there—first as a student, and then as somebody reporting on it. He’s telling the history, but when his own experience can be illustrative of what he’s talking about, he drops things in. He puts funny things in there, like how he discovered that if his mother sent him a new pair of shoes, he never got them. So she learned to send one shoe in one package, and one in another because no one steals just one shoe. Isn’t that a hoot?
This is ‘big history’ done really well. China’s history is long and complex. The US has a shorter history, but it’s complicated in its own way. His main reason for writing this book, he says, was to expose the pattern in US-China relations. His point is that we in the US—and it’s very much from a US view—make the same mistakes over and over again. The other part of it is myth-busting, what we think we know about China, and we don’t. In the United States, we have it in our head that if we just go in, China, having been exposed to Western values and to democracy and capitalism, will embrace it. He says, ‘That’s naïve. That’s not paying attention to thousands of years of Chinese history. In their mind, we’re just a blip on the timescale.’ We ignore those facts and, by ignoring them, we keep repeating the same pattern. Two good examples of that would be: the US coming to China in the 19th century, primarily through the missionary movement. We brought in Christianity and Western education. Well, the Chinese said, ‘thank you very much to Western education, to Western medicine, to Western technology. But no thank you to Christian values.’ Then we turn around, in the 20th century, and this time, if we just bring them into the capitalist family, they will certainly embrace capitalism. So, in 1980, we give them ‘most favoured nation’ status. We don’t demand that they make human rights changes, because it’ll just happen naturally. Well, they said, ‘Thank you to the money, and no thank you to human rights.’ Then we turned around and did it again in 2001. ‘Come into the World Trade Organization, become part of this capitalist world.’ And they took, again, what they wanted out of it, but they did not want entrepreneurial capitalism, for example. So China cherry-picks what it wants—understandably—and the US keeps on thinking that there’s something so wonderful about us, that if we just bring them in, they’re automatically going to grab onto that. And so Pomfret’s exasperation is that we don’t seem to learn that that’s true.
I should also say that he does make the point that the US has an interesting relationship with China because there’s a lot of gratitude for the fact that the US was not part of the gobbling up of China in the 19th century. They remember us as an ally fighting against the Japanese. So those are connectors for the US and China that China doesn’t really have with other countries.
Let’s go on to you next book. This is An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, which is about World War II in North Africa in 1942-3. This also won a Pulitzer Prize, is that right?
Yes, it did, in 2003. I would actually recommend the whole Liberation Trilogy, because they’re all excellent and he means for you to read them together. He describes it as a triptych. Panel one is North Africa, panel two is the war in Italy and Sicily. And then panel three is D-Day and the European war. His point is that you cannot understand the success in Europe unless you watch the countries building their military from North Africa on—particularly the United States, which was totally unprepared to go into World War Two.
The book is from an American perspective, he says that very clearly at the beginning. Montgomery plays a large role, as one would expect, but his focus is really on the American commanders. He also makes the point that there are many excellent books on British commanders and the British military written by the British. So, should you want to read more, you’re better off reading those than him scrambling to do the research. So he stays focused.
Where it becomes interesting to everyone is it’s World War Two. For Americans—I know this as somebody that taught history for years—we tend to go, ‘There’s North Africa, Rommel, bye!’ and then we move on and focus elsewhere. I’ve always felt bad about that. Then I read this book and I felt really bad about it.
“We really live in a golden age of narrative history”
In the book he develops two key ideas. One is, how do you take men that were civilians one day and turn them into soldiers the next day? And then, within a very short period of time, into battle hardened veterans? What makes Atkinson so good is he tells two stories at the same time, and shows how they influence one another. There is the story of these men. And you get letters and so forth, he singles out maybe three as the key ones that you keep going back to. And that’s partly so when, inevitably, one of them dies, you’re just sad.
But then he also talks about the commanders and that’s the second theme in the book. The commanders have to learn too. What does it take, first of all, to figure out who has the real gift of command, who has the ability to see the big picture? Who is good at the diplomacy that it takes to keep all of these various countries playing happily together, so that we can be allies? And that, of course, was Eisenhower’s claim to fame. He was very good at the other. But what he was really good at was keeping everybody together. That’s one reason he ended up the supreme commander. It was not Montgomery’s greatest strength, by any means. So you watch them over the three books. You watch them grow up. And I must say, it’s a little frightening reading the North Africa book, because they are so bad. They make terrible errors and men die. And I just wonder, how did we win? Italy was worse. I had not realized till I read the Italy book, that they were back to World War One there, with trench warfare. There were all kinds of comparisons, particularly for the men who had served in World War I, who were now commanders. They were literally freaking out because we might as well be in the Somme. North Africa was much more mobile.
I can’t imagine fighting in the Sahara, in the heat.
Yes, but the thing that threw them is that they didn’t know how cold it got. They didn’t bring anything for winter. And because, inevitably, everything was delayed, they landed in winter with summer gear. And not enough of that. They hadn’t learned how to pack transport ships. So everything had just gotten thrown every which way. And then they arrive, and there’s boxes and boxes of socks, and no food.
As a teacher of history over many decades, would you say World War Two is still the number one topic that people get excited about? Or is there anything else?
It’s certainly top of the list. Right now, because of where we are, there’s enormous interest in reading about Reconstruction and the Black experience. The American Revolution is tremendously popular. The Civil War probably would be, except in this period, and frankly most people are pretty well informed on the Civil War. Surprisingly, they’re not as informed on the American Revolution, the various theatres of war—rather than just the big battles. We’ve only read one book on Vietnam because I have a number of men who served in Vietnam. They’re in their 70s now, and they still can’t deal with it, it just brings up too many memories.
One of the books that really hit home with them was David Halberstam’s book, The Coldest Winter, which is about the war in Korea. They knew very little about that. That was my dad’s war, but I didn’t know that much about it either. That one really got to them. So that worked out quite well.
Next, you’ve recommended a work of economic history. Tell me about A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William J. Bernstein.
This was fascinating. We had read several books by Roger Crowley, who writes about the Mediterranean in the Renaissance period, more or less. Inevitably you’re talking about trade. We’ve looked at trade in various periods of time: under the Romans, under the Ottoman Empire, and so forth. I thought it’d be great to have another big history book, an overarching look at trade. And I came across this book and I thought, ‘this would be lovely!’
This is a big history done incredibly well. It covers the history of trade from 3000 BCE to 2000 CE. He traces patterns and does not drown you in factoids, or minutiae. It’s beautifully done. By the time that you finish, you really do have a big picture. The fascinating thing about the patterns is that they don’t change. He says it’s almost as though humans are hardwired to trade. We have done it naturally from the very beginning. How we go about it is virtually the same. No matter what time period, the problems that you encounter in trade are virtually the same, and the way that you solve those problems is virtually the same.
It starts with two groups of people. One of them has lots of grain, and the other has lots of metals. You could go and conquer the other guy, or you could just trade. So lesson number one is that it’s better to trade with your neighbor than to annihilate them. However, in the process of doing that, you start to want to do more trading. And that means trade routes. And that means expanding, which means that inevitably you run into someone else. You may or may not fight, you may just trade or, probably, you do a little bit of both. As you work that out, there is an inevitability to trading, and an inevitability to the conflict that goes along with it. It’s just fascinating.
It’s full of amazing things, like the earliest peoples exploring the Mediterranean. They knew that the winds blew really hard at certain times of year, and so they would just head out into the wind and let it slingshot them to wherever it took them. I thought, ‘that’s either totally crazy, or incredibly clever!’ Some people never came back, and others would come back with all kinds of things.
That’s his other theme, that trade rewards risk-taking and ingenuity. Both risk-taking and ingenuity have, in their own ways, fuelled society to move up, to do things it wouldn’t have done otherwise, to try things out or invent things. So trade becomes really foundational to all of civilization. One of the things that you learn in history is that the Egyptians traded. What Bernstein does is to say, ‘this is why it’s important. This is what it did for Egyptian society. This is how it changed them. This is what they then contributed to all the people that came and traded in Alexandria’ and so on.
It covers five millennia—is it an incredibly long book?
One of the things that you need to learn reading history is that historians write long books. Almost all the history books are going to be long books, it’s rare that you don’t have one. The thing that I tell the group is, ‘before you look at a big book and freak out, look and see whether it actually is. Because you’re going to have pages and pages of footnotes and so forth. And you’ll often find that it’s not nearly as long as you think.’ The other part of it is the readability. This is wonderfully readable, partly because, again, with the big history, he focuses on these patterns and keeps repeating them. That makes it go really quickly. So you have these fascinating stories that reinforce the pattern. And the pattern is what ties the book together.
Let’s go on to the last book you’re recommending, Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana. What a great idea to include a book about him.
We read this book for a meeting last spring and our actual meeting date was May 5, which is Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday. It’s not actually Mexico’s Independence Day, it’s when they beat the French at Puebla, which has somehow turned out to be a bigger holiday. It’s very popular in the US, because as I used to tell my students, if you want your cultural holiday to become a holiday in the United States, there’d better be a lot of drinking involved—think St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo. For that meeting, I wanted something to do with Latin America and we’d not read any Latin American history.
Many American students can tell you that Simon Bolívar was the George Washington of Latin America. But that’s literally all they know and they’re not even entirely sure what it means. So it was like, ‘Okay, let’s fill this in.’ And even though Spanish was my second field—I did a lot of history in Spanish and the history of Mexico and the Borderlands—I didn’t know much about South America or about Bolívar, either.
He truly was this larger-than-life character. He had 37 mistresses—that we know about. There are things in the book that are like, ‘Okay, they’ve got to make this into a movie.’ One of his mistresses defended him with a sword, while he jumped out a window, before he could be killed. It’s also a Shakespearean tragedy, because he was the most famous and admired man of his age and, when he dies, he’s a pauper in exile, reviled and mired in scandal.
“It’s okay to skim history. History is not great literature”
Marie Arana, who writes the book, is herself Argentinian, and descended on one side of the family from the rebel, and from the other side of the family from the Spaniards. She wanted to write the book to not only tell Bolívar’s story, but also because it turns out that in the Library of Congress there are enormous amounts of material on him that had never been translated from Spanish. So she had lots to work with.
The other thing that she wanted to do, very similar to the Pomfret book, is myth-busting. Arana said that the problem is Americans don’t understand South America. Our experiences are different. And while a lot of Americans ‘get’ Mexico, they don’t really get Central or South America. So that was another reason for writing the book: to show how very different we are. For example, she talks about the fact that race is hugely important in Latin America. The Spanish made it very much a racial hierarchy, where you were literally separated out by how light or dark you are: it wasn’t just black and white, it was shades of brown. It was a rigid hierarchy that was enforced and part of getting rid of the Spanish was about recognizing that.
I think it was Jose Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher, who said that people in Latin America were ‘the cosmic race’ because they are African, Asian, European, indigenous—and then everything in between. Part of Bolívar’s genius was that he saw that. He was himself mixed race, although he came from the upper class (though not the top). He recognized that there could never be true independence for South America unless it included the Black and indigenous people. He needed to get the mestizos and the mulattos, the mixed race, who had the background and experience and had never been able to adequately use them. He brought all of them together for the very first time and used this common enemy as a way to knit them together. That was part of his genius, that for the very first time everybody had a place and it was important.
The other part of his genius—and this was a real eye-opener for my group—was that in 1816 Bolívar said that you cannot have true liberty if you have slavery. So he abolished slavery in 1816. That was radical, even for South America. He said it was all or nothing: either everyone is free, or no one is free, it’s as simple as that. And nobody in the US would have said that in 1816. That is his other importance.
So this book develops those two themes. Everybody in the group loved the stories, that was their main comment. It’s not just one movie—you can make multiple movies about everything that he did. His going across the Andes makes Hannibal’s Italy trip seem like no big deal. He rode thousands of miles; I think 7000 altogether. His troops called him ‘iron ass’ because he could stay on a horse all day long. And you learn about South America, and how South Americans see themselves. Arana is trying to get us, as North Americans, to rethink how we see South Americans. Don’t think they’re like you because they’re not, it’s a whole different experience and so democracy there is going to look different from democracy in the US. They’re going to make some different choices. We in the US need to quit being ‘disappointed’ and just see that they’re different.
I looked Bolívar up, because I didn’t know that much about him. He’s regarded as the founder of five Latin American countries, is that right? He threw off Spain, and then tries to set up a United States.
Yes, the Spanish had already treated them as different areas, but they eventually became five different countries. You’re exactly right: it was the George Washington idea to unite them together. He was extremely well-read and traveled and recognized that there were tremendous geographical differences in the United States. And, yet, we managed to knit together more or less successfully as a country, though obviously we weren’t that far from falling apart in 1860. So it wasn’t unrealistic to think they could do the same thing—except it did turn out to be unrealistic.
One reason his reputation suffered is because, by the end, he had come to believe that the only way for South America to survive—because they had the same fear that the US did in the early years, that the Spanish would just come back in and conquer them again, or somebody would, probably the British—was to be together. He went from liberator to a firm believer in authoritarian rules. That’s what destroyed his reputation, because he ruled like an authoritarian the last time that he was president. And it wasn’t just that, but he was a bad authoritarian ruler. He could maybe have gotten away with it if he’d been good at it. He was a bad authoritarian ruler, and that was the reason he ended up exiled, stripped of all of his land, all of his titles, and reviled.
We’ve had your five choices, but given you loved it so much, do you want to give the history of medicine book you liked a special mention?
You’re so kind! It’s called The Butchering Art and it’s about Lister. It’s written by an American historian but she resides in Britain and does a whole broadcast, Lindsey Fitzharris. That was the other one I would have put on, the group loved that book.
It’s quite gruesome, isn’t it?
It’s interesting that the group likes reading about the history of medicine. Was it just this book, or books on the history of medicine in general?
That’s in general. We’ve read several books, but the big three over the past five years, I would say, would be that one and The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, which is about cholera. Several of the group suggested that book to me. A handful of the group had read it, the rest hadn’t. That was the first one we read, and then they were like, ‘more medicine!’ One of the biggest groups we’ve had was a book on polio, Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky. I think that’s partly the age of the group, they’re mostly 50 and above. The polio vaccine came along when I was in second grade, and some of the group were even older. But we all knew people that had polio. And we all had experienced our parents not letting us go swimming in the summer. And Scottish Rite, which was a major hospital for children with polio is here in Dallas. So among the people that came to the group were quite a few people who had had polio, or had been at Scottish Rite. They knew about it. I started by asking them, ‘So, tell me your story.’ It was wonderful. So those were the three books on the history of medicine. It really surprised me how much they liked those books. Now we do live in a big medical community here in Dallas, so that may be part of it.
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For anyone starting a group, the other thing I’m going to tell you, which you may or may not find useful, is that I did not start with the Tuchman book. The very first book that we did, five years ago, was Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. It’s a big book and the head of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture—which is the home of our history reading group—told me, ‘This is a bad idea.’ We were at the height of Alexander Hamilton mania, and I said, ‘No, trust me.’ We had 80 people at the meeting, they had to keep bringing in chairs! I knew they wouldn’t be back. They were mostly there because it was Hamilton. But I got 80 people in the door for the first meeting, to introduce them to it. I don’t think that many of them had read the book. That would be my advice to anyone starting this, you want to find something that’s going to bring a big group in. Find something that’s very appealing, that’s going to bring people in.
That’s great advice. Because it sounds so enriching what you’re doing, getting people to read history. Often you feel that when you finish school, that’s it for history, you know the basics. But it’s so fun to learn more about the world, every week of your life, really.
It is. And as I said, we really are living in the golden age of history writing. We’re so fortunate because there is so much good stuff, I mean, really good stuff out there. It would have been harder in 1950-something to have found that many good books. Now it’s an embarrassment of riches.
And you’re choosing one book a month during the semester?
Correct. We do four in the fall, and then four in the spring. I have a group that’s been pretty much with me over the whole five years that we’ve done this. We average 25-30 in a group, even on Zoom, as we’ve had to do during COVID. We’ve had 185 people all told over the five-year period, because people will drop in because a specific book interests them, or a teacher will drop in because they’d like to know more about a particular topic. Then we may never see them again or not see them for three years. That’s the other thing to keep in mind, that people are coming and going. I want them to be free to do that.
Finally, do you think for a history reading group to work you do need someone like you, who has taught history, to be steering it?
I do because the group always has questions. I’m assuming that they’ve read the book, or part of it. So I don’t want to just rehash the book. I want to give them room to say, ‘What led up to this?’ or to reference something they didn’t know and didn’t have time to look up. A lot of them—bless them—will do a little reading on their own, but many others don’t, and they depend upon me to place this moment in history, or to explain why this big arc, as opposed to other big arcs, is important. That’s what you can bring to it. That’s the kind of background that you need a history person for. Someone who’s read widely and is very familiar with history.
Also, to judge books. I read the book, I read a lot of critical reviews to see what people are saying about it, and so forth. Again, you need to bring that experience of having read a lot of history in order to be able to select books that are good. Any general reader will be good at finding a book that readers will enjoy. Our purpose is not to become academics on the Civil War. Our purpose is to read widely about the Civil War and, particularly in this day and time, to do some myth-busting. To go back and look, now that we have multiple people’s views. That’s another reason you need a history person, so that you can work your way through what’s good history, where you’re getting someone who may be very passionate (and hopefully is) about the subject but has a historian’s objectivity—as opposed to what’s political, where somebody is just riding their hobbyhorse. Not that that’s required, by the way, for a good history book, but that’s something that you should pick and choose on your own. I want a good discussion and the group is very keen to learn, for example, ‘What do I not know about the Black experience in the US?’ But I try to avoid controversy. I want us to be able to talk without emotions coming into it. I don’t mind a good discussion, and I don’t mind a slightly heated discussion, but I don’t want emotions.
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