Fun histories you should read

One of the best parts about being a grad student in the teaching of history is that I get to read a whole lot of fascinating books. One of the worst parts about being a grad student in the teaching of history is that I don’t actually have time to really read those books I find so fascinating. Especially with a reading list of around 80 titles, a lot of those books will get skimmed, or else what we call grad-school read (introduction, conclusion, a review or two). So here are some titles that I loved skimming, but I think you would love even more if you read them all the way through. 

Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II


 Alan Berube is not your traditional historian--that is, he didn’t get his PhD, pay his dues, and get a position at a university. Instead, he’s a longtime community organizer turned community historian. The book was inspired by an encounter with the letters of gay servicemen, and in the end encompassed the interviews of nearly a thousand gay veterans, both men and women, as well as official archives. The book is a good one, telling of the unusual opportunities that gay men and women encountered in the military, but also of the second war that they were forced to fight--a war against their own commanders, who as time went on became rigidly adherent to anti-homosexual agenda. There are so many wonderful and personal stories in here, and I wish I had time to read them all. You should. (And if you don't feel like reading, there is a documentary to watch.) 



Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age


A fast-paced, well-written, and excellently researched story of a racialized Detroit criminal trial in 1925. Kevin Boyle takes the reader through the life of the main defendant, Ossian Sweet, laying out the world in which he lived and the struggles he went through. Sweet is a grandson of slaves who has worked hard to rise in the world through becoming a doctor and setting up a prosperous practice. Determined to claim his inheritance, he buys a house in a white neighborhood, and when surrounded by a mob, one man is killed. Boyle leads the reader through the ensuing contentious trial, sponsored by the NAACP and argued by famous lawyer Clarence Darrow.  A gripping book with great characters and hard truths that reads more like a novel than a painstakingly-researched history. Well worth it in any aspect.  

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812


This book has been on my list for awhile, so I'm so glad I finally got a chance to read it. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich provides the reader with excerpts from a seemingly mundane diary of a Maine frontier midwife. Together with town records and other documents of the period, she expands on the hard-to-read shorthand of the diary to show us its immense importance. When examined as a serious document rather than “the work of a woman,” it’s obvious it has huge implications. Whether on the subject of changing medical practices, domestic economy, rural debt, illegitimacy and accusations of rape, Ulrich does a wonderful job teasing out the subtleties and nuances within the diary to form a fantastic picture, not just of Martha Ballard’s life, but of a great portion of the residents of the early republic. 

So go on, head to your local library/bookstore/Amazon. These are all accessible to non-historians. And if you don't like them, you can blame me. But I have a feeling you'll enjoy them.