Books, Books, and More Books: Taking the #HistoriannChallenge

Earlier this month, the New York Times interviewed retired Princeton historian of the Civil War James McPherson for the newspaper’s “By the Book” feature. The Times asked McPherson to name the best historians writing today, the books that have most influenced him, the best treatments of particular subjects, and so forth. When I and a lot of other historians read the interview, we raised a collective eyebrow: McPherson’s lists showed a surprising lack of breadth and depth. As LA Tech professor (and fellow St. Joe’s alum) Drew McKevitt noted on Twitter,

McKevitt tweet

But of course, those aren’t the only people writing good history today. (Sometimes a woman [other than Doris Kearns Goodwin] even writes a halfway decent book!) On Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, historians decried the narrowness of McPherson’s responses. What’s the problem with his list? I’ll let “Historista” (Megan Kate Nelson) explain:

It suggests that white men are still the dominant voices in the field of American history, both as authors and as subjects. And in doing so this list ignores and implicitly condones the marginalization of the very important work being produced by women, people of color, and scholars of different (younger) generations. By all accounts, McPherson is a generous colleague and a devoted advisor to a diverse group of graduate students. But as Jim Downs pointed out in a Facebook thread, McPherson’s list represents “how patriarchy reproduces itself.”

Blogger Historiann (Ann M. Little) also took issue with McPherson’s choices, then went a step further: rather than just complain about the books and authors he named, she interviewed herself, offering her own opinions on the same questions that the Times asked McPherson. Historiann’s list is more diverse and a better reflection of the work historians have been producing over the past thirty years. (I’ve read at least a few of the books on her list; I haven’t read a single one on McPherson’s.) She also issued the “#HistoriannChallenge” to readers, asking us to post our own self-interviews, which I decided seemed like a fun exercise. I’ve deleted a few questions, in recognition of the fact that I’m not an American historian (though it seems I read more U.S. history than I thought!). So, for what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on some of publications that historians today should be sure to have on their bookshelves.

What books are currently on your night stand?
I spent pretty much the entire day yesterday reading the third Outlander book. I started reading the series when I was in Myanmar last week and am totally hooked, though it’s made me realize how little I remember about 18th-century British/Scottish history. I know I learned this stuff in my Western Civ class, but that was 14 years ago! I’ve spent a lot of time on Wikipedia reading about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Battle of Culloden to refresh my memory.

What was the last truly great book you read?
I’m not crazy about the formulation of this question, but here are three recent books that I would wholeheartedly recommend reading, whether you’re a professional historian or not. (1) Jill Lepore, Book of Ages, which is a wonderful reconstruction of the life of Benjamin Franklin’s sister; (2) Coolie Woman by Gaiutra Bahadur, which uses her own great-grandmother’s story as a launching point for a history of Indian women who traveled to Guiana as indentured servants; and (3) Charity and Sylvia by Rachel Hope Cleves, which I reviewed in this blog post.

Who are the best historians writing today?
Jill Lepore, Natalie Zemon Davis, Gail Hershatter, and Jonathan Spence are four people who are always on my must-read list; I automatically pick up whatever they publish. I’m hoping Dorothy Ko has a new book in the next few years because I like her work. Timothy Brook wrote several important books on a range of China topics and now seems to have moved to examining China in a world-history framework, which I find even more interesting. And Ruth Rogaski and Janet Chen both published fantastic dissertation-based books that I’ve read multiple times and drawn inspiration from in my own research.

What’s the best book ever written about the Civil War?
I think when it comes to American history, my tastes favor the 18th and 20th centuries; I haven’t read very much on the 19th. But the best book I’ve read about the Taiping Civil War is Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, by Steve Platt, which situates the war in China in a global context—including its relationship to the American Civil War.

What are the best military histories?
I’m honestly trying to remember the last military history I read and coming up short. I guess Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom counts, though I kind of sped through the military stuff. Rana Mitter’s Forgotten Ally is a great overview of World War II in China. But frankly, I hate war and don’t enjoy reading about it.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
Incessant! I flopped at sports, was a mediocre artist, and had no musical ability, so reading became my hobby. I loved serials—Nancy Drew, the Babysitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High, and loads of others—and read a lot of biographies and historical fiction, too. I can’t even remember all the books that were my favorites, but a short list would include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the Betsy-Tacy books, the All-of-a-Kind Family books, and Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself (I don’t know why I liked that particular Judy Blume book so much, but I read it multiple times.) I seem to be the only female historian who wasn’t into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books; I guess I’ve always had a preference for East Coast urban life.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Hmmm. I definitely can’t pick just one. As a young reader, Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars had a tremendous impact on me for its depiction of daily life under Nazism; I think that was the book that made me want to study history. In college, reading The Question of Hu and The Death of Woman Wang, along with other Spence books, introduced me to the idea of experimenting with historical narrative—the notion that a historian could borrow some of a novelist’s techniques without completely crossing over into writing historical fiction. A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg are two other books that showed me what a great historian could do despite having only a limited source base.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Dorothy Parker, Jennifer Weiner, and Jill Lepore. Though I don’t think the evening would be “dinner party” so much as “Champagne, desserts, and watching/mocking House-Hunters International in my living room.” At least, that’s my idea of a good time.

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?
I don’t often put books down once I start them; I tend to be a completist when it comes to reading. If I don’t think I’ll like something, I simply won’t pick it up. But at one point I tried to get through Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao biography because I felt like I should read it myself rather than just listen to the criticisms of others. I can’t remember how far I got, but it wasn’t more than 75 or 100 pages.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I’m not sure I’d say I’m embarrassed not to have read these books, since they’re not in my field, but two books that I bought and have been planning to read for ages are Roger Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive. People frequently talked about them in grad school whenever we discussed historical writing, but I never had specific cause to read either one (well, I read Darnton’s Cat Massacre essay, but not the entire book).

In terms of Chinese history, there are several acclaimed books that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. Recent entries on that list are Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony, Mao’s Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, and Barbara Mittler’s A Continuous Revolution. I’ll get to them. Soon. I hope.

What do you plan to read next?
Well, I have five more Outlander books after finishing this one! There’s a book that I’ve agreed to review that I really need to read this week. I read this blog post about Catherine McNeur’s forthcoming Taming Manhattan and plan to pick that up as soon as it’s out; same goes for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I still have a number of titles on my 14 Books for 2014 list that I need to get through. And after reading this story on Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, I really want to crack that open as well. If I could make reading into a full-time job, maybe I’d have a chance of covering everything in this lifetime.

4 thoughts on “Books, Books, and More Books: Taking the #HistoriannChallenge

  1. Thanks, Maura–this is fantastic. I’ve just heard a rave review of the Outlander TV series–what do you think, as a fan of the books?

    I also loved Sally J. Freedman, but for me, Judy Blume is a better documentarian of the 1970s than the 1940s.

    1. I haven’t seen any of the Outlander TV series—I’ll probably catch up on that once I’m back in the US. I think the books are ridiculous and over the top and totally addicting. Just finished the third one last night.

      I read all of Judy Blume’s 1970s books, too! I don’t know why Sally J. Freedman was the one I latched on to, but it was. I should go back and read it again and see what I think now.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, a modern Chinese historian, recently accepted the #HistorianChallenge and completed her own version of James McPherson’s NY Times interview. While Cunningham’s list is dominated by Chinese historians (Gail Hershatter, Johnathan Spence, Dorothy Ko, Timothy Brook, Ruth Roganski and Janet Chen), she also included Jill Lepore and Natalie Zemon Davis. Instead of citing a book on the American Civil War, she recommended Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Steve Platt on the Taiping Civil War. Finally, she cites Lois Lowry, Jonathan Spence, Laural Thatcher Ulrich and Carlo Ginzburg as the historians that have most influenced her. She also has a sweet spot for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series. Check out her post and blog at

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