Writing History

Book publishing has its shortcomings. There’s always been a suspicion that many good books are left unpublished because of corporate pressures, editorial indifference or other troubling reasons. And, arguably, there are many areas in which today’s publishers may be more timid and unimaginative than their forebears.

But that’s not true with histories.

Over the last thirty-five years the number of provocative, high-quality, well-written histories in book stores has grown substantially. Many of these have been published by mainstream, non-academic publishers. The quality has been high. And these highly-regarded, well-researched books have found a general audience that might not have been predicted a few years back. To a non-historian, it appears that the gap between professional and non-professional historians has been bridged. Many journalists, essayists and writers from other fields have taken up the task of writing history, and they’ve done historical-writing a favor. They have brought a quality of rich story-telling that brings history to life.

Bill Petrocelli

The Familiar Remoteness of Bill Bryson’s 1927

No one writes with an easier grace than Bill Bryson. He has the rare ability to take a single, seemingly inconsequential observation and weave it, work it, and knead it until you’re hooked on the story.

Ten days before he became so famous that crowds would form around any building that contained him and waiters would fight over a corncob left on his dinner plate, no one haFC9780767919401d heard of Charles Lindbergh.

Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927 grabs the reader like a mug of hot chocolate, defying you to set it down before you’ve drained every drop. But for all of its warmth and easy familiarity, there’s a strangeness about the story he tells. America in 1927 was having an iconic moment – a time when a great many of our cultural legends were strutting around the stage and making their mark on history in a way that we still talk about today. Yet for all its familiarity, the America of 1927 seems to exist on some distant planet far away from our own world.

Foremost among the cultural legends who were having their moment in the sun was Lindbergh. The crowds and the adulation surrounding him dominate the narrative, weaving in and out of the story. But even as this was happening, Lindbergh himself remained an empty vessel – devoid of any real interest, significant ideas, or personal charm.  Lindbergh’s competitors for the first flight across the Atlantic get their share of attention as well, but the story of their foolhardiness and naiveté often borders on the hilarious. (more…)

The First Civil Rights Movement Began — in a Bookstore

2013 marks a pair of Civil Rights milestones. We celebrated both the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. So this might also be a good time to give a thought to the very first civil rights movement. That’s one with a special meaning for those of us in the book business. The earliest anti-slavery movement began in London 226 years ago in a bookshop.9780618619078

The long road to freedom for the slaves in America and elsewhere would have been much more difficult were it not for the work of that first group. Their story is brilliantly told in Adam Hochschild’s 2005 book Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves.

Hochschild marks the date and place where that first civil rights movement began.

“it [was] the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, when twelve determined men sat down in the printing shop at 2 George Yard, amid flatbed presses, wooden trays of type, and large sheets of freshly printed book pages, to begin one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens’ action movements of all time.” (more…)

What Was History’s Worst Month?

What was the worst month in history? An American might say December, 1941, with the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. To a Japanese, it could be August, 1945, with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Renaissance writers might have pointed to May, 1453, with the fall of Constantinople, or maybe May, 1527, with the sack of Rome. For sheer barbarity, probably nothing was worse than January 1943, when about 600,000 died at the battle of Stalingrad.

But Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War suggests another criterion. The worst month in history may be the one that sets the stage for the massive destruction to follow. If in one month’s time you manage doom your entire social system to destruction and set the stage for a century of unprecedented violence, you are probably in the middle of the worst 30 days in history. And yet as we approach the centenary of that cursed month, it’s shocking to see how mundane and ordinary everything seemed to the people who strolled their way — sleepwalked, Clark would say — through that period. The actors in that drama seemed to have no real sense of the mounting crisis of July, 1914.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914FC9780061146657

Christopher Clark

Two days before the great dividing line of July, 1914 — on June 28 — the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo. It was a shocking event to be sure, but it was no more shocking than dozens of political murders in the preceding decades (the U.S. had three Presidents murdered), and none of the others had led to war. The immediate reaction to this event was muted. But one month later — on August 1 — the troops were on the march and the slaughter had begun. On one side of that 30-day temporal divide are the old, stable, relatively peaceful monarchies of Europe that were inching their way towards social progress. On the other side lay the destruction of four empires, the unleashing of brutal ethnic violence, the loss of 37 million people in one world war, and the loss of another 60 million people in another world war that became all but inevitable. What could have happened in between those two dates that would account for that catastrophe?




New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

9781400032051Charles C. Mann

Under the deceptively simple title of 1491, Charles Mann has probably done more than anyone to raise awareness of the rich and surprising cultures that existed in the Western Hemisphere on the eve of the voyages of Columbus. (Since then, he’s written 1493. But more on that another time.) Far from being a primitive land populated by isolated groups of Aztecs and Incas, Mann—a science journalist by profession—shows convincingly that the peoples of North and South America were culturally diverse, technologically sophisticated, socially astute. This is history on the grand scale, challenging conventional wisdom at every point, including how the Native Americans got here in the first place.

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The Civil War Awakening


Adam Goodheart

Another history with a single year for a title, but the texture of this book is so rich that you would swear that you were caught up in an epic novel. Goodheart focuses on a brief period in American history, roughly from the election of 1860 to the outbreak of the Civil War a few months later. It’s a story we all think we know: Lincoln’s elected, the South secedes, and the war’s on. But put aside those preconceptions. From the rag-tag group of German immigrants that saved the most important Federal arsenal in the West, to the slaves who were still being dragged through streets in the North even as the South was seceding, to the majority group in Congress that was still voting to appease the South and protect slavery even as the guns were firing—be prepared for surprises on every paragraph. This is a true page-turner.

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Paris 1919

Six Months That Changed the World


Margaret MacMillan

Another year, another great work of history. When you’ve finished this rich and thoughtful book, you’re left with one thought: absolute power may or may not corrupt, but it certainly befuddles those who have it. MacMillan focuses on the Paris Peace Conference following World War I, in which Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson gathered together for six months and tried to patch together a world that had been torn asunder. At times, you can almost feel the claustrophobia in the room. They had almost no reliable information about what was happening in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Asia or anywhere else. and their decisions about almost every part of the globe came back to the haunt the world over the next ninety years. This is a magnificent, sobering book.

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Bury the Chains

Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves


Adam Hochschild

Hochschild, a journalist who teaches at U.C. Berkeley, focuses on the history of a movement. But not just any movement. As he points out, this was the first movement for social justice in the history of the world. A small group of mostly Quakers in London did something that was hitherto unheard of: they devoted their lives to a movement from which they would draw no personal benefit. In so doing, they set the template for every social movement since. Hochschild writes with wit, authority and a deep sense of empathy.

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