Summer Reading Suggestions 2009
Ideas for books and articles on ancient history
:The Greeks by H. D. F. Kitto
Kitto’s The Greeks was a text for a graduate class in Greek Art I took at the University of St. Thomas in Houston some years ago. A wonderful and fascinating book. I read Gods, Graves and Scholars many times in my teen years, and many books on Greek mythology before that. An Amazon reviewer writes: “I got in touch with this book as a mandatory reading when I was applying to study at Buenos Aires University. As usually happens with prescribed readings, I eyed “The Greeks” with little enthusiasm. But to my big surprise it was a great read! Professor Kitto has done an outstanding work here. Now, after all this years, I treasure this volume in my library and read it again and again.”On my own I read Victor Davis Hanson’s The Other Greeks. This is a terrific book and inspired me to write an article forThe Freeman (“Property Rights and Law Among the Ancient Greeks” where i discuss Hanson and other books I enjoyed reading). Hanson is a regular contributor to National Review and other conservative publications, and writes on the “Western Way of War” that we inherit from the Greeks. Hanson and John Heath are authors of Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. Here is an essay in Stanford Magazine by Heath and Hanson on Who Killed Homer?
Wonderful World History
Retired Harvard historian David Landes wrote The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor . This qualtiy paperback is $12.89 on Amazon (some 600 pages). Landes’ book is a page-turner–all 531 of them, followed by many footnotes (you can preview the book on Amazon). For economic history, Rosenberg and Birdzell’s How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World is excellent, though not as easy to read. Richard Pipes’ great Property and Freedom: The Story of How Through the Centuries Private Ownership has Promoted Liberty and the Rue of Law. It is just $11.25 on Amazon, and you can “search inside”). Fernand Braudel’s great Civilization and Capitalism series is much, much more in depth, and endlessly fascinating. Here is vol. 2, The Wheels of Commerce on Amazon. Instead of a history of just kings, aristocrats, and battles, Braudel draws on the recent historical research of everyday people which tells the story of the broad progress capitalism brings to the people of Western Europe. I discuss Braudel and the joys of jumping into real history in an essay for students struggling with history texts: Burn Your World History Textbook? (pdf).
Also highly recommended is Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Stark’s book inspired Acton Media’s moving documentary, The Birth of Freedom (watch trailer on LibertyFlix.org here). I don’t know about Stark’s theological discussion in the book, but the economic story he recounts of economic freedom vs. state control through Western history is great, great, great.Amazing American History
There are many very good books on American history. My favorites include Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America and Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. I was reminded recently of the first books that aroused my interest in American history. They were the historically accurate novels of Kenneth Roberts. I used to scour used book stores for Robert’s novels: Rabble in Arms, Oliver Wiswell (out-of-print on Amazon, short review here). Here is an in-depthTime magazine review from 1940, of Robert’s novels. The reviewer calls Roberts “the finest U.S. historical novelist since James Fenimore Cooper.” Northwest Passage is great (the WSJ just reviewed a related new book:Frontiersman Robert Rogers “The Pionee of Special Ops”). I enjoyed reading Robert’s Lydia Bailey so much I took a vacation years ago to Haiti (where much had changed…). Lydia Bailey too is out of print, but many inexpensive used editions are available. Roberts Arundel is inexpensive and in print. Hollywood movies were made of Northwest Passage (1958) (with Spencer Tracy) and Lydia Bailey (1952), but I don’t see these and they don’t seem to be available.Recent reading on American and World history, from Jamestown to Nutmeg, to Scots inventing the modern world, to important fish and oysters…Well, here are recent books I started this morning wanting to recommend, but felt obliged to list everything above first: These four recent history books are for the general public. They were written by capable and knowledgable authors interested in making money (rather than promoting socialism), and published by for-profit firms (rather than government-subsidized university presses). Each quality paperback is $10-12 on Amazon, and each was fascinating and eye-opening for me. Books that awaken student’s interest in other places and times can launch them into a lifetime of exploration. Each book offers occasional discussion of economics and entrepreneurship along with reporting the regular depredations and distortations of arbitrary state power. These enjoyable books set pegs in the mind for key past events, and the social and economic forces that contributed to the rise of the west.
• Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation by David Price. Just $10 on Amazon, this account of the economic and social tensions between the monied aristocrats and the competent everyday people like John Smith at Jamestown is fascinating. Plus Price offers an historically-accurate alternative to the politically-correct textbook versions of these events.
• Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. Who knew an unknown spice trader’s heroic defense of a tiny island allowed the British to take control of New York from the Dutch.• How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman. A fast-paced introduction to the Scottish Enlightenment, and the economic and entrepreneurial powerhouse that Scotland became (after its’ government was abolished…). Economics is more easily absorbed in small doses administered with interesting events of history. Not surprisingly, How the Scots... is particularly appealing to those with Scottish ancestory. I remember reading in Albert J. Nock’s Mr. Jefferson, of the Scottish instructors responsible for Jefferson’s grounding in classical liberalism and the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. Highly recommended.• Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. Kurlansky’s other books, Salt: A World History, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half-Shell, are also entertaining and insightful. It is just plain fun, or at least it was for me, to read about the importance of salt in world history, and of cod and oysters in American history.