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2020: A Historian’s Reading List


It is time for my annual report on what I read last year. First, past lists:

2019; 2018; 2017; 2016.

Let me use the same language explaining this as last year:

I read these books for my own purposes–to prepare for teaching, to keep up or catch up on the historiography in my fields, occasionally to broaden my horizons. So I do not read every word of these books, nor do I generally read for factual information. I read for preparation for my work, whether my own professional writing, to inform my blog posts, to prepare for new courses, or to think through harder questions. That often means simply being aware of the basic outlines of a book so that I can go into more detail later when I need to write about a given subject. I also included the few books on contemporary politics I read this year, since there’s not much sense separating those out from historical books given my writing. Some of these are new books, most are from the last decade or so, a few are old classics that I had either never read or haven’t read in the last decade.

There’s a lot of really good books. I have also placed bold faced asterisks after 20 books I think LGM readers would find particularly useful/I think you should buy and read. That’s not necessarily the same as what I think are the 20 best books, although there is obviously a lot of crossover. So if you are looking for a good reading list for 2020, here you go. There are well more than 20 of these that are excellent and I made my selections based on a combination of clear writing, what I think LGM readers should be reading from a political perspective, and the quality of the book. I am more than happy to talk about any of these books in comments. There were a lot more than 20 that were excellent in this year’s list.

  1. Brian Black, Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom
  2. Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia ***
  3. Talitha LeFlouria, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South
  4. Michitake Aso, Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History
  5. Jake Rosenfeld, What Unions No Longer Do
  6. Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 ***
  7. Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam ***
  8. Harold Steen, ed. History of Sustained Yield Forestry
  9. Peter Kolozi, Conservatives against Capitalism: From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization
  10. Wendy L. Wall, Inventing the American Way: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement
  11. Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World
  12. Elizabeth Fenn, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People
  13. Jonathan Metzl, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland***
  14. Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe***
  15. Jacqueline Karnell Corn, Environment and Health in Nineteenth-Century America
  16. Lara Vapinek, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary
  17. Tim Wu, The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age
  18. Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market
  19. Norman Caulfield, NAFTA and Labor in North America
  20. Tore Olsson, Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the U.S. and Mexican Countryside
  21. David W. Grua, Surviving Wounded Knee: The Lakotas and the Politics of Memory
  22. Walter Friedman, Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America
  23. S. Max Edelson, The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America Before Independence
  24. Jeffrey Helgeson, Crucibles of Black Empowerment: Chicago’s Neighborhood Politics from the New Deal to Harold Washington
  25. Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss, Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement
  26. Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty
  27. Annelise Orleck, “We Are All Fast Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages***
  28. Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies
  29. Andrew Delbanco, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War
  30. Elizabeth Faue, Rethinking the American Labor Movement
  31. Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
  32. Manning Marable, Malcolm X ***
  33. Carmel Finley, All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Overfishing
  34. Henry Heller, The Capitalist University: The Transformation of Higher Education in the United States since 1945
  35. Thomas Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era
  36. Ruth Needleman, Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism
  37. David Silverman, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America
  38. Walter Nugent, Color Coded: Party Politics in the American West, 1950-2016
  39. Mary Kaldor and Saskia Sassen, eds., Cities at War: Global Insecurity and Urban Resistance
  40. Jason Colby, Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator
  41. Jennifer Holland, Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement
  42. Melanie Kiechle, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America
  43. Connie Chiang, Nature behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration
  44. Sandra L. Albrecht, The Assault on Labor: The 1986 TWA Strike and the Decline of Workers’ Rights in America
  45. Jarrod Roll, Poor Man’s Fortune White Working Class Conservatism in American Metal Mining, 1850-1950
  46. Andrew Herod, Labor
  47. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment ***
  48. Adam Morris, American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation
  49. Chad Montrie, The Myth of Silent Spring: Rethinking the Origins of American Environmentalism
  50. Nicholas Ashford, Crisis in the Workplace: Occupational Disease and Injury
  51. Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City ***
  52. George Colpitts, Pemmican Empire: Food, Trade, and the Last Bison Hunts in the North American Plains, 1780-1882
  53. Robert Ovetz, When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921
  54. Erin Stewart Mauldin, Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South
  55. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals ***
  56. David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom ***
  57. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness ***
  58. Edward J. Balleisen, Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff
  59. Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story
  60. Peter Kopp, Hoptopia: A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley
  61. Dawson Barrett, The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-Liberal America
  62. Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War
  63. Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast
  64. David Dayen, Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power ***
  65. Gena Caponi-Tabery, Jump for Joy: Jazz, Basketball, & Black Culture in 1930s America
  66. Colleen McDannel, Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy
  67. Jennifer Gaddis, The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools
  68. Sven Beckert and Christine Desan, American Capitalism: New Histories
  69. Richard Kreitner, Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union
  70. Richard Lachmann, First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers
  71. Katrine Barber, In Defense of Wyam: Native-White Alliances and the Struggle for Celilo Falls
  72. Kent Blansett, A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement ***
  73. Conor Dougherty, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America
  74. Andrew Masich, Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861-1867
  75. Gregory Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War
  76. Philip Rubio, Undelivered: From the Great Postal Strike of 1970 to the Manufactured Crisis of the U.S. Postal Service
  77. Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence
  78. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight
  79. Christian Wright, Carbon County USA: Miners for Democracy in Utah and the West
  80. Cynthia Culver Prescott, Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory
  81. Michael McCann and George Lovell, Union by Law: Filipino American Labor Activists, Rights Radicalism, and Racial Capitalism
  82. Adam Sowards, An Open Pit Visible from the Moon: The Wilderness Act and the Fight to Protect Miners Ridge and the Public Interest
  83. Michael Hiltzik, Iron Empires: Robber Barons, Railroads, and the Making of Modern America ***
  84. A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City ***
  85. Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History ***
  86. Caroline Frederickson, The Democracy Fix: How to Win the Fight for Fair Rules, Fair Courts, and Fair Elections
  87. Patrick W. Steele, Home of the Braves: The Battle for Baseball in Milwaukee
  88. Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States
  89. Martha Jones, All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900
  90. Peter LaChapelle, I’d Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music
  91. Edward O’Donnell, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age
  92. Darren Dochuk, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America
  93. Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist
  94. Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business
  95. Cathleen Cahill, Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement ***
  96. Hasia Diner, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way
  97. Betsy Wood, Upon the Altar of Work: Child Labor and the Rise of a New American Sectionalism
  98. Lisa Jacobson, Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century
  99. John Hoenig, Garden Variety: The American Tomato from Corporate to Heirloom
  100. Katherine Turner, How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working Class Meals at the Turn of the Century
  101. Mike Konczal, Freedom From the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself from the Grip of the Invisible Hand ***
  102. Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam
  103. Mark M. Smith, Listening to Nineteenth-Century America
  104. Samuel Farber, The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered
  105. Greta LeFleur, The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America
  106. Brodwyn Fischer, A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro
  107. Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 ***

Because I read a lot of highly regarded political books this year, including some old ones that I hadn’t read before, that was a hard list! I’d easily recommend at least half of these books to you.

Last year, I also started including my fiction/literary non-fiction reading. So let’s do that again too.

New to Me:

  1. Sasha Abramsky, The House of Twenty Thousand
  2. Ha Jin, Waiting
  3. Kenneth Fearing, The Big Clock
  4. Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana
  5. Jamaica Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River
  6. Luis Alberto Urrea, Into the Beautiful North
  7. Louise Erdrich, The Bingo Palace
  8. George Pelecanos, The Man Who Came Uptown
  9. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
  10. Elmore Leonard, City Primeval
  11. Herta Müller, Nadirs
  12. Stephen Foehr, Waking Up in Nashville
  13. Caryl Phillips, Cambridge
  14. C Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills is Gold
  15. Richard Smith, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass
  16. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Child of All Nations
  17. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
  18. Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
  19. John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers
  20. Walter Kemposki, Marrow and Bone
  21. Grace Elizabeth Hale, Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture
  22. Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock
  23. Graciliano Ramos, São Bernardo
  24. Henry James, The American Scene
  25. Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
  26. John Williams, Stoner
  27. Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife
  28. Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station
  29. Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band
  30. Arturo Fontaine, La Vida Doble
  31. Cyprian Ekwensi, People of the City
  32. Ted Gioia, Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music
  33. Jean-Patrick Manchette, No Room at the Morgue
  34. Carlton Stowers, Where Dreams Die Hard: A Small American Town and Its Six-Man Football Team
  35. William Melvin Kelley, A Different Drummer
  36. Glenn Kenny, Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas
  37. Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
  38. Kelli Jo Ford, Crooked Hallelujah
  39. Elmore Leonard, LaBrava
  40. Henri Barbusse, Under Fire
  41. Don Yaeger, Turning the Tide: How One Game Changed the South
  42. Shahriar Mandanipour, Moonbrow


  1. Philip Roth, The Counterlife
  2. Jim Bouton, Ball Four
  3. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
  4. Edmundo Desnoes, Memories of Underdevelopment
  5. John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel
  6. Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain
  7. James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
  8. Robert Stone, A Flag for Sunrise
  9. John Dos Passos, 1919
  10. Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
  11. Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
  12. Jose Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
  13. Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
  14. Guillermo Martinez, The Book of Murder
  15. Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor
  16. Manlio Argueta, One Day of Life
  17. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  18. Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
  19. N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn
  20. Wright Morris, Plains Song
  21. Javier Marias, When I Was Mortal
  22. Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper
  23. John McPhee, In Suspect Terrain
  24. John Steinbeck, The Long Valley
  25. Robert Bolaño, Amulet
  26. Philip Roth, American Pastoral

Happy to talk about all this too. But I can recommend one book, it’s C Pam Zhang’s. What an astounding rethinking of mythology, the West, violence, historical memory, and other critical issues of the West and the nation. Amazing book.

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