From Historiann: The New York Times Book Review Interview

Have you read the history news of late? If so, you’ve probably seen the comment and kerfuffle over the recent New York Times book review interview with James Macpherson. With his new book out on Jeff Davis, Macpherson was asked about what books he was reading, would recommend, etc. Normal book-selling shtick, except for where some historians noted the near-complete absence of women from the esteemed academic’s list of suggestions. As you might expect, Historiann weighed right in with a pithy comment or two. She followed those observations up with her own take on answering those same questions. Delicious!

Because, damnit, gender representation matters and if your long list of books you read and admire have nearly no women and nearly no diversity on it, that says something about your habits of mind that I’m not exactly thrilled about. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying there has to be a quota, but with so much amazing history being written by women and men worldwide, you need to keep yourself open to that range, not close yourself off in a comfortable corner.

Historiann challenged her readers to take the interview questions, just as she did, and answer them on their blogs. I’m doing that although a few of these questions are more challenging for me than they would be for an Americanist but, hey, what did I say about diversity and range? I teach 5500 years of history at every level from the freshman survey to the graduate seminar. If I’m not open to reading a wide variety, shame on me. Here’s my list, where’s yours or what do you think I need to read after seeing my responses? I’m all ears!

What books are currently on your night stand?

The top two (what? Who doesn’t have stacks of books on or serving as a night stand?) are The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet and Eleanor Hubbard’s City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in Early Modern London.

What was the last truly great book you read?

This is tough simply because I’ve read so many amazing and inspiring books in the past year. For history, I’d have to say that my most recent “oh wow!” moment came when I picked up Alison Games’ The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660. I’m so pleased that I assigned this for my second year British history students!

Who are the best historians writing today?

Natalie Zemon Davis, Judith Bennett, Bert Hall, Gabrielle Spiegel, Rosalind Crone, Robert A. Rosenstone, Bob Shoemaker, Tim Hitchcock, Deborah Harkness, Lisa Jardine, Tony Grafton . . . I could go on and on and on with a list of historians young and old (even older than me) who impress me with their elegant writing and their top-notch research.

What’s the best book ever written about the Civil War American history?

As a non-Americanist, in fact, as a non-Americanist who plotted her undergraduate courses specifically to avoid any and all American history courses (sue me: I’d been forcefed American history from the cradle, pretty much, and spent my urchin years re-enacting a French colonist at Fort Ouiatenon), I can’t say that I have any great insight on the field. Nonetheless, I will put in a plug for a book that just showed up on my to-read list: my former colleague Stephen Azzi’s new tome Reconcilable Differences: A History of Canada-US Relations because American history needs the corrective help of an outsider perspective every now and then.

Do you have a favorite biography of a Civil War-era figure?

Hmm. I don’t read all that many biographies but I have fond memories of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s multi-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

What are the best military histories?

Darned if I know, but I’m attempting to learn what with co-teaching a course on premodern war next term. While I studied the subject for the late Middle Ages while a grad student, that was ages ago and my readings since have been idiosyncratic. I’m actually swotting up with a daunting reading list of new-to-me books (thanks to H’Ann and company for providing some useful leads) but I’m loving David Parrott’s The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe, I can’t wait to read John Lynn’s Women, Armies and Warfare in Early Modern Europe and I have just picked up The Italian Wars, 1494-1559 by Mallett and Shaw. Stay tuned!

And what are the best books about African-American history?

I would not be the one to know this but my grad students and I get excited about Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll from 1975, which features in our methodological readings. Each and every year I discover something new about the history as well as something new about the book. Hardly flawless but indisputably important to the discipline.

During your many years teaching at Princeton, did you find that students responded differently over time to the history books you assigned? Did their Civil War interests change during that period?

Yes, students change. For all those who say that students read less and engage less? No. Some are seduced by technology and definitely tackle with issues of attention span but many have risen to the challenge and impress me with the reading they do for their own interests. Perhaps it is my work over the last several years in the field of pop culture and history but students appear more comfortable to share their own interests and obsessions with me as well as responding positively to my giddy excitement when I share with them what I believe is a great book. I’ve also gotten more comfortable with assigning flawed books or challenging books because it’s rewarding to see them tackle with arguments they find unconvincing and work to articulate why the book does or doesn’t succeed.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Voracious, unstoppable and omnivorous. I read cereal boxes and Nancy Drew. The encyclopedia. The Federalist Papers. Collections of American poetry. I read Jack Armstrong and Dick Francis. Oh, Cherry Ames! The entire if scant science fiction and fantasy shelves at my local library. I read every Agatha Christie published to date, a fair bit of Zane Grey, quite a few volumes in The Saint and, of course, every book about horses that came anywhere within my reach. I also remain grateful to my uncle for his sizable collection of vintage Mad magazines that helped me get through summer visits to my grandparents in northern Minnesota after the banker’s box of library books I brought with were all read. If it had words on it in a language I could decipher, I was probably reading it (again).

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

The novelization of Star Wars which I carried around all through high school until I had to tape the cover together. (You thought that I only pretended to be a fan, didn’t you?) I was inspired by Lucas to read Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and explore film and literature from new perspectives. Science fiction and fantasy inspired me to turn to great literature and intriguing non-fiction so that when I decided that geophysics was not the career for me, I had a fall-back that was pretty awesome: history!

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King is hardly a conventional history but it is passionate, smart and full of sarcastic black humour.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Jane Austen, of course, because nobody understands foibles like she does. Courtney Milan, who writes impressively transgressive historical romances. Oh, and Aphra Behn because she would have some amazing stories of her adventures.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

A book that I do not finish doesn’t tend to stick around for long. I know that I’m not an English professor precisely because my reaction to most of the great Victorian novels was “No way, no how, no more.” But my most recent disappointment with a work of history probably was with a new western civ textbook that sailed into my mailbox. It was much too slick and read much more like a production than an invitation to get down and dirty in the discipline so no thanks. Not adopting that book for my first year students!

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

No shame (see Victorian novelists above). But I am supervising a graduate student whose research is dealing with aspects of Victorian race and empire so next up is Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism because it is important and past time I read the work, partly for the grad student’s project but just as much for my own professional growth.

What do you plan to read next?

It’s Thanksgiving weekend. I am reading something wonderfully self-indulgent: What a Lady Demands by Ashlyn Macnamara, a dear friend and talented novelist. Along with the five other books on my currently reading list. . . .



Filed under history

9 responses to “From Historiann: The New York Times Book Review Interview

  1. Yay, Janice! Thanks for your terrific contributions to the #historiannchallenge.

    I never read Cherry Ames (was that more of a WWII production?), but of course I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew.

    • J Liedl

      Cherry Ames started in 1943. I believed that she was pretty cool even if I thought she should’ve gone for an M.D. herself. When I stumbled on Harlequin’s medical romances, I realized that Cherry Ames was not in that style at all! The Harlequins were much more focused on the romance than on the woman. Not sure I’d say that Cherry Ames was openly feminist but she certainly was more in the vein of Nancy Drew, right down to the mysteries she solved.

  2. Susan

    Love the Alison Games. Curious what you make of Hubbard

    • J Liedl

      Games is SO MUCH FUN. Her book is revitalizing my sophomore survey because I’ve focused the assignment to draw on some element out of her book. Students are already chomping at the bit to look at Madagascar, or diplomats in Turkey or how children of trader and colonist families were educated. Pretty ambitious for second year level!

      I’m excited about the subject area that Eleanor Hubbard’s covering but I’m wondering how much she can do with that in such a slim volume. I’ll be seeing once I crack the volume open, probably early in November at this rate.

  3. Bardiac

    Your dinner party sounds great! I don’t know Milan, but Aphra Behn and Jane Austen would be enough to make for a sparkling conversation!

    • J Liedl

      One of my great regrets with my teaching fields is that I almost never have an excuse to work Jane Austen into my classroom. Aphra Behn features pretty regularly, though, as she’s always a topic in Western Civ as well as early modern Britain.

  4. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Janice Liedl took the #Historiannchallenge at her blog and interviewed herself. Liedl is professor of English and European History and her favorites historians and books reflect her interests and speciality. She listed “Natalie Zemon Davis, Judith Bennett, Bert Hall, Gabrielle Spiegel, Rosalind Crone, Robert A. Rosenstone, Bob Shoemaker, Tim Hitchcock, Deborah Harkness, Lisa Jardine, Tony Grafton” as examples of her favorite historians.

  5. Pingback: #Historiannchallenge update, with loads of linky goodness! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  6. Pingback: #Historiannchallenge update, with loads of linky goodness! | Historiann