A Layperson’s Reading List in American History, 2018

I was recently interviewed by my dear friend Will Bachman for his podcast, Unleashed – How to Thrive as an Independent Professional. I tried to argue that while the most common subjects for popular history—wars, murders, disasters, sports, etc.—have their place, independent consultants and other professionals could benefit from broadening their history reading beyond those topics.

Here are some specific suggestions to get them and others started. I’ve taught many of these books in graduate seminars on political history and the history of technology. Others I have read with advisees, for my own research, and even for pleasure. They work as both compelling stories and as analyses of important events in United States history. They are written by scholars, most or all of whom hold doctorates in history. And all relatively recent; published since 2008. (For some older suggestions, see A Layperson’s Reading List in American History, which I most recently revised in 2004, and A History Professor’s Guide to Audible.com, from 2013.)

For this list, I have put asterisks at the end of each listing that is available as an audiobook. If I am going to teach a book or use it for my research, I read it on paper and annotate the margins and fly leafs. But if you lack the time for such intensive reading, audiobooks are a great way to explore works outside your field.

  • Brandt, Allan. The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. Basic Books, 2009.

It’s hard to get behind the scenes of a secretive, deadly industry. Unless a judge orders a whole mess of documents released.

  • Brown-Nagin, Tomiko. Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement. Oxford University Press, 2012.

The Civil Rights movement did not begin in 1954, and it did not end in 1968. Martin Luther King was not the only leader.

  • Cowie, Jefferson R. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New Press, 2012.

How white, male workers grew skeptical of the party of the New Deal.

  • Franz, Kathleen. Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Engineers and entrepreneurs invent, but so do consumers.

  • Grandin, Greg. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. New York: Picador, 2010. *

Ford mastered machines and men. Leaf blight was another matter.

  • Hirota, Hidetaka. Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Irish saw opportunity. Nativists saw paupers.

  • Hunt, D. Bradford. Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Pity or respect the residents; it’s public policy that matters.

  • Katznelson, Ira. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Liveright, 2013. *

Congress’s Southern Democrats of the 1930s were brutal white supremacists, but they voted to fight fascism.

  • Lair, Meredith H. Armed with Abundance: Consumerism & Soldiering in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Even for non-combat troops, service in Vietnam could be miserable. But at least they didn’t pay retail.

  • Lepore, Jill. Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. Vintage, 2014. *

Ever wonder why so many prominent biographies are about powerful white men? Try finding the sources for a white woman.

  • McCarthy, Tom. Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

The president of General Motors wanted catalytic converters. But he needed the government’s help.

  • Needham, Andrew. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Phoenix boosters wanted both industry and clean skies. So they exported pollution to the nearest people of color.

  • Osman, Suleiman. The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York. Oxford University Press, 2012.

The search for authenticity consumes itself. One will never find the real Brooklyn.

  • Phillips-Fein, Kim. Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal. W. W. Norton, 2010. *

Sometimes ideas matter, but it helps to have an industrialist willing to buy you a post at a prestigious university or set up a whole think tank to spread those ideas.

  • Storrs, Landon R. Y. The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. *

When the anticommunists attacked, they weren’t looking for spies. They were hunting bold women with proposals for social welfare programs.

  • Strub, Whitney. Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right. Columbia University Press, 2010.

If sex is scary, porn panic and gay panic are the same thing.

  • Willrich, Michael. Pox: An American History. Penguin, 2011. *

The anti-vaxxers of 1901 had good reason to fear the state. The state had good reason to fear them.

For more along these lines, keep an eye out for historians’ public appearances on blogs, in magazines and newspapers, on podcasts, etc. If you see a historian quoted or writing an op-ed, they may have a book for you. See, for instance, BackStory, The Conversation, Made by History, and We’re History.