This started as an exceedingly long Facebook post, but I thought this was a better place to put it. These are my three favorite fun-to-read history things. (Feel free to add yours!)
The first is an article called The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie, which traces the social history of female blues artists through the lives of two seemingly lost great artists, Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. Along the way, the author explores the social lives of urban African American communities, the early recording industry, and a whole lot of stunning detail. The way it is presented is really impressive too, mixing video, audio interviews, the women’s surviving songs, and really beautiful prose.
The first book is Annals of the Former World by John McPhee. Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, it’s only kind of a history book. McPhee tells the geological history of the United States, and along the way, the history of geology as a discipline. If this sounds deadly dull, I thought it would be too, but the way he narrates the creation of a landscape over eons is beautiful and striking. If you are interested at all in the longue durée mode of history writing, McPhee should be an inspiration. The geologists he meets, particularly one who comes from a long line of Montana ranchers, are interesting enough that at times you wish they had their own book.
The last one is a little closer to my own work. Frances Karttunen is a linguist, anthropologist, and historian who has done so much to shape our understanding of Nahuatl, the language spoken in the former Aztec Empire. In Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors she turns to the men and women (especially women), who facilitated contact between cultures. Ranging from Finland to Mesoamerica to San Francisco, she writes these lovely little biographies of each person before bringing them together in a sort of thematic essay about them. She unites the stories of these people in the basic (very hard) realities of their lives. I love her openness to possibility, emotion, and ambiguity, which we so often avoid as a profession. It has totally shaped my dissertation and the way I approach human subjects, and I adore it.