History, too, was thriving in 2013, although I saw the usual reasons for concern – mainly two: the continued rise of imbecilic cardboard garbage calling itself history and increasingly mistaken as such even in respected venues, and the (connected, obviously?) decreasing historical competence among the average citizens of the Republic of Letters. In a word: dumbification. In a country where the heavily and ineptly ghostwritten pseudo-histories of TV comedian Bill O’Reilly can be phenomenal bestsellers, this downward trend is manifestly visible, but as in all previous years, so too in 2013, there is hope yet! I read well over a hundred works of genuine, searching, intelligent history this year (a great many of which were issued with little hope of profit by my beloved academic presses without which the intellectual landscape would be a barren mire) so many, in fact, that I had my usual agonizing hour choosing only ten of the very best:
10. Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines (Bloomsbury Publishing) – Martines’ lean, fast-paced book reminds its readers that the Renaissance era we thumbnail as a time of burgeoning artistic expression was also a time of unrelenting war; this was the most truly interesting book on the period I’ve read in years. You can read my full review here.
9. The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt) – As great as the previous two volumes in Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy were, this third one stands far beyond them in its sheer narrative power as the author brings us into the heart of the Western Front of WWII. You can read my full review here.
8. Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Random House) – I was initially skeptical of Anderson’s approach here, as he lavishes hundreds of pages on lesser-known English and American players in the Middle East in and around the time of the Arab Revolt; I wondered how much weight could really be placed on characters T. E. Lawrence had only seen fit to mention in passing in his great Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But I was once again reminded that the storyteller makes the story, not vice versa: Anderson’s book is toweringly good, even though Lawrence still (and always?) steals the show.
7. Rebranding Rule by Kevin Sharpe (Yale University Press) – Shortly after I read this enormous and scholarly masterpiece, I was shocked to learn that Kevin Sharpe recently died – I’d actually been ready to send him an email praising the monumental achievement of this book. I can’t tell him how much I loved it, alas, but I can tell all of you: this account of the slow and subtle ways monarchy domesticated itself and adapted to its own powerlessness (in order to survive at all) is brilliant and utterly convincing. When taken as the capstone of a life’s work (all of Sharpe’s other books are equally good), it’s all the more impressive, although melancholy.
6. Franco’s Crypt by Jeremy Treglown (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – This artfully written examination of the long shadow cast on Spanish culture by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco doubles as very insightful look at what life under that shadow was actually like. Treglown’s approach is so elastic and all-encompassing that this book sometimes felt tricky to classify; the author is easily conversant with the history of Spain in the 20th century, but what he’s really doing here is tracing the soul of a cultural identity. The subject matter couldn’t interest me less (I suspect I’m not the only one for whom Hemingway spoiled Spain), but the book captivated me completely.
5. The Genius of Venice by Dial Parrott (Rizzoli Ex Libris) – This beautifully-illustrated book (the straggling, pathetic remnant of last year’s mighty all-Venice list!) turned out to be something very different and very much better than I’d expected. I went into it thinking it would be yet another smoothly impersonal art-and-architecture view of the Piazza San Marco, complete with the usual canned, freeze-dried chunks of Venetian history. But Parrott infuses his familiar subject with terrific energy and pathos; he tells the story of Venice’s unfolding social history as if it had never been told before and makes it all feel new. The result is a Venice book so good it doesn’t even need the gorgeous pictures that adorn it.
4. Warsaw 1944 by Alexandra Richie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – The horrifying, utterly pitiless story of the Warsaw Uprising has been told many times before, but never to my memory better than this fat volume by the author of that wonderful feast of a book, Faust’s Metropolis. Richie has studied her subject down to the least historical document, and she fills these pages with dramatically-realized real characters – which makes the whole thing even more emphatically heartbreaking.
3. The Borgias by G. J. Meyer (Bantam) – The second Italian Renaissance history on our list this time around, this spirited study by Meyer (whose World War I history A World Undone was fantastic, and whose one-volume history of the Tudors is mighty good too) takes a clear, revelatory new look at the era’s most notorious family – and finds nothing at all he was expecting to find. The resulting tone of smart, incredulous outrage that fills the book is extremely entertaining. You can read my full review here.
2. The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster) – The headlining subject of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest and best book is the personal and political rift between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft that resulted, among other things, in the election of Woodrow Wilson as President. But the book’s other subject – the progressivism of the Roosevelt era and the tight-knit group of muckraking journalists who sharpened their rhetorical skills on the many corporate and social evils of the day – manages to be even more interesting. The combination of the two makes for a mighty involving book. You can read my full review here.
1. Days of God by James Buchan (Simon & Schuster) – Buchan’s incredibly lively, incredibly thoughtful examination of the fundamentalist revolution that gripped Iran in 1979 and plunged the entire world into spasms of violent, unpredictable religious insanity from which it’s still suffering every day is outstanding on every level; not only has Buchan traced the actual roots and details of the revolution with painstaking care, but he’s written it all with passionate prose and a very old-fashioned sense of high dudgeon that make this the best history book of 2013.
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