Books of the Year 2021
Revolutionary France, lights out in the Ottoman Empire, gross obscenity, Napoleon’s gardens and the humble index: ten historians reflect on a year of reading.
‘Previously invisible threads of causality and consequence’
Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago and author of The Aeneid–Vergil: a New Translation (Profile).
The best history books refocus our gaze on previously invisible threads of causality and consequence. Virginia Postrel’s fascinating The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World (Basic Books) recasts fibres and looms as the driving forces of human progress, exposing the impact of weaving – women’s work – across multiple cultures. Even scratches on Linear A tablets from Knossos turn out to refer to looms, not towers.
In contrast to this rosier view of human inventiveness, Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (Pushkin Press) offers a wrenching reflection, part fact, part fiction, on the entanglement of scientific discovery and destruction over the two world wars. A chapter on Prussian blue and Zyklon B dwells on the chilling effects of cyanide on the body, while the ‘pure’ field of mathematics emerges as a bridge to total self-destruction.
‘Heroism that genuinely defies belief’
Andrew Roberts, Author of George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch (Allen Lane).
Ruth Scurr’s Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows (Chatto & Windus) is a beautifully written account of Napoleon’s interaction with horticulture, from the little garden that he cultivated at school, to the one that he tended at the end of his life in Longwood on St Helena.
Catherine Ostler’s The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalised a Nation (Simon & Schuster) is a witty and engaging life of Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston and Countess of Bristol, who was tried for bigamy in 1776, which for all her subject’s scandal-ridden life is ultimately sympathetic.
Major Anders Lassen won the Victoria Cross and the Military Cross (with two bars) for his courage during the Second World War, dying aged 24 on a special forces operation in Italy in April 1945 while displaying heroism that genuinely defies belief. In Special Forces Hero: Anders Lassen VC MC (Pen & Sword) Thomas Harder writes about his short life with sensitivity and insight.
‘The distant past of enslavement remains with us today’
Martha S. Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor at The John Hopkins University and author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (Basic Books).
This year my stand-out books include Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake (Random House) and Mia Bay’s Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance (Harvard). Both are epic in proportion and bring complex subjects in African American history to broad readerships.
Miles interweaves three stories: that of an embroidered cotton sack, of generations of women who pass down love through a simple object and of Miles herself, the historian who unravels the mystery of its origins. She demonstrates how the distant past of enslavement remains with us today through enduring family ties.
Bay tackles nearly two centuries of travel as a barometer of racism in the US. While the vote and office holding have dominated our understanding of the Civil Rights struggle, Bay reminds us how getting to the meeting, rally or march was, in and of itself, an act of resistance.
‘Two books made me stop in my tracks’
Sujit Sivasundaram, Professor of World History at the University of Cambridge and author of Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire (HarperCollins)
Two books made me stop in my tracks, folding past and present into each other. The first is Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (John Murray). I worried that one of my favourite novelists would not write good nonfiction, but I could not put this book down. Spanning the early modern era to the present day, Ghosh delivers a meditation on the climate crisis, with analysis of fossil fuels, industrialisation and war and their impact on inter-species relations.
As urgent is Eddie S. Glaude’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (Chatto & Windus), which moves seamlessly between Baldwin’s time and Trump’s America. It is a call to confront the truth and legacies of the traumatic birth of America. One might think, ‘yes I know what to expect’, but both books, on themes at the forefront of public discourse, have original things to say.
‘A fascinating, funny and delightful history’
Katja Hoyer, Author of Blood and Iron: the Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918 (The History Press, 2021)
To me, a truly great history book is one that changes something in the way in which I see the world. Dennis Duncan’s Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure (Allen Lane) certainly achieved that.
I suspect that, like most people, I never spared a thought for the list of words at the back of a book. Who realised that there was such a fascinating, funny and delightful history behind the humble index? Dennis Duncan did, and I am glad he has shared it with us.
The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England (Hutchinson) also turned a fair few cogs in my head. As Marc Morris asserts in the opening chapter, most people have a fairly static picture of the early Middle Ages in their minds and it was no different for me. Delving into his beautifully written and lavishly illustrated study opened up a completely new world, which is full of real people, beautiful artefacts and tumultuous change.
‘Historical writing at its best’
Minh Bui Jones, Editor of Mekong Review
The books that stood out for me this year have nothing to do with Asia, my region of speciality. For instance, Sheila D. Collins’ Ubuntu: George M. Houser and the Struggle for Peace and Freedom on Two Continents (Ohio University Press) is on the life and work of Houser, an American clergyman who dedicated his life to fighting racial injustice both in his native country and in Africa. This biography straddles the lanes of history and hagiography, but is an engaging read nevertheless.
David Nasaw’s The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War (Penguin) on the race to settle refugees and war criminals hiding in Germany after the Second World War was equally rewarding. Despite the detours to US politics and the founding of the Israeli state, this is historical writing at its best.
Back in my bailiwick, Linda Jaivin’s The Shortest History of China (Old Street Publishing) and Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis are the best of this year’s bountiful crop.
‘An illuminating book draws us into the world of darkness’
Kate Fleet, Director of the Skilliter Centre for Ottoman Studies and Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge
Avner Wishnitzer’s illuminating book As Night Falls: Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Cities after Dark (Cambridge University Press) draws us into the world of darkness. A source of fear and insecurity, the night also brought with it the ability to conceal, to know but not to be seen to know, and the space for illicit entertainment and black-market trading.
Contributing to a wider debate on nationalism, nation and identity in the 19th and 20th centuries, Milena B. Methodieva’s excellent Between Empire and Nation: Muslim Reform in the Balkans (Stanford University Press) raises provocative questions about identity and perceptions of self among Bulgarian Muslims in a period of transition.
Brian McLaren’s Modern Architecture, Empire, and Race in Fascist Italy (Brill) offers a fascinating discussion of how the architecture of Fascist Italy was influenced by racial thinking and how imperial policies in Italian East Africa were reflected back onto the Italian mainland.
‘Bewitchingly original history books’
Joseph Hone, Author of The Paper Chase: The Printer, the Spymaster, and the Hunt for the Rebel Pamphleteers (Chatto & Windus)
Two of the most bewitchingly original history books that I have read this year both concern revolutionary France. The first is Colin Jones’ The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris (Oxford University Press), a thrilling blow-by-blow account of that fateful day in the summer of 1794. One can almost hear the ticking of the clock, minute by minute, second by second, counting down to the guillotine.
The second book is Ruth Scurr’s Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows, from which this most domineering of historical figures emerges with newfound sensitivity. Scurr reveals a man whose relationship with the natural world reflected his ambitions on the battlefield: the perfect combination of subject and biographer.
In my own field, the history of the book, Dennis Duncan’s Index, A History of the manages to be both a work of immense erudition and perfect Sunday afternoon reading.
‘An engaging read, full of compelling details’
Emily Rutherford, Junior Research Fellow in History at Merton College, Oxford
Christopher Hilliard’s A Matter of Obscenity: The Politics of Censorship in Modern England (Princeton University Press) is an engaging read, full of compelling details about the authors and publishers accused of trafficking in obscenity and about the politicians and judges who claimed to know it when they saw it. Hilliard reconstructs a complicated legal history alongside careful attention to how the law shaped, and was shaped by, social mores, the publishing industry and books and their readers.
Heather Love’s Underdogs: Social Deviance and Queer Theory (University of Chicago Press) is an intervention into the field of queer studies. But it is also an important work of intellectual history, tracing a surprising new genealogy that locates the origins of 1990s ‘queer theory’ not in literary studies, but in mid-20th-century empirical social research. It will appeal to readers invested in the nascent effort to historicise queer studies, but also to those interested in the history of the social sciences.
‘History’s great protagonists are ordinary people’
Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and author of Making the Arab World (Princeton)
Andrew Bacevich’s After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed (Macmillan) is a trenchant critique of US foreign policy and the ideology of American exceptionalism. Bacevich calls for the country to rethink its foreign policy fundamentals, advocating an approach that recognises the limits of military force in international affairs.
This year I reread Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, his masterful chronicle of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars which is a novel, rather than history, and was published over 150 years ago. Yet Tolstoy’s reminder that ‘kings are the slaves of history’ is more apt today than ever. History’s great protagonists – those who drive and shape it – are ordinary people. War and Peace is a plea for historians to take seriously the agency of everyday people. It is also a call to eschew explanations that reduce the struggle of people everywhere to the facile but false notion of ancient hatreds, tribalism or sectarianism; or the actions of kings, emirs and strongmen.