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Episode 38: The Best History Books You Read This Year

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At the end of the year, a flurry of “best books of the year books hit publications. For the last episode of 2023, I wanted to try something a little different on Drafting the Past. Rather than come up with my own best books list, I asked listeners to call in and leave a message with the best history book they read in 2023 (it didn’t have to be published this year). I loved hearing about the books you guys have been reading, and I hope you enjoy these reading recommendations, too. Should we make it an annual tradition?

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Transcript:

Kate Carpenter: This is Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history, and I’m Kate Carpenter. For the last episode of 2023, I wanted to try something a little different. At this time of year, it’s hard to escape a deluge of “best books of the year” lists. Honestly, I read all of them, I kind of love these lists even though I know how imperfect they are. But rather than force you just to hear my opinions about the books I read this year, I’m handing over the microphone to Drafting the Past listeners. I asked listeners to send me messages about the best history book they read this year, and they delivered.

Kate Carpenter: I told listeners they could talk about any book they loved this year—it didn’t have to be published in 2023. After all, books don’t disappear after the year they’re published, and it’s always worth sharing a favorite.

Kate Carpenter: The first couple of responses are from listeners who take us back in the Drafting the Past archives. First up, here’s a former guest on the show with his recommendation:

Zachary Schrag: Hey Kate, it’s Zach Schrag from Episode 4. I want to put in a plug for S. C. Gwynne, His Majesty’s Airship, which was published in May 2023. My wife and I enjoyed it as an audio book on a road trip to a family celebration, pausing the recording at intervals so we could marvel at the latest twist in the story. The book is a great blend of narrative and analysis, combining stories of war, sex, and disaster with insights about the histories of technology and empire. Great narration by Nicholas Bolton.

Kate Carpenter: If you haven’t already listened to Zach’s interview in Epsidoe 4, I highly recommend it. It’s an excellent deep dive into craft, and I hear from listeners all the time that it’s a favorite. If you’re new to the podcast, especially, it’s one I recommend going back to catch up on.

Kate Carpenter: Next, here’s a response featuring a book that was also on Drafting the Past this year:

Jason Herbert: Hey, this is Jason Herbert, I’m the creator of Historians at the Movies, and I’m usually up to all kinds of historical shenanigans. And the best book I read this year was Sarah McNamara’s Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South. And if you don’t know anything about Ybor City, it’s maybe a town you don’t know about, but it’s a town you need to know about. And the book itself has everything a history book should have. You’ve got stories of migration, family, gender, sexuality, crime, passion–this book has everything, and as I read this book, I kept thinking that this is the book that everybody should be reading. So there you go, that’s my pick for 2023 book of the year. Sarah McNamara’s Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South. Grab some Cuban coffee and settle in; it’s an awesome read.

Kate Carpenter: Thanks Jason. If you’re listening to this and are not already familiar with Historians at the Movies, which is a social media phenomenon and is now also a podcast and newsletter, I highly recommend that you check it out. It’s a great time, and Jason is doing excellent work in bringing historical expertise to the public in new and very not boring ways.

Kate Carpenter: Here are a few more responses from listeners:

Omar Valerio-Jimenez: Hi, my name is Omar Valerio-Jimenez. I am a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and one of the books that I re-read this year is called The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, and the author is Monica Munoz Martinez. It was published by Harvard University Press and it’s a book that was published in 2018 but I re-read it this year for my own work, and it was a great read. I think it combines collective memories, oral histories, and very deep archival research. It won all sorts of awards, and there’s a personal connection as well I think with the author, her relatives were impacted by some of the violence that she writes about. She’s a professor now at the University of Texas at Austin. That’s all. I love your program, I’ve heard several of them, and I really enjoy the interviews that you do. Thank you.

Jim Ambuske: Hi Kate, it’s Jim Ambuske from R2 Studios at George Mason University, and the favorite history book for me this year is Dr. Christian Anya Crouch’s Nobility Lost: French and Canadian Martial Cultures, Indians, and the End New France. The reason it’s my favorite is in part because as we were beginning production of our podcast series Worlds Turned Upside Down, which is a history of the American Revolution, we knew we needed to talk about the history of New France and wanted to talk about the history of New France in the mid 18th century, but Dr. Crouch’s book and the subsequent interview we did with her fundamentally changed the direction of our podcast project and forced us to rethink how we wanted to structure the early episodes. And it gave us an opportunity, at least we think, to offer our audiences a view of early America and a view of the early Revolutionary period that they might not have encountered before by telling a more comprehensive story of the history of new France, its rsie and ultimately its fall. So we were grateful for the opportunity to do that; it’s one of those instances where a book really forces you to rethink what you knew and forces you to change a project in really productive ways. So thanks for the chance to talk about this book, and thanks for all you do on Drafting the Past.

Dominique Jean-Louis: Hi, this is Dominique from New York, and the best history book I read this year was Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class, Blair LM Kelley. I thought I knew this history well, but she does such an amazing job of centering family and centering community and making the experiences feel evocative and really lived. I thought this book was a masterpiece, and I was completely absorbed by it, I was really bummed when it was finished, it’s definitely the best history book I read this year.

Kirke Elsass: Hello, my name is Kirke Elsass. The book I read this year that I loved was Candace Millard’s 2005 The River of Doubt, an account of Teddy Roosevelt’s ill-fated expedition through the Amazon. This book, what I loved about it, is that it was packed with asides that included personal backstories of the people on the expedition as well as cultural and zoological facts that gave context for what the expedition was going through, and yet the story just had this incredible drive and consistency. You never lost the narrative of the expedition itself. So, I loved the way that all of that was woven together and I admired it.

Kate Carpenter: A couple of listeners didn’t have a way to record their recommendations, so they wrote in instead. The first is Pat McDermott, who wrote: “My favorite history book of 2023 was The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science, written by Kate Zernike. Zernike’s compelling narrative follows the career of Hopkins from biology student at Radcliffe through her doctorate and her work in research, leading to her career on the faculty at MIT. Along the way there are incidents, small and large, of sexism by male mentors and colleagues. As the scope expands to tell the stories of other pioneering women scientists and the discrimination they faced, the reader feels the enormity of what Hopkins faced: less funding, work not credited to her, less actual lab space, and even the theft of her intellectual property as male colleagues sought to monetize her popular introductory microbiology course. Hopkins and female colleagues documented the discrimination and presented the data to the MIT administration, leading to real change at the university. I’m a little more than a decade younger than Hopkins, and, like her was a student in a male-dominated field (architecture). The Exceptions rang true to my experiences in the 1970s. I’m giving this book to my sister-in-law, an electrical engineer, and have recommended it to several younger friends who are women working in the sciences.”

Kate Carpenter: Thanks, Pat, this sounds like a fascinating book. Another listener, Anna Chapman, emailed to recommend the book Margaret Fuller by Megan Marshall. Anna writes that this book has a comprehensive and responsible use of resources, excellent writing, and is a compelling tale with tragic ending. Anna writes: “I also loved her The Peabody Sisters, which I read last year and value for the craft lessons it contains along with the narrative.”

Kate Carpenter: These all sound like great recommendations, and I’m adding them to my own reading list. Alright, let’s go back to the call-in recommendations:

Monica Vasile: Hi, my name is Monica Vasile, I am an environmental historian at Mastricht University in the Netherlands. The best history book I read this year is Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia, by Gregg Mitman. The book tells the story of Firestone, a corporation that transformed Liberia into America’s rubber empire, and it is a story of capitalism, racial exploitation, and environmental devastation. And to me, the book is the best because it is impeccably researched and Mitman’s storytelling brings very complex and ambivalent characters to life. He connects intricate details and offers exceptional contextualization. The narrative experience is simply riveting.

Judy Arginteanu: Hi, this is Judy Arginteanu, from Richmored, Virginia, and the best history book I read this year is The Silk Roads, by Peter Francopan. It’s also the only history book I read this year, I’m getting back to my pre-pandemic levels of reading, it’s taking a while. I’ve always been interested in that area of the world, I know very little about it, and it’s kind of still shrouded in mystery, at least parts of it. He starts from the beginning of time, packs it with information, and yet it’s amazingly readable. I haven’t finished it, but I know I will. I feel like I know so much more about that area with a new approach to it, not as a backwater, but as continuing to be a really important, complex, and fascinating part of the world.

Patrick: My favorite history book this year was Black AF History, by Michael Harriot, which was both hilarious and deeply moving and personal, and very eye-opening.

Elizabeth H Tussey: Hi, my name is Elizabeth Tussey, and the best history book I read this year was Deviant Maternity: Illegitimacy in Wales, from 1680-1800. And it was written by Dr. Angela Muir. It’s an amazing book, very well researched, and really helps understand a hidden part of Welsh women’s history.

Sean Kane: Hello, this is Sean Kane, PhD candidate at Binghamton University from Kansas City, Missouri, working on the history of science and zoology in the Renaissance. And my favorite history book that I read in 2023 was Michael Allen’s Zarafa: A Giraffe’s True Story from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris, about the first giraffe to travel to France in the modern period in the 1820s, I believe it arrived in 1824, during the Bourbon Restoration, the reign of Charles X. And when I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago I actually went to visit the building where Zarafa lived, in the Jardins des Plantes. So, a very personal story about a fascinating giraffe. Apparently, Zarafa the giraffe can be visited today in a museum in La Rochelle, where he is taxidermied. Thank you.

Rebecca Rego Barry: Hi, this is Rebecca Rego Barry, and the best history book I read this year was called Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes by Devoney Looser.

Kate Carpenter: And one listener just couldn’t quite bring herself to stick to one book:

Jen Binis: Hello, I’m Jen Binis, on twitter or @history101, so of course my books are about education history. 2023 was a remarkable year for books about American education history, and I absolutely – I couldn’t narrow it down to one! So I guess I’m going with the best and the one that’s sticking with me, but first, of course, I have to give a shout out to one that wasn’t about education history. Lydia Moland’s book about Lydia Marie Child: A Radical American Life, I loved it, I loved how she kind of pulled together the big things happening around Child at the same time she spoke about the personal. It’s a fairly remarkable book, it’s one of my favorites, it’s definitely remaining on my shelf and one I’m going to keep going back to again and again. I love the writing, I love the history, it’s fantastic. In terms of big education history books, I absolutely adored Jon Shelton’s The Education Myth; it goes beyond policy to get into recent shifts in how we conceptualize American education. Also, the same way for Jarvis Givens’ School Clothes, where he talks about Black students’ experiences in school in history and connects it to the present. It’s a remarkable follow-up to his book Fugitive Pedagogy, really appreciate his writing. But, I do have to say the best book I read was not by a historian, it was by a journalist who went deep into the history: Death of Public School, by Cara Fitzpatrick.

Kate Carpenter: There was one book that earned two recommendations:

Karen Cox: Hi, this is Karen Cox from UNC-Charlotte. The best history book I read this year, and I was a little late to come around to it, was Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried. I was just blown away by that book. It made me rethink how you write history, about the silences and how you fill those gaps, and it was just a beautiful piece of writing and history.

Bethany Bell: Hi Kate, my name is Bethany Bell, and I’m a second year masters student in history at the University of Virginia. I am a huge fan of your podcast; I really enjoy listening to you and your guests and learning more about the craft of writing history. My favorite history book that I read this year is All That She Carried, by Tiya Miles. It’s such a remarkable book, and so beautifully written. It’s really important for me, as someone who writes about African American history in the 19th century, because Dr. Miles demonstrates how important and how possible it is to write a really rich, and generative history based on fragments in the archive. I love her use of material culture as the entire book is inspired by this physical item of Ashley’s sack. So the book gave me so many ideas for new sources, and new methods, and again, reinforced how essential and how really careful, meticulous, attentive work can create something that tells a fuller story and a fuller picture of African American life.

Kate Carpenter: All That She Carried is probably the most consistently recommended book by DTP guests, as well, so I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t already.

Kate Carpenter: And finally, one recommendation comes to us from the future, in the form of a book that’s not out yet but that this listener was lucky enough to read in advance. I’m hoping this is also a hint of things to come on Drafting the Past in 2024.

Jeremy Long: The best book I read this year was actually by my professor, Tore Olsson. it’s called Red Dead’s History, it comes out next year, and it’s all about using the Read Dead Redemption games as a tool for teaching history and what they can teach us about American history, especially of the West. It’s fantastic.

Kate Carpenter: Big thanks to all of these listeners for calling in with their favorites! All these titles will be linked in the show notes at Draftingthepast.com. And if you’d like to read about some of the books I’m most looking forward to next year, sign up for the new Drafting the Past newsletter. I can’t wait to be back in the new year with even more excellent interviews with historians. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy some rest, some reading time of your own, and that you remember that friends don’t let friends write boring history.

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