Must Read Books

33 responses

Barry, John, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1997)
One of the best books I've read in the last several years is John Barry's Rising Tide. Aside from its original and substantive contributions to our knowledge of the ecological and social history of the Mississippi River valley, it is a superb model of history-writing, in which the analytical and narrative modes are not only combined but... [more]

Bennett, Judith M., Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World (1997)
My current favorite book is Judith M. Bennett's Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, for a number of reasons. First, because if I had it to do over I would probably study medieval history and I would love to have written this book. Second, because it is so marvelously well written; the people in the... [more]

Chauncey, George, Gay New York (1994)
This is the book that to my mind really established the history of sexuality as a field that could reshape our view of American culture. I was already trying to write about sexuality when I read it for the first time—in fact I read it on the New Jersey Turnpike as I road the bus to and from the archives in which I did research for my... [more]

Corey, Mary, The World Through a Monocle (1999)
The World Through a Monocle is Corey's history of The New Yorker magazine, its writers, its readers, and its place in the twentieth century American cultural matrix. This funny, passionate, beautifully written, and endlessly provocative book examines the New Yorker and its world in the early postwar period. It brilliantly reads and... [more]

Diamond, Jarred, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1999)
I confess that I was very impressed with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1999). This is certainly not a contrarian call--after all, the book was a bestseller, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. But Diamond's is about as materialist an interpretation of history (more precisely, prehistory) as is... [more]

Dollinger, Marc, Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (2000)
Dollinger's book isolates a challenging and important subject, for not only did liberalism become the dominant ideology of American Jewry in the 1930s (remaining so until at least the early 1970s), but Jewish liberalism has long proved a decisive component of American liberal politics and ideology. Dollinger's notion of the "Politics of... [more]

Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic (1993)
Almost 10 years after its publication, Gilroy's concept of the "black Atlantic," like Benedict Anderson's argument for "imagined communities," is frequently a victim of its own deceptive simplicity. Thus Americanist scholars have paid homage to the the insights and approaches of Gilroy's post-nationalist model more than they have fully... [more]

Glickman, Lawrence, Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (1999)
Consumption has been a really difficult subject for a while now, and most academics have only been able to deal with it as something to critique--a sign of decline or "false consciousness," as we used to say. Glickman's book collects a wide range of essays that really invigorate the subject, mostly by linking consumption to notions of rights and... [more]

Gordon, Linda, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (1999)
Surely I'm not the only one who has grown pretty tired of reading about race, class and gender. What began as an incisive interpretive tool quickly became the analysis of choice and finally something like the default program for approaching any and all topics. Somewhere I suspect there are articles with a gendered interpretation of parking meters... [more]

Gordon, Linda, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (1999)
I've not even finished this book yet, but already I know it to be the best book I've read in the past year or so - and that includes not just works of history. The epigraph is Blake's "To see a World in a grain of sand," and that's what this book does. It moves from a very particular story - about a group of New York, largely Irish Catholic... [more]

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement and the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (1993)
This gem-like historical study is of an importance far greater than its title may suggest to those outside Higginbotham's field. Her book demonstrates the central role of the Black Baptist church in the struggle for racial and sexual equality through a critical historical analysis that is neither sentimental nor disengaged, neither romanticized... [more]

Holton, Woody, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999)

This is a remarkable study that can change the way you think about history. Why did the wealthiest and most anglicized class of colonists among the first to embrace revolt? In Holton’s hands, the Virginia gentry are propelled into the patriot movement by the Natives, slaves, debtors, and merchants among them. It is a... [more]

Isaac, Rhys, Transformation of Virginia (1982)
As a graduate student at the University of Sydney it was incredibly important that the best book about Virginia, a Pulitzer prize winner at that, was written by a South African born Australian living five hundred miles to my south. The book is brilliant, bristling with arresting insights into Virginia society, written wonderfully, and about as far... [more]

Jaffa, Harry, Crisis of the House Divided (1982)
What a good idea it is to let historians talk about their favorite books. My guess is that most of them--us--will cite books outside the discipline, however, because the methods they--we--bring to bear on the archive are usually derived from works that aren't normally classified as history. A case in point is one of my favorite books of all... [more]

James, CLR, Beyond a Boundary (1961)
Beyond a Boundary (1961) by CLR James, the best book on sports ever written, and one of the very best Caribbean memoirs as well. The story of the young cricketer (and schoolteacher's son) who learns, in Trinidad of the 1910s, that he is too much of a sports fanatic to become the lawyer or politician that his parents desire. And how he... [more]

Jordan, Winthrop, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (1993)
All good historical studies involve sifting and evaluating a wide variety of primary source material. Only a small number, however, incorporate a discussion of the process of analysis of the evidence as an important part of the story. Winthrop Jordan's study of a
slave conspiracy, discovered and thwarted by planters in Mississippi in 1861, is... [more]

Lepore, Jill, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (1998)
The Name of War might seem to be of interest mainly to students of colonial America, but it needs to be read by everyone, whatever their field of interest. It's one of those rare books of history that transcends its own apparent subject. Lepore shows how King Philip's War was a battle of words as well as a battle of arms. The struggle was for... [more]

Levine, Lawrence, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (1977)
The most important for me was Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness. It was a revelation, just like having a veil ripped away from my eyes. Most books that get published, you figure that given enough time you could hack out a reasonable facsimile, but BC had that divine touch that put it totally out of the reach of my... [more]

Lhamon, Jr., W.T., Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (1998)
After reading the ground-breaking work of Alexander Saxton, David Roediger, and Eric Lott, I imagined that I had little left to learn about the early development of blackface minstrelsy, but W.T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop is one of the most provocative and fascinating cultural history studies to... [more]

Neely, Mark, Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism (1999)
My favorite among recent books is Mark Neely’s Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism. Neely convincingly brings together information from a variety of sources, but most important from the records of the Confederate Secretary of War, to explode the common view of the Confederacy as more lenient... [more]

O’Connor, Alice, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (2001)
This is a splendid new book that traces the long gestation of poverty theory in the twentieth-century United States. It is what Foucault would have called a true “genealogy” of knowledge. Wonderful readings of such classics as The City, Black Metropolis, and Middletown shape the first third of the book, followed by a... [more]

Price, Jennifer, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (1999)
I'm trying to avoid saying that Jenny Price is a cross between Stephen Jay Gould, Erma Bombeck, and the Banana Republic catalogue when it was still written by freelancers who later went on to become award-winning novelists and nonfiction writers. Price looks at ordinary things and figures out why they matter for our historical relationship with... [more]

Rogers, Daniel, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998)
Recently, everyone talks about trans-national, international, or global history but few historians of the US do it, or do it well. Daniel Rodgers and his book prove exceptions to that rule. True, Atlantic Crossings is neither global history nor international history, but it certainly encompassses transnational history as Rodgers includes... [more]

Rosenzweig, Roy, Eight Hours for What We Will (1983)
Although ostensibly it bore no relation to what I was working on for my dissertation (the end of slavery in NYC) this was the book that prompted more ideas for my work than any other. You read some books and it’s partly you are particularly receptive, partly the writing style and in this case simply the open humanity of the author’s attempt to... [more]

Sherry, Michael, In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s (1995)
I'm not sure if Michael Sherry's In the
Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s
(Yale, 1995) should be listed as "best" or "neglected." A book that was reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Garry Wills can hardly be called neglected, but my impression is that is read mostly by political or military historians... [more]

Silverman, Debora, Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art (2000)
Debora Silverman is an historian at UCLA, but she is also an accomplished connoisseur of art and practitioner of art history. This book transcends disciplinary categories, and may be missed by historians since it appears to be an art catalogue or "simply" a work of art criticism. But it is a deeply historical account of the relationship of Van... [more]

Sugrue, Tom, Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996)
Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit is an axis to move US history away from several deeply felt mystifications.

First, it is a powerful aid in deconstructing the New Deal Coalition. Historians have been doing that for some time, pointing out its refusal to confront race and Jim Crow as the... [more]

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, A Midwife's Tale (1990)
Yes, I know it won the Bancroft and the Pulitzer, as well as two AHA prizes. There's a great film and a terrific website, and it scarcely needs more publicity from me. But Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale is the only history book I've ever read that I admired and enjoyed so much I wished I'd written it. Meticulously researched... [more]

Webb, Walter Prescott, The Great Plains (1931)
My favorite historical work, which will certainly surprise my colleagues in constitutional and legal history, is Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains. The book, of course, has had its ups and downs over the years, damned for its supposed geographical determinism and its efforts to shape the history of the West entirely in the framework... [more]

Weigand, Kate, Red Feminism (2000)
This book is a study of the US Communist Party's work on "the woman question," with special attention to the years from 1948 to 1956. At a time when the emergence of McCarthyism, or, to use Ellen Schrecker's preferred term, Hooverism, was helping to destroy left wing coalitions with the labor movement, the work with women, in mass organziations... [more]

White, Richard, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991)
Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 has been so successful in linking Native American history to the larger narrative of U.S. History. For too long, the rewriting of Indian history has veered between the overly simplistic stories of cultural persistence or violent conquest.... [more]

Williams, William Appleman, Contours of American History (1961)
The single most influential US history book after The Rise of American Civilization, by Charles and Mary Beard, because it firmly established the idea that the US is an empire, was an empire from its earliest days, and the nature of its expansion was always imperial, at base economic, rather than the "extension of freedom" (A.Schlesinger Jr... [more]

Wineburg, Samuel S., Historical Thinking & Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (2001)
I am somewhat biased here since I encouraged Wineburg to collect these essays together into a book. My motive was the realization that Wineburg’s work on historical learning and teaching was well known to people in education and cognitive psychology, but not to historians.

These essays constitute the most important body of work on historical... [more]