and I have been chatting a lot about history stuff since I made that post a few hours ago (about Two-Spirited People), and I thought that hey, it might be a good idea to recommend some history books for people! There are a lot of history books out there – too many to fully digest, let alone really pick out the good ones – so I thought that I’d share (and recommend!) a few of my favourite titles. I was originally planning on writing this post in a few days, when I had less homework... but I've lost all motivation to do more readings and I had this on my mind... so I may as well just get it out of my system now.
Some of the books on this list are so-called “popular histories” (meaning they’re published by a more mainstream publisher), but others are more academic histories. The difference between the two is usually that the popular histories are more readable (they’re meant to sell better and appeal to a wider audience) and the academic histories are more rigorous and possibly more expensive because of limited publication runs. Be wary of some histories published by the popular press: some don’t go through actual, y’know, peer review, which means they can be published even if they’re saying untruths. Take, for example, the horrific work by Gavin Menzies. He’s the guy who wrote a “history” book so full of bullshit actual historians have dedicated their entire academic careers to proving every last little detail wrong.
Menzies is the guy, for instance, who lied about HIMSELF on his “about the author” bit in his book, saying he was born in China (instead of visiting it as a babe in arms) to give himself more credentials. Because he has none. I had a professor (now the head of the East Asian Studies department at the U of A, I think?) give an entire hour and a half long lecture to us on the subject of how much Menzies sucked. So yeah, caveat emptor when it comes to the popular press. They still have lots of awesome stuff!
…And now that I’m done that little soapbox speech… Let’s get down to some recommendations, shall we? (Many of these authors have their own websites which talk about their books... so you can at least take a peek at the cover, and possibly special features, which is why I link them here.)
-There is, of course, the awesome book with the awesome title I’m working my way through, discussed in that last post: The Importance of Being Monogamous
by Sarah Carter. See that post for more (awesome) details.
-Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
by Mary Roach. Perhaps this is more of a text on modern medicine/culture/etc. with historical elements, but I still enjoy it even though it is quite morbid. A friend of mine who knew I liked the history of medicine leant me her copy and I've been reading through it slowly. It's all about "life after death" - what happens to human bodies. Not just things like new alternatives to burial and cremation (although it talks about that too) but things like practicing surgery on the dead, examining the bodies of a plane crash to tell the story if the black box fails, what precisely happens when a body decomposes, human remains being used in ballistic testing... even modern cases of cannibalism. The author has an interesting attitude towards death (in the epilogue she talks about what she'd like done with her body, a decision made in light of all the research she did for this book), which is refreshing but also kind of unnerving at times. Not for the faint of heart... but I'm glad I read it.
-The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History
by Katherine Ashenburg. This book is more of a pick me up, compared to the one I just described. It's essentially a history of cleanliness in the Western world. I think most of us have a vague idea that in the middle ages nobody bathed and such, but we're a bit fuzzy on the details. This book is wonderful for filling those details in with lots of fun facts and awesome anecdotes. It really does answer the question of "how dirty were they, really?" For instance, during the Renaissance, the rich would often just change their crisp white linen shirts several times a day and be considered clean. Queen Elizabeth bragged that she would take a bath once a month "whether I need one or not". It wasn't until the late 1700s that the rich were noticeably cleaner than "the great unwashed" masses of the poor. I was particularly interested in the later chapters that dealt with changing views towards cleanliness in the regency era onwards... -The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
by Steven Johnson. This book really exemplifies what I find fascinating about the history of medicine and the development of ideas and theories during the mid-nineteenth century. This book is absolutely fascinating. It's about Dr. John Snow (also, incidentally, the anesthetist to Queen Victoria during childbirth) developing theories about the waterborne spread of cholera, directly challenging prevailing ideas of miasma at the time. I'm heavily citing this book during a section of my thesis to demonstrate how hey, these health theories had a logic all of their own and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand by people in the 21st century who have the benefit of generations of experiments and clinical experience. (And really, to people without microscopes, does "tiny invisible creatures" make any more sense that "bad smells" as a cause for disease?)
-Intensely Human: the Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War
by Margaret Humphreys. (That's a link to it available on Google Books! Bits of it available for free!) Informative, but a bit depressing. This topic is rarely discussed in medical histories of the war or histories of the African American contributions to the conflict. I think it's the only book that's entirely dedicated to this topic. Incredibly well-written, though, and definitely a recommended read if you're into such topics. -Our Mother's War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II
by Emily Yellin. I did a four-way comparative book review on American Women's roles during the Second World War for a women's history course last semester, and this book really stood out for me. The author is a journalist and it does show in her format: lots and lots of short little anecdotes, light on the analysis... But fresh and energetic and darn interesting
! They all couldn't be Rosie the Riveter after all... A very good read.
-The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way
by Bill Bryson. One of my favourite non-fiction books of all time by one of my favourite authors of all time. His writing style is informative as well as being highly entertaining! The title is self-explanatory, but the chapters cover not only the history of the English language but also things like what it CAN'T do (which amounts to examples from other languages for things that English can't describe), to chapters on English place names (and surnames, and their crazy pronounciations) to even a chapter on wordplay and puns. My favourite example? How do you turn a piece of paper into a lazy dog in three steps? Answer: A piece of paper is an ink-lined plane. An inclined plane is a slope up. A slow pup is a lazy dog. Say it out loud. My mind was blown. Anyway, if you can only read one book on this list, this one had better be the one. <3
Aaand... that's all for now. I could recommend more, but I'm tired at the moment. Feel free to ask me to recommend books or articles on specific topics! There's no harm in asking! (All I can do is say no, I am prostrate that I have never heard of you're topic and I am clearly woefully uninformed and I will remedy that post-haste by running out and reading a bunch of articles on the subject you bring to my attention. ;) )
OKAY, NOW I REALLY HAVE TO FINISH MY HOMEWORK FOR SERIOUS. D: