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Taking Up The #Historiannchallenge: Interviewing Myself

October 15, 2014

Here’s the Ann Little post that inspired what follows below.
Tim Lacy: The New York Times Book Review Interview

What books are currently on your night stand?

A number—too many—and literally on the night-stand/bookshelf next to my bed. I’m in the middle an annual reread of Lord of the Rings, but after that I’ll take up Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom, Christopher Beha’s The Whole Five Feet, and Jacques Maritain’s The Peasant of the Garonne.

What was the last truly great book you read?

I’m reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette. I’m almost done with Kenneth Burke’s much-referenced, Attitudes Toward History. Prior to Balzac I finished Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.

Who are the best historians writing today?

Good question. I read for topics more than prose, and more short pieces than books. That said, I really enjoy the work of Dan Rodgers, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Claire Potter (her blog posts), Molly Worthen (articles), Dan Wickberg (articles), Sarah Igo, and Jon Zimmerman. I also enjoy reading pieces by my fellow writers at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog.

What’s the best book ever written about American history?

As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about “best” and “great” books, as well as the “best” in the context of historiography, I’m going to go the easy route and quote/parrot Ann Little: That’s a ridiculous question. What the hell is a “best book ever?” What do you think I’m going to say—[Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life!]? Best book in the last century? Best book since 1776? Doesn’t the answer vary according to the fashion of the times and our own tastes? History is constantly being revised and updated by each succeeding generation of historians, so no book can ever be a “best book ever” for more than a few years.

I’ll add the following: Every generation has to rewrite its own history—in a way that best speaks to that new generation. That said, the best American history book is, to me, the one that uses the past—unintentionally or intentionally—to help illuminate a present-day problem, whether ongoing or immediate. That “best book” stays true to the historical uniqueness of the past, showing how it differs from the similar problems of the present. That is the kind of book that really speaks to people.

Do you have a favorite biography?

No one favorite. But I’ve really enjoyed Taylor Branch’s trilogy on Martin Luther King, Jr., David McCullough’s Truman. I really want to read Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

What are the best military histories?

I don’t read “military histories,” as such. But the best book I’ve read recently about “war” was Ray Haberski’s God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (reflected on Ray’s book at this blog). I also really enjoyed Michael Kramer’s look at the Vietnam War through the lens of Rock and Roll music (reflections here, here, and here).

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

I confess to less familiarity with the most recent works in this subfield. I prefer to read works that integrate African American history into larger stories about ideas and cultural movements, or biographies of specific African Americans. That said, I really admire James Grossman’s 1991 book, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. In the near future I intend on reading Edward Blum’s W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet, as well as Manning Marable’s work mentioned above.

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

No. They didn’t want to read. Reading is hard. So I built incentives into the syllabus and into class activities to ensure reading. I also provided reading guidance, on how to read non-fiction well. Without shame I will say that I borrowed from dissertation work—from Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book. The book is 42 years old (published in 1972), and Adler’s first version came out in 1940. But the advice in the 1972 edition transcends the gap. If you haven’t read this book (even if you’re a college graduate—nay especially), acquire it post-haste!

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Pretty solid. My mother read to me a lot before she started working when I was five or six years old. I was sort of an indifferent reader through first and second grade. But in the third grade I picked up Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. I know the recent revelations regarding her motivations for writing those books, but I must have read that 8-book series a dozen times. A little later, as a fifth and sixth-grader I read, for some reason, A LOT of book on World War II. Finally, late in the sixth grade I was introduced to the Lord of the Rings series. After that, and through my middle-school/junior high years, I devoured a wide-range of books.

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

This is a hard question—because you can go older or newer. In relation to older currents of my personal growth, it might be the Lord of the Rings series and the Bible. As a historian, in the beginning it was perhaps some combination of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (or maybe even Changes in the Land), and Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. These works put me on the path to being the person I am today. More recently I’ve been profoundly influenced by books like Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club.

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

Thomas Piketty’s Capital, maybe? About three years ago I would’ve said Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind—or five years ago Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason.

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

The key here being “literary,” I’ll go with Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, and Mark Twain.

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?

I almost never put down a book without finishing. This is because I spend a lot of time selecting my books—to avoid the very scenario you’re describing. But I usually have a hard time with parenting books. I’m currently having a hard time with Balzac’s Cousin Bette. Balzac is lively enough, but I’m having trouble seeing where it’s all going—or rather it feels like Balzac is taking too long to get there.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

Too many! Here’s a starter list: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale (that book has been hovering on my to-read list for years); Marx’s Capital and his other important essays; many of Shakespeare’s plays; John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (especially #2); and too many of Nietzsche’s works.

What do you plan to read next?

The ones I mentioned above on my bookshelf/nightstand.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Thinking Through History has posted their response to the #Historiannchallenge. The post recommends a wide variety of books including Balzac’s Cousin Bette, Ray Haberski’s God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945, William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital.


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