If you’re trying to remember what “reading for pleasure” means post-final exams, here is Part 2 of book suggestions from U.S. History Scene’s historians, social studies teachers, and readers to fulfill your summer history needs!
1) For everyone who needs to know the genius behind the “feminist” Ted Talk sample on Beyonce’s Flawless: “Read the internationally acclaimed novel Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Five years after the crowd, I have finished reading it–just in time for the movie! I highly recommend it to everyone. It’s fictional, but she did her due diligence in researching the Biafran War (1967-1970) in Nigeria, and it’s a great read–poignant, funny, heart-wrenching. It also discusses how we structure and interpret history and current events.” — Myra Ann Houser, Howard University
2) For the New Yorker at heart longing to go beyond Jill Lepore in the New Yorker (although really, what else do you need in life?) “Pick up Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World. The Dutch contributed so much to the New World, and they’re always given short shrift. This book follows the rough and tumble world of Dutch Manhattan through continental and New Amsterdam politics. It’s a fun and revealing read (Shorto argues that there is still a lot about Manhattan and America that originated from this short-lived Dutch era); and Shorto really highlights the power of historians, for good and evil.
Historians can save the day by finding and resuscitating neglected archives; and they can manipulate the narrative to hype up actors (in this case, the English) at the sake of others (the Dutch). Americans should read it because it’s a lightweight and entertaining introduction to an overlooked chapter in colonial history.” — Kathryn Schwartz, Harvard University
3) For the Obamacare generation looking for something completely new on United States immigration and healthcare: “The book I recommend to everyone is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. Fadiman tells the true story of a Hmong family in Merced, California and their interactions with the American health care system as they try to help their daughter manage her epilepsy. This book is incredibly well-written, fascinating, and deeply engaging. I learned so much about Hmong history and culture, and the challenges faced by the thousands of Hmong immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late twentieth century. If I met you, I would probably thrust a copy of this book into your hands — that is how much I love it!” — Sarah Gold McBride, UC Berkeley
(Ed. note: We’re witnesses to this! We’ve seen her salesmanship getting people to read this beautiful book on transcontinental flights and at a birthday party.)
4) For history lovers who want to read the book before seeing the movie: “Pick up Fires on the Plain (Nobi) by Shohei Ooka. It’s famous as a World War II novel that was turned into a film. Uniquely, it tells the story of the war from the perspective of the Japanese rather than the Americans; the story takes place during the later stages of the war as the U.S. advanced on the Japanese mainland.” — Christian T. Ruth
5) For those interested in learning how to steal a ton of electricity and stick it to the utilities company / The “LISTEN AMERICA, JUST READ THIS AND LOVE IT BOOK”: “Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison takes 50 years of American history and refracts it through the prism of a whip-smart, sarcastic, impulsive, idealistic, cynical, nameless narrator: the “Invisible Man.” He explains that he is not some sci-fi ectoplasm, rather, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Invisible Man has often been called a novel about race, and it is, but it’s more fundamentally a novel about identity. It is no accident Ellison’s narrator brings to mind Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man; both are concerned with the conflict between our own self-image and the ways others perceive us.
Ellison understands racism just amplifies what is a universal problem of human existence: who gets to decide who we are? How much of who we are is even in our control? Invisible Man shows us a cage match where talented black students are made to fight one another in order to win a scholarship, a communist meeting in which the narrator is asked if he can sing spirituals, a paint factory in which the whitest white paint is manufactured using small black pellets, and a riot through the streets of Harlem. It’s long, but its breathlessly paced. It’s profound, but it’s also funny. And not like English seminar “yes, that was a clever allusion” funny: actually funny.
This book came out in 1953, and it hasn’t aged a day. When it came out, it must have seemed ripped from the headlines: the civil rights movement was heating up, segregation had begun it’s long decline, and Martin Luther King was rising to national prominence. Suddenly, there emerged a novel that seemed like it was given directly to white Americans with a note reading: Here. Read This. You’ll start to understand.
Ellison set out to explain what it meant to be black in America, but he also knew he was doing more than that. The novel’s enigmatic last line reads, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” It’s a question that hints at universal human experiences, but also universal frailties, fears, and longings. The novel’s power lies in its ability to connect with readers across time and space, but also across racial boundaries. In writing about what it meant to be black in America in the middle of the twentieth century, Ellison wrote one of the most enduring statements about what it means to be human. Also it’s funny. Just read it. –Andy Boyd, Harvard University