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.
Book – The phrase ‘book of essays’ always suggests to me something stodgy, solemn and old-fashioned–until I remember that every Buzzfeed article is an essay by another name. Cover Me actually started as a series of posts on the author’s blog, and that pedigree shows, in a good way. It’s a compilation of nineteen bite-sized nuggets of popular music history, exactly the kind of irresistible stories that can keep a reader clicking through to the next page until the small hours of the morning.
Author Padgett is a music producer as well as a writer, and his industry knowledge informs and enriches these impeccably-written essays. Even after many years of blogging on the subject of cover songs (songs re-recorded by a different artist than the original) he was hesitant to delve into the subject in book form, because cover songs are not exactly a unifying theme. They belong to no one particular era, genre or movement–but that fact in itself makes them an ideal vehicle for a macro-view of popular music as a whole, at least the past 65-ish years of English-language popular songs. “Every major change in the music industry since the advent of rock and roll finds some expression in the world of cover songs,” Padgett writes, and he does an admirable job of delving into those larger connections and significances to make each song tell a larger story. Moreover, he writes history the way it should be written: as a series of human stories, emotional and compelling as well as informative.
As a casual music history fan, I was nervous that Cover Me would be a music snob’s book for experts only, but was pleasantly surprised. I already not only knew, but knew the words to, almost every song discussed, including all-time greats like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.” This is definitely a book to enjoy with YouTube on hand, to listen (or, in the case of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” and the accompanying music video, watch) along to every variation of the featured songs. Revisiting classics in this rich new way was a genuine joy, and I would recommend it to every teen and adult reader with even a slight interest in popular music or music history.
Book – Autism spectrum disorders exploded into the public consciousness in the early 2000s, along with worries that this sudden uptick in diagnoses meant that something unnatural was happening to children, something that had never been seen before. Really, Silberman explains, with great and gracious detail, our understanding of what “normal” development looks like and how eccentricity shades into disability is changing. In this book, he follows the history of autism and the researchers, parents, and people with autism who shaped our understanding of the different ways the human brains can work.
This isn’t a nice history; people have, historically speaking, not been nice to other people who have disabilities or even just differences that make them annoying. And since Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, who shaped our modern understanding of autism, were physicians working in Austria and Germany in the mid-twentieth century, eugenics and genocide play a large role in early chapters. It gets better after the Nazis, but that’s not a very high bar to clear. The way people diagnosed with autism have been treated under the guise of helping them to become “normal” is upsetting at best. And yet, I found this a very hopeful book. Despite the burying of Asperger’s research; despite the litany of abuse and mistreatment; despite the struggles autistic people still face in being understood, accepted, and listened to; Silberman paints a picture of a flourishing subsection of humanity, one with astounding gifts and a great uniqueness, one which is ready, in this age of technology, to come into its own.
Book – Did you know that traditional Inuit sealskin mittens have two thumbs, so they can be flipped and worn the other way when the palms get wet?
That’s not the kind of intriguing tidbit I’d expect to pick up from a book on the history of fashion, but it’s only one of the ways that Why’d They Wear That? exceeded my expectations. Most books on historical clothing are big, glossy coffee table books from museum presses. That’s great as a visual feast, but the focus of such books tends to be narrow, and the text is often dense, dry and in tiny font.
Why’d They Wear That? gloriously smashes that mold, but without sacrificing either visual pleasure–it’s bright, bold and gorgeous–or quality of information. It’s playful in tone, deeply readable and, most importantly of all to me, focuses on whys as well as whats, delving into the practical and societal causes and consequences of what people wear, such as the significance of indigo dye to colonialism and Anglo-Indian relations. And it’s wonderfully broad in scope, not only covering a vast stretch of time but also–as in the Inuit example above–maintaining a truly global perspective.
Obviously with so much to cover in a slim 200 pages, Why’d They Wear That? provides more of an overview than an in-depth examination. But as a casual read for a cozy afternoon, it’s a fabulous choice for anyone (adults too, despite its home in Juvenile Nonfiction!) who’s interested in costuming, fashion or history.
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.
Book— Structured into six chapters covering six seminal events in Revolutionary American history, Founding Brothers provides a glimpse into the psyches of America’s founding generation. According to Ellis, accounts of the founders often render these men heroically remote and untouchable (well, until the Hamilton musical, that is); by focusing on the bonds among them, Ellis hopes to render his subjects more accessible. Discrete incidents such as the dinner that decided the location of the U.S. capitol and the duel that took Hamilton’s life reveal who these men were when their characters were tested. Ellis’ writing shines when he humanizes the founders with little personal details. Jefferson often sang under his breath. Madison was sickly. Adams was choleric and has a tumultuous friendship with Jefferson. Ellis’ accessible story-telling makes the Revolution feel immediate and precarious rather than a foregone conclusion with the benefit of hindsight.
For a closer look at some of the founding fathers, check out Ellis’ other books, like American Sphinx, which focuses on Jefferson, and His Excellency, which portrays Washington.
Book— His Bloody Project concerns the murder of a husband, wife, and child in a remote 1800s Scottish highland town. There is no question that local teenager Roderick Macrae is guilty. Framed as a series of historical documents found by the author, Macrae’s fictional descendant, the novel captivates not on the basis of who did the murders, but why he did the murders. We get views of Roderick from his neighbors, his lawyer, the newspapers, his priest, a famed criminal anthropologist of the time, and his own diary, each of them proffering viable explanations . Despite all of this testimony, I was unsure at the end what motivated Macrae and am still spinning theories to explain his reasons.
I was surprised to learn this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. His Bloody Project has all the drive and atmosphere of a tautly written thriller and is more reminiscent of the documentary Making a Murderer than the literary fare that generally garners Man Booker prizes. If you enjoy this novel, I would recommend others with compelling, unreliable narrators in historical settings, such as The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell.
Book – Every once in a while, a book picked up on a whim can be surprising in wonderful ways. That was my reaction to Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World. I was expecting a conventional history of precious stones and jewelry. I got both less and more than that, and wasn’t at all disappointed in the exchange.
Stoned is to traditional, chronological histories as a volume of short stories is to a novel. Chapters jump around in time, but each is a fascinating and complete slice of history in its own right. Chapter subjects are chosen not only to entertain and inform, but used to explore the larger question why human beings value what we value, becoming far less mineralogical or artistic than social and psychological history. For example, the first chapter explores the popular myth that the Dutch purchase of New Amsterdam (later New York) was somehow a swindle because Venetian beads were used as currency, pointing out that glass beads were, at the time, a rare and precious commodity with a globally recognized worth. We wouldn’t balk today at someone purchasing land rights with a sackful of diamonds–why do we respect one variety of shiny bauble but look down on past peoples for prizing another? And what’s going on in our brains that makes us value gems in the first place?
Author Raden does a great job choosing subjects that are both interesting and significant, from the pearl that changed Tudor history to the role of Faberge eggs in the Russian Revolution to the conquistadors’ emeralds to how cultured pearls helped Japan become a world power. Her voice is entertaining and pacing is brisk, making Stoned a quick and fascinating read. It’s perfect for anyone who loves popular and casual histories like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Book – In the mid-1980s, dozens of childcare providers were tried, and some convicted and imprisoned, for sexual abuse of children on an unprecedented scale. While in some cases abuse really occurred, the charges were massively inflated, the product of accusations made by children who had been through hours and hours of aggressive interrogation and “therapy” designed to help them recover memories they had suppressed. Into the 90s, adult women were coming forward with allegations of abuse, often connected to Satanic cults, that they had not known about before the memories had been “recovered” in therapy. And by the year 2000, almost all of the charges and convictions resulting from these kinds of allegations had been dropped or rescinded.
Beck does more describing the situation than explaining it in his book, covering the groundbreaking McMartin trial (one of the longest and most expensive in American history) in great detail, but also drawing connections with other, similar cases going on around the country. Beck puts the whole thing down to a growing cultural discomfort with the disintegration of the nuclear family and the development of new therapeutic techniques that turned out to be more damaging than helpful.
The McMartin case broke six months before I was born, but I remember reading about it as a teenager in connection with the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers who were convicted as part of the “Satanic panic” and only released in 2011. I’ve always been amazed – and a little scared – at how huge the whole thing got before anyone was willing to step up and say, This is ridiculous, this cannot possibly be real. The destruction of one accused family is chronicled in Andrew Jaerecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which Beck mentions in the book.
Book – Books of Hours are the most common book we have from medieval history – beautiful, elaborate manuscripts created for one (very wealthy) person, providing them with a list of holidays throughout the year and prayers throughout the day. Inspired by this format, Jenkins has created a kind of uber-trivia book, a collection of small historical stories and interesting bits of information that match up with the hours of the day and the months of the year.
The cherry-blossom festivals of Japan, duelists who dreaded getting up in the morning more than the upcoming duel, writers’ personal schedules and national holidays, recipes and recommendations (including a recipe for Nostradamus’s aphrodesiac jam, and a recommendation not to try it), historical snapshots of Renaissance Florence, 1930s Shanghai, and desserts that you set on fire before serving – this book has a little bit of everything. More in-depth than a usual trivia book, but without a wholly defining theme, other than the passage of time, I found this perfectly wonderful for curling up on a rainy day with a cup of tea.