- Some of the biggest impressions the History Reading Challenge has made on me
- Suggested places to look for more
One winter’s day five years ago, my New Year’s resolution for 2013 was born as the History Reading Challenge blog. I promised myself one book about every two weeks, for a total of twenty-four books set on each of the seven continents that year. I’m still proud of having pulled it off, although I couldn’t keep up that pace for the four years that followed. As some of you who have been following me for a while have noticed, I haven’t posted much recently. Life is getting in the way, and it’s time to say thank you to my readers and goodbye.
In the last five years, my literary diet has consisted almost entirely of history. During the History Reading Challenge, I’ve read two novels: one unmemorable fantasy novel I’d been pestered to read and Andy Weir’s outstanding The Martian. While I’ve developed a marked preference for nonfiction, I’m starting to miss hard science fiction. I want to read the sort of classics that weren’t on my high school’s reading list, like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? without rushing through it on my way to another history book.
Finding history books that interest me is also getting harder. As many of you will have noticed, I dislike books about battles, war heroes and armaments, and war topics make up a huge proportion of history published in trade paperback. Plus, five years into this project…I’ve read a lot of what already appears on the shelves at the local Barnes & Noble. I’ll still check for the new releases for the sake of interest, and I hope you will, too.
This challenge has really changed my perception of the world. First, I have less patience for pop news about Hollywood when I watch the evening news now. Television producers push those stories on the public because there is an appetite for them, yes, but mainly because they are cheaper than posting reporters around the world for international coverage. Are Muslims still being oppressed in Myanmar? Sure, but that story didn’t get much traction with the American public, so it’s out of the news cycle now that the pope’s visit is over. Second, I’ve had my eyes opened to how much international events touch people we know. My Czech in-laws describe the Soviet tanks rolling into town for the Prague Spring. An Armenian friend and coworker shared that her father was part of the same march to Ottoman internment camps described in Dawn Anahid MacKeen’s excellent The Hundred-Year Walk (please read this book if you haven’t already…if you aren’t Armenian, then you probably don’t know anything about this shocking history).
I’m still thinking often of my favorite books, some of which I read in the first year of the Challenge. What’s surprising is that sometimes the books I found myself recommending at the time aren’t the ones that have stayed with me the most. Here are a few that have changed me.
Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene. I think of this book anytime Russia comes up in the news. Greene doesn’t so much describe a single historical event as capture some of the essentials of the Russian culture. Putin’s popularity there makes more sense to me, having read this book about the fascinating characters Greene met in his travels…only some of whom had been planned as interviews.
In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson. This book about the American ambassador and his daughter in early-1930s Germany is easily my favorite of Larson’s books. The ambassador doesn’t like the look of these Nazi-types but can’t get anyone Stateside to pay attention to him. His daughter, meanwhile, socializes with some of the men he distrusts, German and Russian alike. When the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, it’s not because the situations he describes are so obscenely awful…but that they are so eerily normal.
All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer. Until I read this book, I hadn’t realized that Iranians prior to the mid-twentieth century typically had a favorable opinion of Americans. During the Eisenhower administration, the CIA helped British intelligence dispose of a prime minister who sought to nationalize the oil industry…meaning a lot of British Petroleum’s physical plant was about to change ownership. It’s the sort of thing that didn’t show up in my high school history book and probably not yours, either.
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joann Druett. Two groups of castaways, one island…two hauntingly different outcomes. I still think about this book often, and I would recommend it to anyone who runs team-building exercises of any kind. A book with an important theme manages to still be a great beach read because it never gets preachy.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, A Memoir by Suki Kim. Given the prominence of North Korea in the news lately, I find myself thinking of this book very often. To gain the experience she shares, the author poses as an English teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a private university the government has permitted to teach the sons of the elite. She gets a real look at the young men poised to make a difference to North Korea one day. Now, some of these kids have probably launched their careers inside North Korea’s government.
If you want to cruise the web for more reading or sites about books, consider stopping by these websites:
The History Blog – much more than book reviews; if you click on this link, it will take you to the site’s Books section. Many of the posts there are literally about historical books (an ancient book bound in human skin, for example, but many less macabre discussions, too). Check out sections Treasures and Ex Cathedra, too, for some great photos and a Roman travelogue.
Love of History – Despite a recent trip through this blog that shows articles dating mainly from 2015, this site is an active blog. Dr. Constantine Katsari is both a historian and a numismatist. Her coin articles are a bit esoteric for my tastes, but the photos are great. Her favorite topics are ancient and medieval periods.
For some interesting online reading, don’t forget the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History blog for some interesting reading of all kinds. For instance, fans of “Walking Dead” will want to check out the post about some of the series’ most memorable props.
It’s been fun, and I hope you maintain your own appetite for history. These past five years have been eye-opening for me and have given me a new perspective on the present day. Maybe I’ll see you sometime in the history section.