Our Summer Reading 2019

The members of Erstwhile’s editorial board share their summer reading plans.

As in the past, those of us at Erstwhile are wrapping up the school year of weekly posts before our summer hiatus with an offering: two recently published books that we’re really excited to read over the break. This year, all of our choices are nonfiction, and they range the gamut from history monographs to memoirs to travelogues. What are you excited to read over the summer? Share in your comments, replies, or retweets!


Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History (2019)

Since its release in February, this relatively slim volume has been gaining a lot of praise from historians across my Twitter feed. Through this book, Rather-Rosenhagen traces the intellectual history of America from the period of pre-contact through today. By all accounts, she does a great deal of heavy lifting in a brief and easy to read book, while examining important ideas such as Social Darwinism and conservatism in American life. I look forward to reading this concise, thoughtful primer of American intellectual history.

Tobias Higbie, Labor’s Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life (2018)

Politicians and business leaders often regard working-class people as drones without an intellectual life of their own. However, workers have enjoyed a rich intellectual life and Higbie sets out to discuss this experience in his book from January of this year. Using diaries, correspondence, and labor college records, Higbie shows that working-class people enriched themselves as they sought to mediate conflicts between capital and labor. Higbie’s previous  book, Indispensable Outcasts (2003), was a great help with regard to my dissertation and recent scholarship and I look forward to reading his newest work.


Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013)

I looked up botanist and environmental writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, after reading this article of hers from last November. I made up my mind as soon as I read it to assign that essay to students at some point and am eager to read her book this summer—both for my own edification but also to see if it could also be used in an environmental history or studies course. This book, a meditation on ecology and identity, brings to bear her scientific training with Indigenous ways of knowing the land.

Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation (2017)

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time, but the dissertation and various other responsibilities got in the way. No more delays! Dr. Berry’s book is certain to be a classic in the history of enslavement in the U.S. She pairs the enslavers’ commodification of the enslaved at every stage of their life with an excavation of the voices of the enslaved themselves as they dealt with the monetization of their bodies and their lives.


Erik Reece, Utopia Drive: A Road Trip through America’s Most Radical Idea (2016)

This book, part memoir and part travelogue, sees writer Erik Reece recounting his journey to the sites of various utopian communities of the Early Republic. Reece drove over two thousand miles as he explored the locations of communes past and present in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts. The result offers a glimpse of the long tradition of American idealism and dreaming of alternate ways of structuring society that forms the basis of my dissertation research.

Chris Jennings, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (2016)

Chris Jennings offers a popular overview of five nineteenth-century utopian movements in the United States. He covers similar ground as Reece, albeit in a less creative way. I find it significant that both of these retrospectives on alternative visions of America were published in the same year; it seems to suggest there exists some demand for change in the way we organize our lives, especially after the Great Recession and millenial disillusionment with capitalism. In any case, I am looking forward to seeing how popular authors present the subject of my historical research to a general audience.


Nick Estes, Our History is the Future (2019)

This book, by professor and activist Nick Estes, traces the deep roots of Indigenous resistance to colonial projects. Estes concentrates on the historic entanglements that contributed to the Standing Rock movement. I’m looking forward to this book because of Estes’s frank commitment to decolonization efforts using history while weaving in his own experience as a water protector at Standing Rock and as an Indigenous activist. This book is a powerful testament of Indigenous resistance and community—those interested in decolonial movements, Standing Rock movement, Indigenous history, and history of capitalism and labor will find this particularly salient.

Kate Brown, Manual for Survival (2019)

I’m stoked to read this book because I’m a big fan of Kate Brown’s work, especially Plutopia (2013)Manual for Survival examines the fallout—material, cultural, and political—following the Chernobyl accident and asks how humans are to survive in a post-nuclear world. In light of the ever-increasing strain of climate change, I’m interested to see how this book sheds light on humanity’s response to catastrophes that can continue to wreak havoc for decades, if not centuries.


Bernhard Gissibl, The Nature of German Imperialism: Conservation and the Politics of Wildlife in Colonial East Africa (2016)

Gissibl’s book represents a contribution to a growing field on the close connections between conservationism, environmentalism, and the New Imperialism of the late 19th century. Focusing mainly on events in German East Africa (later Tanganyika, and later still Tanzania) between the arrival of German explorers like the notorious Karl Peters in 1885 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, this work traces German colonial policy’s fixation on monitoring and controlling the plant and animal products of their overseas possession, and their willingness to collaborate in this imperial enterprise with neighboring authorities in British East Africa (later Kenya). Gissibl expands on the interesting thesis put forward by John MacKenzie and others that European colonial experts viewed the plight of threatened African megafauna as a declensionist narrative that could only be rectified through concerted international (read: European) action and legislation. Thus conservationism, like the perceived necessity of developing the field of tropical medicine, was an area of general agreement among the European elite and colonial administrators, even as their governments squabbled over the final partition of Africa.

Leigh Gardner, Taxing Colonial Africa: The Political Economy of British Imperialism, (2012)

As someone interested in the ideas that motivated and justified European imperialism in Africa, including the interrelated concepts of colonial trusteeship and the dual mandate, I find it salutary to be periodically reminded that this intellectual history of imperialism—prone to high-flying rhetoric and flights of fancy—was often subordinate to the stark realities of economics. Throughout Britain’s imperialist venture, the British Exchequer kept a tight grip on the purse-strings of Empire, demanding economic self-sufficiency from the colonies. This circumscribed the realm of the possible in the field of colonial “development” (which, as Walter Rodney famously observed, was itself often little more than a euphemism for the creation of extractive infrastructure). Gardner’s book, focusing primarily on British colonies in East Africa, represents an addition to the historiography of imperial finance that argues that the tax collection and trade revenue-collecting schemes engineered by cash-strapped colonial administrators shaped the course of the development of these states, first in the colonial period and later in the transition to nation-statehood, often with dire, unforeseen consequences.

One thought on “Our Summer Reading 2019

  1. Pingback: Reading in a Winter Wonderland: Erstwhile’s winter break reading list. | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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