“Homage to Catalonia” — George Orwell — As a historian, what I love about “Homage to Catalonia” is that one can see in his experience of Spanish Civil War not only the origins of World War II but also the Cold War. What makes it so interesting is that it comes from the 1930s, and while Orwell was certainly an anti-Stalinist, he was someone who questioned the abuse state power and the exercise of state power in all its forms. Unfortunately the book became a political weapon during the Cold War, like so much of Orwell’s writing, and was used in ways he would have found boring and not complicated enough. But he died in 1949, so we don’t get to know what he would have thought about the Cold War state in the West. And lastly, Orwell is just such a wonderful writer.
“Lucky Jim” — Kingsley Amis — This is one of my very favorite novels, mainly because it makes me laugh so hard. It is sort of a precursor to HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” though it’s set in the academic world. Jim, the protagonist, finds himself in all sorts of awkward social situations and misunderstandings, yet everything works out hilariously implausibly. Amis is a wonderful stylist and a wonderful storyteller, yet what’s amazing about his book is its relevancy to Anglo-American academia today.
“American Pastoral” — Philip Roth — I really like historical fiction that evokes a period or time, using the powers and imagination of a fiction writer to do the kind of work historians always want to do. “Pastoral” is about a family’s struggle in the era of Vietnam, and the human tragedies provoked by that epic in American history. What I like about the novel is its complication of history through making it personal — it doesn’t disregard the established debates about the Vietnam War, but instead it moves it into the field of individual pain. And so it opens up an historical experience that can’t be done any other way. Roth is just the best.
“The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers” — Carl Becker — This is a book written in the 1930s by one of my all-time favorite historians. Becker has the ability to think otherwise, to think in big ways that are different than received wisdom. He shows the rationalists, the French Enlightenment philosophers, showing their profound religiosity — their fanatical belief in empirical knowledge. For Becker, the Enlightenment is less a time of reason than one of devotion to the mystical power of science and social science. He wrote this during the Depression, when the world was wrestling with what is possible through state planning, and is suggesting the belief in the power of man to plan utopias that it is a leap of faith more than anything else. It’s one of those books that I return to — and I first read in college — to understand how important the study of form, as distinct from strict content, is for the analysis of ideas.
“Beloved” — Toni Morrison — What’s wonderful about this extraordinary novel is how it weaves in all different forms of historical narrative. It’s based on a real event — a mother who makes the ultimate sacrifice with a child’s life to escape a greater tragedy — and stays very close to what is known about that event. Yet Morrison writes from a unique vantage point, creating a history of race, identity and human interaction. She takes on some of the grand narratives of what we think we know about 19th-century race relations, relations between the North and South, and refracts it through the prism of fiction and of unconventional historiography. To write a history of feelings and memory is what historians would all be happy to do.
Very honorable mentions: “Typee” by Herman Melville, “USA Trilogy” by John Dos Passos, “John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy” by Samuel Flagg Bemis and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” by Milan Kundera.
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