Read Any Good Books Lately?: In Which I Interview Myself.

My interview with myself is inspired by the “Historiann Challenge,” which was in turn inspired by James McPherson’s NYT Review of Books interview, in which the last twenty-five years of historiography goes mysteriously unacknowledged.

They still make these, huh?

Historiann responded with her own interview, which simultaneously highlighted how out of touch senior scholars can appear to be are and spoke to the amazing amount of great recent scholarship is actually out there, should one actually be interested in it. From her blog:

 Today’s post is was inspired by the interview with James McPherson in the New York Times book review last weekend…Today, I’ve interviewed myself, and I encourage you to interview yourself too, either in the comments below, on your own blog, and/or on Twitter.  (Be sure to tag me @Historiann and #historiannchallenge.)

 Well, I’ve got my own blog, and I’ve got the Twitter, so I decided to take up the challenge. After this interview, I then interviewed myself about interviewing myself, interrupting myself to interview myself about interviewing myself during an interview about myself. Then we hit the interview singularity and SPACE AND TIME COLLAPSED INTO THEMSELVES.


My bad.


Anyway, hopefully this is one more piece of evidence that scholars can engage with the new work in their field without somehow sullying the memory of earlier generations of historians.

What books are currently on your night stand?

A guide to playing Minecraft, because my daughter likes to lay on our bed in the afternoon (sun comes in through the windows better) and play Minecraft for a bit after she gets home from school. She wants me to start playing, too (hence the strategically-placed guide), but between sports and twitter, I have enough distractions as it is.

What was the last truly great book you read?

This is easy, because I’m reading it now: Racecraft by Barbara and Karen Fields. An absolutely brilliant and powerful analysis of race in American history and society. It affirms much of what I suspected, teaches me much that I didn’t know, and challenges me to do better as a scholar and teacher. Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told is also up there; not only is it a field-changing book, but it’s beautifully and evocatively written. That matters.

Pro tip: If you’re a practicing scholar, and you don’t answer this question with something newer than 25 years old, you need to read more.

Who are the best historians writing today?

I’m truly fortunate to be working in 18th and 19th century History, because of the sheer number of talented scholars doing really original and thoughtful work. Fields and Baptist are among them. So, too, in no particular order except that I’m a big fan of their latest work, are Claudio Saunt, Walter Johnson, Jürgen Osterhammel, James Oakes, Annette Gordon-Reed, Stephanie McCurry, Jonathan Sperber, James Scott, and Doug Egerton.

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

There isn’t one. And when there is, it probably won’t get published.

Nothing at least in the ballpark?

W.E.B. DuBois’s work on Reconstruction stands on its own scholarly merits, but it’s even more impressive when you realize the larger intellectual climate he was writing in was one where William Dunning, et al., held sway. I mean, think about that the next time you think it’s hard to get published. And I’ve always been partial to Hobsbawm’s quartet (Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire, Age of Extremes), because I like BIG HONKIN’ IDEAS and am quite Marx-ish in my own proclivities. But this is all one dude’s opinion—your results may vary.

What are the best military histories?

Of the Civil War Era? I really like Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over in its detailed analysis of the “common soldier” and the really creative yet thoroughly-researched and document-grounded ways in which she makes her case. And in general, John Keegan’s The Face of Battle remains essential reading for any historian, not just the military-oriented one, who seeks to recover the lived experiences of their subjects.

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

When I was writing the dissertation, I spent a month or so at the Library of Congress doing research in the main Reading Room, and John Hope Franklin was there working on his memoirs—he had an office right off the reading room, and would walk right by the desk I was working at, and always nod and smile when we made eye contact. I was too nervous to introduce myself—but you better be damn sure I was there when the Reading Room opened every day to get MY DESK. Some people have their rock stars, I have Historians. Because I’m a dork. But Franklin’s memoirs, Mirror to America, are awesome. You should read them.

There’s a ton of great work on African American history in the 18th and 19th centuries, and recently it’s only seemed to increase in quality and innovation, like Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul and River of Dark Dreams, and Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. Barbara Fields’ Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground fully deserves its status as a historiographical classic. Another great recent book that isn’t getting the pub I think it deserves is David Williams, I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era (Cambridge UP, 2014).

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

If by “many,” you mean “sixteen,” then I guess I can address the question. A lot of them have a view of the Civil War Era that’s been shaped by James McPherson, Bruce Catton, Ken Burns, and (for many of them), Shelby Foote smiling, drawling, and using every euphemism in existence to avoid an explicit discussion of slavery’s role in the war (my personal favorite was when he talks about southerners angry about Lincoln’s election…you know, [mumbling] “the abolitionist aspect of it”).

So when we look at Barbara Field’s arguments about race as a historical construct, for example, or get into discussions of power and white privilege (inspired by work from David Roediger and Alexander Saxton), they tend to get uncomfortable, because it now means that this wasn’t just stuff that happened back then and is now irrelevant—it’s stuff we’re living with directly (and often violently—I’m looking at you, Ferguson PD) today. And any time you discuss privilege, people who have benefitted from that privilege get their hackles up. Despite that, however, it’s totally worth engaging these issues and having these discussions. I tell my students ALL THE TIME that if they’re comfortable throughout college, then we screwed up.

[Totally unsolicited book recommendation: I’ve found Kim A. Case, ed., Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom (Routledge, 2013) to be an invaluable resource as I try and get better at facilitating these discussions—and at creating the pedagogical spaces where they can happen in a way that lets us all genuinely learn.]

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Voracious. Curious. Insatiable. The Stay-Up-All-Night-With-a-Flashlight-To-Finish-the Book kind.

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

I’m gonna cheat here, because it wasn’t a book, but an experience, that made me the scholar/geek/reader/teacher that I am today.

My dad was in the Air Force, which meant that throughout my childhood, we moved every 3 years or so. It was a good gig—we moved from Japan to Hawaii, for example, when I was 6. But the move occurred in the middle of the school year, so I was in a new class halfway through first grade—Mrs. Manhan’s First Grade at the elementary school at Wheeler Air Force Base on Oahu. I was nervous, shy, and unsure about things since I was the new kid and all. But on the first day I was there, our class went to the Library. Part of our school was a renovated set of WWII-era barracks buildings; I think the Library must have been an old dining hall or something, because it was a cavernous, shelf-filled room. (Of course, I was 6—everything’s big when you’re that young. The Library may have been the size of a shoebox in reality. But for 6-year-old me, it was BIG). There were more books there than I had ever seen in one place before, and I was STOKED, you guys.

After gleefully darting from shelf to shelf, I grabbed an armload of books on dinosaurs and the solar system, which were my two favorite subjects at the time, and took them to the Circulation Desk—an old wooden podium-type structure that was about as tall as I was. I lugged them up onto the counter, whereupon the librarian looked at them, looked at me, and shook her head sadly. Sorry, she said, I was too young to check out those books. First-graders’ books were over there, and older kids’ books were here—as she pointed to the shelves I had so recently pillaged. You won’t be able to check these books out, she gently told me.

Well, that fucking maxed out my emotional tolerance. I was the new kid, I was already fragile, and now here I was in the Library—which I had already decided would be my sanctuary—and she was telling me I couldn’t check out the books I wanted to read. I wanted to scream to her YES I CAN READ THESE BOOKS THANK YOU VERY MUCH AND THE FIRST-GRADE BOOKS ARE LAME AND BESIDES THERE AREN’T ANY DINOSAUR BOOKS OVER THERE AND WHAT THE HELL IS THIS AGE-RESTRICTION STUFF ANYWAY I JUST WANT TO READ AND THIS NEW SCHOOL SUCKS.

But nothing came out. I just stood there, stunned, and began to cry. I remember tears rolling down my cheek and dripping on the wooden floor, my lower lip trembling as I tried to ask if I could please check these books out, and thinking that all of a sudden everything was very very warm and very very quiet, except for the blood rushing in my ears.

Then, I felt a hand gently touch my shoulder, and Mrs. Manhan’s voice whispered in my ear, asking if I wanted to read those books. Yes, I stammered. OK, she told me. She walked up to the Podium of Literary Denial, and told the librarian she would check those books out to her classroom, signed each card, and brought the stack of books to me. Any time you want to get a book to read, she said, and they say you’re too young, just give it to me. I’ll check it out for you and you can read it as long as you want.

So I did, and she did. I read SO MUCH that year. And I never stopped. Mrs. Manhan—who was a wonderful teacher and human being—had as much influence on my life in that one moment as any other person or event before or since. Her kindness to an awkward new kid who obviously loved to read, and was ready to read more, continues to profoundly influence me. There are lots of things “that made me what I am today,” but few of them are a bigger deal than that one.

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

I’m not worried about the President—he clearly has read, and continues to read, widely. Many of his Know-Nothing Luddite opponents, though, need to put down their Glenn Beck-sanctioned screeds and Readers’ Digest Bibles, and join the rest of the world in the 21st century.

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

It depends on how clean I need to make my house. Because I’ve got 3 dogs, 2 cats, and 2 kids. So it’d have to be authors who wouldn’t obsess about fastidiousness.

That said, I’d invite Leo Tolstoy, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and George Orwell.

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?

It’s an easy target, given the fact that he’s the object of this “interview challenge”, but James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom was essentially a prettied-up version of his Ordeal By Fire textbook. I liked the book, for what it was, and it’s been a great source for classroom stuff on the military and political history of the war. Students like it (for reasons I gave above). And it’s well-written and interesting. But it certainly wasn’t revolutionary or field-changing.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. I’m a fantasy geek, too, and I feel so culturally-illiterate not having read the books (and I won’t watch the show until I read the books, dammit). There’s a shit-ton of internet memes out there that I just don’t get. And it makes me sad. Don’t judge.

For historical scholarship, there’s a LOT I haven’t yet read. One omission that might surprise people is that I haven’t read Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. I know it’s what all the cool kids read, especially after the Lincoln movie came out, but I never got to it, and now I’m resisting out of sheer orneriness and spite. Sort of like the senior professor who refuses to use technology—I REMAIN DEFIANTLY OBSOLETE.

What do you plan to read next?

After I finish Racecraft, I plan on reading Stacey Smith’s Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, because it looks hella cool and fascinating. Then maybe Team of Rivals.

Or maybe not. GET OFF MY LAWN.




6 Replies to “Read Any Good Books Lately?: In Which I Interview Myself.”

  1. AWESOME!!! And **blub** to your story about the library enforcer, and YAY for Mrs. Manahan! I hope you track her down and send her this link.

    1. Yeah, I got a little misty while I was writing it. It’s still such a powerful memory. That, or I need to quit chopping onions in my office.

      Glad you liked it–I love the idea of the #historiannchallenge !

  2. Love your library story. It reminded me of ‘Matilda’ – one of my all time favourite stories as a child.

    It prompts me to tell a little story about my brother. In 6th grade his teacher found him trying to read Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. She took it away from him, telling him in front of the class that it was too babyish for him. My big sister heart wanted to go down to that school and shove the book down that teacher’s throat on the spot. He just did what she said and stopped engaging with books to avoid any more humiliation.

    About 7 years later he discovered he is dyslexic. Now he’s struggling to make up the lost learning opportunity.

    I’m still angry with that teacher, 12 years on.

    1. In the interests of not ending on a low note, let me share one other teacher anecdote.

      When I was in 3rd grade, my family visited Stratford on Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare on our holidays. Dad bought us kids a big, glossy, illustrated, prose edition of the stories in Shakespeare’s plays as a souvenir. Boy, I loved that book. I read it cover to cover. I made notes about the characters. I drew pictures of them. I learnt the plots off by heart.

      When I got back to school after the holidays, I told my teacher, Mrs Chalmers, all about how amazing Shakespeare was and how everyone should know all about his plays. I said we should study them in class. So she asked me if I wanted to teach the class about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Well – duh! Of course I did! So there was 7 year old me, handing out worksheets and spelling lists and what-have-you all about this amazing play and sharing the excitement with my class. I hope they had fun. I certainly did.

      I tried to contact Mrs Chalmers a few years ago through the school, but I never got a reply. But maybe she reads blogs. Maybe she’s reading this.

      Mrs Chalmers, you rocked!

      1. Wow–both of these are such powerful stories. It’s a reminder of just how important teachers are, and how much of an impact one word or look can have–for good or ill. Thanks for sharing these.

Comments are closed.