Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Book – Sylvie and her family are taking a holiday to live as ancient Britons. Her father is obsessed with ancient ways of life, from traditional knowledge like hunting and foraging to ancient religion and the bodies found in the bogs. (Sylvie is named after an ancient goddess.) They’re joining a class of experimental archaeologists, students who are much less committed to the reenactment than Sylvie’s father. The longer the trip goes on, the further the students are drawn in to the environment of the Iron Age – just as Sylvie, inspired by the students’ stories, begins to dream of a different future for herself. And then the professor suggests that they build a ghost wall – a barricade topped with skulls the Iron Age Britons used to use in war – and things begin to get very serious very quickly.

Ghost Wall packs a hefty punch in less than 150 pages. Sylvie isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator (she knows perfectly well that her father is obsessive and abusive) but the things she accepts without question make for a very particular point of view. Her father’s obsession with a “pure” British history raises questions of immigration and identity, and the directions he takes his obsession raise even more questions about what virtues there are in knowing your own history.

Craeft by Alexander Langlands

Book – Before the modern era, before the Industrial Revolution, before mass production and manufacturing, most everything humans did was a matter of craft (or, to use the archaic spelling, Craeft) – a combination of skill, thriftiness, ingenuity, and necessity. In this book, Alexander Langlands explores some of the components of craeft from historic England, reflecting on the skills and resources involved and the way all the various components of the landscape interact with one another.

Langlands had my dream job: he was an experimental archaeologist, using the tools and techniques of history to better understand the way the past worked. He was clearly in this job by temperament as much as anything, because throughout this book he displays a remarkable curiosity about not just the individual components of historic life but the whole system of the thing: the way one skill led into another, one craft creating byproducts that in turn become the core structural elements of another. He calls this kind of systemic, interdependent thinking “craeftiness,” a mode of relating to the world that abhors waste the way nature abhors a vacuum, finding a clever, economical use for every scrap, and making every expenditure of energy do at least two jobs.

This isn’t your ordinary history book; in fact, I’m hard-pressed to find anything to compare it to. It’s deeply personal, each chapter (focusing on a different craft, from haymaking to basket-weaving to wall and barrow building) exploring Langlands’ own experience with the skill as well as his archaeological knowledge of its history. It’s profoundly location-based, as suits a book about the way pre-industrial people lived. And, crucially, it’s not nostalgic or romanticizing of the past: Langlands is well aware of how hard all this work is, having done much of it himself, albeit without life-or-death consequences. What he’s explaining is not just these individual skills that have been lost in the wake of cheap petroleum-based energy, but a way of thinking that was lost along with them, one which might become necessary in the near future, as petroleum-based energy becomes not so cheap.

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

Book-– Written by former director Neil MacGregor of the National Gallery in London, A History of the World in 100 Objects uses artifacts in the museum to tell the story of the world from our prehistoric origins all the way through to today. MacGregor refreshingly focuses about equally on objects from the Orient as well as the Occident, including such disparate artifacts as a Korean roof tile and a modern-day credit card. The joy of this 700+ page tome comes from how completely knowledgeable and intelligent MacGregor is; I felt MacGregor struck a nice balance between the breadth of topics he covered and the depth he delved into for each topic. I learned more about history, and had more fun doing it, from this book than I ever did in school. If you prefer a listening experience over a reading one, you can also download the entire collection, divided into 100 episodes, from the BBC’s website for free.

If you enjoy this book, you might also like others that take a concrete, artifact-based view of historical events, such as The Civil War in 50 Objects. If you were more intrigued by this book’s birds-eye, macro view of history, try A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (has a science bent) or Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.