Books: pretty cool, right? We can learn things from them! I get asked all the time for reading recommendations, so I thought I’d list a few of my favorite books from recent years and what I liked about them. They’ll cover a variety of periods and topics, and they’re pretty accessible to your average history enthusiast.
Also, I’m not sure anybody’s that interested, but after that I’ll also go over some of the specialist stuff I’m currently looking at for current and future episodes of my prehistory episodes on Tides of History.
1) Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
For my money, there’s nobody who better understands the dynamics of the world financial system and how it came into being than Adam Tooze. He writes regularly for Foreign Policy and The Guardian, contributing thought-provoking columns on everything from deficit spending amid the pandemic to what a viable political economy for the 21st century should look like. His most recent book, Crashed, is one of the most thorough and convincing analyses of the Financial Crisis and Great Recession. His earlier monograph, The Wages of Destruction, is an exceptional work of analysis on the economy of Nazi Germany, namely its inherent limitations, how the Nazis understood those limitations, and how that understanding helped drive the horrors of the Second World War. You should read them both, because they’re really, really good.
Both of those works, however, pale in comparison to The Deluge. It’s a clear, cogent, and impeccably researched account of how the United States came to dominate the world economy, and shortly thereafter world politics.
Tooze locates the shift from European to American dominance in the financial machinations of the First World War. Prior to the conflict, London had been the financial center of the globe, but within months the costs of the war spiraled out of control, mostly because mass-mobilization global warfare is extremely expensive. As the Allies began to run short of funds, they had to look elsewhere for credit, and the only place that could offer the necessary amounts of money was Wall Street. By 1916, well before the United States was ready to formally enter the conflict, its financial houses (especially the Morgans) were the only thing keeping the Allied war effort afloat. American money, far more than American soldiers in the war’s waning days, were responsible for the Allies’ victory over the Central Powers.
When the war finally came to an end, the United States’ greatest priority was ensuring payment of the war debts. That dedication loomed over the peace proceedings and set the basic groundwork of the postwar order. German reparations payments to France and Britain immediately flowed back to the United States as debt service, and when reparations payments threatened to bankrupt interwar Germany, only American loans bailed out the struggling Weimar Republic. (American loans became German reparations payments which became Allied debt service which became American loans to Germany. It was complicated, but for the time being everybody was happy.)
The upshot of all this was that the war had inexorably shifted the center of global financial gravity, and the political influence and raw power that went along with it, across the Atlantic. New York, not London, was now the beating heart of the capitalist world order. Only if we start from this point, according to Tooze, can we grasp how the participants in World War II - particularly the Axis - understood what they were trying to do in that conflict. This shift also, not coincidentally, laid the groundwork for the more conventionally understood American global hegemony in the aftermath of the Second World War.
I doubt I’m doing the book justice, but it’s a thorough work of scholarship that still manages to be compelling and readable. Tooze is a rare creature: an economist with a historian’s grasp of the empirical evidence and the ability to turn a phrase. If you read The Deluge, you won’t regret it.
2) Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896.
Reconstruction and the Gilded Age are an uncomfortable period for the American national myth: a period when the possibility of a more equitable future gave way to racial revanchism in the South, genocide and conquest in the West, skyrocketing inequality and plummeting quality of life in the expanding industrial cities of the North and East, and an almost unbelievably corrupt government at practically every level. How are we to square all of that with the deep-seated idea of a moral universe inexorably bending toward justice?
This is the fundamental tension at the heart of Richard White’s monumental contribution to the Oxford History of the United States. All of the books in that series are worth reading; they’re the work of master scholars synthesizing decades of research under the supervision of ruthless editors who aren’t afraid to send the authors back to the drawing board for another draft, or to cut volumes that simply aren’t working. The volumes that do make it to publication are usually among the favorites for the Pulitzer Prize in History, like Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, which covered 1815 to 1848. Even the lesser works in the series, like Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty, are still summations of the life’s work of some generation-defining historians.
What sets The Republic For Which It Stands apart from its fellows is White’s clear-eyed focus on the country’s many failings. Telling the story of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age as a brief interlude of pain before a return to progress, its default portrayal when we even bother to include it in our national narrative, misrepresents what was happening, why, and how it still matters today.
“In 1865 an older American nation had died, a casualty of the Civil War.” Afterward, White writes, “Americans did give birth to a new nation, but it was not the one they had imagined.” Living within that new nation were those laudable and genuine impulses toward a world of equal opportunity, equal rights, and equal citizenship for all, but they never came to fruition; instead, they were swamped by extrajudicial violence, bigotry, corruption, and the structure of American government itself.
White’s work is many things - it’s a great book building on his previous work in Railroaded, which I also highly recommend - but at heart it’s an extended meditation on how the messy, painful realities of the United States have so poignantly fallen short of its ideals.
3) James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
James C. Scott’s work over the past several decades has been pretty mind-bending; the eminent political scientist/anthropologist has covered everything from how peasants fight back against their oppressors to how states see, and fail to see, the people they govern. Against the Grain is the anarchist scholar’s magnum opus, his provocative attempt to rewrite the story of the origins of agriculture and the rise of the first states as a tragedy rather than a celebratory work of human progress.
Whether the full scope of his argument really convinces the reader or not, it offers a ton of food for thought: new ways of thinking about landscapes and resources and how people interact with them, what states are for and actually do, and how people interact with the institutions and organizations that claim to govern them. His account of the origins of agriculture is an accurate, up-to-date synthesis of decades of recent archaeological work, much of it quite inaccessible to the layperson, and for that alone the book would be worth reading.
Scott is on shakier ground with his accounts of the origins of the earliest states in Mesopotamia. When the Cambridge Archaeological Journal dedicated an entire special issue to specialists’ responses to Against the Grain, this was the territory on which practically all focused: not so much on whether his arguments about Mesopotamia were correct - aside from a few disagreements, they mostly were - but about the applicability of his views to other parts of the world. Different states in different parts of the world had different origins, and there’s no one-size-fits-all model.
Despite some fair (and some unfair) critiques, Against the Grain has survived some intense scrutiny to remain as a book worth reading for practically anybody with an interest in oppression, subsistence, political economy, civilization, and state power. Scott is a committed anarchist; I’m not, and neither are most of the people to whom I’ve recommended the book over the years since I first read it. But all of them - from serious civil libertarians to statist socialists - have found real value in Scott’s conceptions of these problems. That’s a rare book indeed.
And Now, Some Specialist Works
I have no idea whether people are actually interested in the research materials I’m reading for Tides of History and my next book, but I figured I’d mention some of the more accessible and broadly interesting stuff. Here are a few of my current reads:
1) Stephen Shennan, The First Farmers of Europe: An Evolutionary Perspective. Shennan is a pioneer in quantitative archaeology and cultural evolution. You don’t have to buy the whole package (I don’t, for what it’s worth) to see the value of his syntheses of the most up-to-date work on some very confusing and divisive topics in the Neolithic.
2) David Wengrow, The Archaeology of Early Egypt: Social Transformations in North-East Africa, c. 10,000 to 2,650 BC. Far too often, the Egypt of the pharaohs is treated as sui generis, a “cradle of civilization” disconnected both from the surrounding world and what had happened previously in the Nile Valley and its environs. Wengrow rectifies that, placing the emergence of dynastic Egypt in the context of its past and its neighbors.
3) Alasdair Whittle, The Times of their Lives: Hunting History in the Archaeology of Neolithic Europe. Whittle is one of the most experienced archaeologists working on the European Neolithic, and his recent projects have focused on more accurately dating Neolithic sites using radiocarbon samples. That doesn’t sound exciting in itself (the method is called “summed radiocarbon probabilities”), but the implication is that it allows us to see changes and transformations in Neolithic societies at a much finer resolution. Interesting!
Enough about what I’m reading, though. What are you all reading right now, and what do you recommend? Sound off in the comments of this post, and let’s see if we can get a good discussion going. Also, be sure to let me know if you all even like this kind of thing, and what you’d like to see more of here.