Some of us at U.S. History Scene are deliciously guilty of binge watching Louis C. K. on Netflix (“what about Obama?”). His routine on how Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath ends with a dying man breastfeeding (to quote Louis, “I don’t mean to ruin it for you, but you’ve should have read it by now…there is no other book in that genre!”) had us thinking about the other obligatory  “must read” history books.

We’ve asked some of our writers, social studies teachers, and readers to send in a selection of their favorite page-turners that are beach and camping friendly to keep you on your history reading A-game. We will roll them out over the course of the summer, so stay tuned!

1) For the outdoorsy John Muir type (or arm chair enthusiasts looking forward to Reese Witherspoon in Wild):  “I would recommend Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America. All the fun and adventurous history of hiking the great Appalachian Trail without actually leaving your seat!” — Emily Esten, U Mass, Amherst

2) For the art lover pining for the Grand Tour: “Check out Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Baxandall’s short book (with lots of great images) will introduce you to your “period eyes.” It trains you to see paintings from the perspective of someone 500+ years ago and to appreciate why they saw what they did.  You’ll learn about patronage systems in the Renaissance, the social importance of paintings with linear perspective, and why the Virgin Mary always wears blue (Hint: It’s all about money!).  Art isn’t made in a vacuum, and reading Baxandall’s book paints a colorful picture of Renaissance Florence.” – Hannah Florence Marcus, Stanford University

3) For the Civil War buff 100% over everyone recommending Papa Bear Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln in the airports of America: “Get Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson. We know that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre, but fewer know the whole story. While citizens mourned the President, a nation-wide manhunt for his assassin and co-conspirators was in full swing. Swanson brings us behind the scenes of one of America’s most infamous murders.” –Christina Regelski, Rice University

4) For those begrudgingly on a Carnival cruise with the family: “Pack Madison Smartt Bell’s All Soul’s Rising: A Novel of Haiti to learn about the Haitian Revolution in a beach read. Start with book one of Bell’s deeply researched and absorbing trilogy of historical fiction novels. Bell vividly depicts one of the most significant social and political upheavals in modern history—the overthrow of slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue and the troubled emergence of the nation of Haiti—through the experiences of a kaleidoscopic range of characters—white, black, mixed-race, rich, poor, and enslaved. Bonus fact for trivia night in the mess hall: Haiti was the second democratic nation after the United States founded in the Western hemisphere!” –Nick Crawford, Harvard University

5) If you’re burning up with a summer flu and glaring at everyone having fun in the sun: “Listen, this could be so much worse! Start feeling better with Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 175-82 by Elizabeth A. Fenn What if the greatest enemy to American independence wasn’t the British Empire, but a virus called Small Pox? We know that people make history but Elizabeth A. Fenn reminds us that nature, too is a key historical player…and a dangerous one!” –Christina Regelski, Rice University

6) For those still holding onto a picture of Leo from a Tiger Beat magazine: “Impress Leo with your maritime history game by reading Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster by Steven Biel. Ever since Kate and Leo graced the big screen, the story of this ill-fated ship has become a pop culture phenomenon. Now, the Titanic brings to mind tragedy and romance, but what about class conflict? Women’s rights? Moral reform? Racial equality? Steven Biel demonstrates how, long before “I’ll never let go, Jack,” this single historical moment in 1912 captured America’s imagination and became a key player in social, political and cultural discourse for the next 100 years.” –Christina Regelski, Rice University

7) For the history buff who wants the history of emotion but can’t quite get down with reenactments: “My favorite is a fiction recommendation, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. It’s a great book about the Battle of Gettysburg. It puts you inside the minds behind the decisions made during those incredible four days of fighting. Reading an historical account of a battle is normally all strategy and numbers, this book has that, but it also has the emotion and tension of the battle. You can feel the importance of the outcome of that battle.” –Kyle Hagerty, U.S. History Scene Reader

8) For those with youngins’: “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years is a readable collection of conversations with two centenarians who are black twins. Their personalities come through richly in their storytelling, showing young history students there was not a universal approach to living day-to-day life in a racist and segregated society during Reconstruction and Jim Crow America.”  –Amanda Smith, Social Studies Middle School Teacher at North Iowa Community School in Buffalo Center, Iowa

Check back soon for more summer fun reading. For a tease, Louis C.K. clearly needs to take our African American literature course and brush up on the orgasmic ecstasy of literary peach trees! They’re blossoming!

P.S. Aren’t you impressed we never mentioned the Kennedys? We are!

Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

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