Thursday, January 05, 2017

Demons, Baseball, Skynyrd and More! My Sweet Sixteen Books of 2016

For someone pursuing a doctorate in History, I really didn't do that much reading last year. Much of the time I was skimming books by the dozens and reading lots of reviews. Still, I did manage to read from cover to cover a good number of books that I simply should have read, some of which I actually wanted to read. On occasion, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a title I had been avoiding was much more engaging than I thought it would be. And, I wound up reading a few books that had almost nothing to do with my academic program. Anyway, out of that group of titles I thoroughly digested last year, here are sixteen of my favorites:

European History

1. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon Press, 1950). Back in the day when I was hanging out at Yale Divinity School, people uttered the name Roland Bainton with something like reverence. The name plate below his giant portrait might just as well have read Solomon or Paul. After reading this book, I understand a bit more about why. Here I Stand was likely the twentieth century's best biography of Martin Luther in English. It was certainly the most popular and influential. Yes, it represents old-school historiography. More recent works, for example, rightly emphasize that Luther was no Lone Ranger of the Reformation. Without other leaders and places like Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva, nothing from Luther's legacy would ever have worked out the way it did. But in an age when Europeans and Americans were more comfortable with the idea of a singular, patrician leader like Franklin Roosevelt, this book was the perfect biography. It's still a great read.

2. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Clarendon Press, 1972). The author begins this contemporary classic with a basic assertion: "the style of pictures is a proper material of social history." In other words, paintings do not simply illustrate history once it is established by documents. Instead, paintings should be thought of and used as primary sources, along with documents. Or, as the author concludes, "the visual is  . . . the proper complementary to the verbal." This book goes a long way in establishing works of art as primary sources for understanding history. Baxandall's reflection at the end of the book about the actual primacy of the visual is by itself worth the price of admission. More historians should know this book.

3. Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006). The Very Short Introductions series keeps reeling me back in. A year goes by, I forget everything I didn't like about the last volume I read, and I wind up trying out some other title. It's not that the authors of the series aren't great scholars. They are. The problem, in my opinion, is the format. The small size of these introductions means they're more than an article, less than a complete survey. It's a tough awkward job for any author. However, with this particular volume, Jerry Brotton manages to pull it off. His coverage of the Renaissance begins with a good survey of the historiography, and then proceeds with sections on art, literature, humanism, religious reformation(s), women, exploration, etc. If you don't read any other book on the topic, read this one.

4. George Huppert, After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe, 2nd edition (Indiana University Press, 1998). Huppert specifies that his chronological coverage runs from the first outbreak of the Black Death in Europe in 1347 to its last appearance at Marseilles in 1721. Why this periodization? He explains: "After the Black Death had done its work, the survivors became more prudent. They did not allow themselves the luxury of multiplying again to the point of outstripping their resources as dramatically as they once had. To forestall famine, they learned to control population growth" (ix). This is the organizing theme for what has to be one of the most engaging social histories of the period. For students of Early Modern Europe, this is a must read.

5. Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist (University of Chicago Press, 1988). Don't be fooled by the sexy title. This book really isn't about an exorcist. It's about the complex world of a small-town priest in northwestern Italy in the 1690s. Along with a few other Italian historians, author Giovanni Levi is one of the founding fathers of a sub-discipline known as microhistory. No, that word doesn't refer to a tiny topic or bite-sized history. As Carlo Ginzburg explains it, think instead of what you do with a microscope: intense, detailed analysis. That's exactly what Levi gives the reader. If you want to learn about the history of exorcism, read something else. If you're interested in the detailed reasons why, for example, people in the early modern era sometimes got a much higher price when selling land to a family member as opposed to a complete stranger, then Inheriting Power might be for you. Just don't take it to the beach. It's not that kind of book.

6. Gary K. Waite, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe, 1525-1600 (University of Toronto Press, 2007). According to the author, this work “examines the rhetoric used against Anabaptists and their specific treatment by churchmen, interrogators, and executioners in the light of the magical world view that we know dominated the culture of the sixteenth-century populace.” In other words, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions compares the persecution of religious dissidents with that of the largely fictitious sect of devil-worshipping, magic-performing witches. Bottom line: in the era of the early Reformation, some people treated religious devotees as though they were witches, and vice versa. Seems like that sort of thing has a way of coming back around.

American Religion

7. Paul Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837, 25th-Anniversary edition (Hill and Wang, 2004). The early-nineteenth century Protestant revivals collectively known as the Second Great Awakening have deeply influenced American religion from the antebellum period to the present day. Because of its broad, long-lasting significance, historians have raised questions about how the Awakening began, what contributed to its rise, and what its essential character was. Some time around the 1960s, historians began probing the possibility that the revivals involved something more than just religion. For example, were there social, economic, and cultural contexts to the revivals? First published in 1978, A Shopkeeper's Millennium is one of the seminal works along this line of study. We get a taste of what Johnson is up to when he writes: “Revivals were a means of building order and a sense of common purpose among sovereign, footloose, and money-hungry individualists." Some religious people who have read Johnson's work have accused him of being reductionistic. They think that Johnson has taken a thoroughly-religious episode in American history and has turned it into something else entirely. I'm not sure that that criticism will stick. Read it and see what you think. Either way, like many others, you'll probably be pulled in by this engaging book.

8. Michael J. Lee, The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). As the author describes it, this book "examines how learned Americans dealt with the new and often unsettling ideas" coming out of Europe in the early eighteenth century, and that raised critical questions about the status of the Christian Scriptures and how they should be understood. Lee argues that by taking up evidentialist challenges to conventional views and literal interpretations of the Bible, American biblical scholars "gradually became increasingly naturalistic in their understanding of revelation." In effect, they conceded "that the Bible was accountable to outside authorities and needed to be reconciled to new fields of knowledge." The majority of English rational Protestants were confident that true reason would never contradict what the Bible affirmed. They believed that, if anything, rational inquiry would always confirm the Scriptures. Their American counterparts agreed. But neither group seems to have anticipated that their latitudinarian approach would subject revelation to independent investigation to test its veracity. In effect, the assumptions and presuppositions of the debate turned out to be the sources of the decline of traditional positions during the nineteenth century.

9. Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2008). On one level, Artillery of Heaven simply tells the story of American Protestant missionaries and one As’ad Shidyaq. Born in 1798, Shidyaq lived in that part of the Ottoman Empire now known as the Lebanese Republic. His life forever changed when he became the first convert to Protestant Christianity in that part of the world, and was subsequently tortured and killed. He thus became the first Protestant martyr of the American mission to the Middle East. As interesting and significant as this story is, Makdisi has received special notice for how he tells it. In general, most historical accounts of Christian missionary work are examples of institutional, denominational history. This is only natural since those producing the historiography are members of the community of faith that conceived and conducted the mission activities they describe. Makdisi presents another possibility. As he puts it, "[t]he only way to tell a story of a cross-cultural encounter involving Americans and Arabs is to enlarge dramatically the conventional scope of inquiry."

10. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture. New edition (Oxford University Press, 2006). The first edition of this book appeared in 1980 and instantly became a classic of American religious history. Marsden's basic conclusion was that fundamentalists of the late-19th and early-20th centuries  "experienced profound ambivalence toward the surrounding culture." He acknowledges that such is true of many distinct groups and movements. But, he notes, conservative Protestants in the U.S. went from being respectable in the 1870s to being peripheral and a laughingstock by the 1920s. What happened? Marsden answers that historians can only respond to such questions not by proving anything—not scientifically, anyway—but by an illumination that comes by way of what he calls "sympathetic insight." In his description of fundamentalism in America, Marsden begins by insisting that the phenomenon was essentially a religious movement. At the same time, like all other religious movements, fundamentalism lived within and responded to a distinctive culture. And that has everything to do with its character.

11. Mark R. Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2015). This book begins with an important historical footnote: back in 1967 Lynn White Jr. published an essay in Science magazine "claiming that Christianity had caused the environmental crisis." As Stoll points out, White's idea is one that lingers "in the back of a lot of people's minds when they think about religion and the environment." The author noticed, however, that many figures in the history of American environmentalism grew up in either Congregational or Presbyterian churches, both types "in the Calvinist tradition." What was the connection? Starting with questions like that, Stoll has written a unique book, one that "overlays American environmental history on American religious history." He makes a solid case that, in fact, religion had everything to do with the rise of American environmentalism, and that a person's formative religious outlook brings with it a controlling theology and view of the world, facets of thought that always make a difference in the way a person considers nature. Our environmental crises would not improve with the disappearance of religion, but it might improve with a religious tradition that could, like the old Calvinists, bring about systemic change for the better.

12. Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). This book is an intellectual history of conservative Protestantism in America from the end of the Second World War to the early years of the twenty-first century. Worthen defends her approach by pointing out that while not all thoughts and thinkers are equally good, scholars must take into account "that all people think, and that material forces alone cannot explain human experience." Though not herself an evangelical, Worthen evinces a real appreciation for her subjects and what she calls their crisis of authority. So, what does she believe is the crisis? In order to hear her answer, we must first understand her idea that the identity of American evangelicals is revealed not so much by their beliefs, but by their struggles. Worthen insists that what unites modern evangelicals is not their doctrinal conformity--which they have never been able to achieve--but their shared questions "borne out of their peculiar relationship to the convulsions of the early modern era." In other words, if we want to comprehend who evangelicals are, we should listen not to their confident affirmations, but to the questions and doubts with which they constantly wrestle.

American Political and Cultural History

13. Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (Yale University Press, 1982). Ever wondered why charades is a well-known game in America? As Karen Halttunen explains, it has something to do with cultural changes that unfolded in the U.S. beginning in the 1830s. The so-called Market Revolution and the growth of cities in America generated a new social phenomenon: anonymity, the problem (and potential) of becoming a face in the crowd. In a sprawling city unknown by the young man who had recently moved there seeking a job, who could he trust? America's response to this question was to establish certain habits, manners, and clothing that would make up the look and the way of respectable people. These kinds of social and cultural markers would indicate, it was hoped, who the good people were. The weakness of the plan, of course, was that when motivated by some less-than-virtuous desire, bad people could adopt the look just as well as good folks could. There are reasons why con men often succeed.

14. Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (Knopf, 2005). Grave suspicions about slave insurrections. The heartless treatment of black people: falsely accused, arrested, jailed, beaten, falsely convicted, and then burned at the stake or hanged, one after the other. It's all the stuff of the antebellum South, right? Not always. In this case, such horrors were perpetrated in pre-Revolutionary New York City! Read it and weep. The detail of this book will engage and impress you. The episode it relates will make you wonder about bigger questions: How is it that we human beings justify inhumanity? How do we legitimize incredible violence? Lepore is one of the most popular American historians of our day, and with good reason. She has an eye for great stories and tales that have yet to be really told.

15. Mark Ribowsky, Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd (Chicago Review Press, 2015). Disclaimer: If you check out the Amazon reviews of this book, you'll hear it panned and pummeled again and again. Informed fans and self-appointed sleuths love to hate it. I decided to read it anyway, as a sort of guilty pleasure. Ribowsky is a good writer, maybe a bit too "good," as he often uses sappy language and way too many words for my taste. Sometimes, reading Ribowsky is like watching a B-rate movie that you just can't pull yourself away from. Sure it's kind of cheesy, but you don't want to miss what comes next. He emphasizes the essential and central role played by Ronnie Van Zandt. The band was always his band. In fact, Ribowsky convincingly argues that without Ronnie, there would never have been anything like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

16. George Vecsey, Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game (Modern Library, 2006). If you're a long-time, well-versed fan of baseball, this book won't tell you much that you didn't already know. On the other hand, if you're more like me--someone who likes baseball, who keeps up with a certain team, but who doesn't know that much about the history of the game--then this book is for you. Vecsey is a veteran New York Times sports columnist who writes chapters as though they were long magazine articles. Some of his chapters tell stories of dark episodes (for example, "The Black Sox" and "Four Scandals"). Other chapters focus on the life and times of incredible players and personalities ("The Babe" and "Jackie Robinson"). Vecsey has a serious crush on almost all of his subjects, but he doesn't allow love to get in the way of insight. Above all, he knows how to write. The result is a book that, if you care anything about baseball, you'll wind up savoring like a good cup of coffee or a favorite dessert.

So, what were some of the better things you read in 2016? Has anyone else read the titles (or authors) I've listed here? And, what's on your reading agenda for 2017?

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