10 Books I Wish I'd Read in 2019
The end of the year is upon us -- 2019 has come and nearly gone. I hope yours was at least as good as mine, if not better. My youngest child was born in January of this year. I’ve now got two children at home and a desk job. That makes reading tougher to do; it also makes reading a more serious task. There’s no time to waste on James Patterson books or yet another biography of an American President. Below are 10 History Books I Wish I Had Read in 2019, but first I must plug 2019's best history read:
Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom (2019) by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama. A scholarly but easily readable treatment of the rise of religious liberty, Persecution and Toleration is also a subtle, devastating critique of the identity politics that currently plague the West’s democractic political systems. Johnson and Koyama show that humanity has, by and large, been governed by polities that prefer to have different rules for different groups of people. In Europe and the Middle East this identity based governance was reflected through religion, and the struggle to establish a general rule of law applicable to everybody equally was only accomplished thanks to a combination of nationalist sentiments and lowered tariffs within countries. The erosion of barriers to trade and a broader outlook on society (from “village or fief” to “country”) led to an explosion of economic growth that culminated in the rise of the West.
Johnson and Koyama’s work arrives at a time when factions on the left and the right are pushing hard for a more identity-based order, mistakenly believing it to be an improvement over the current constitutional orders found throughout the West (based as they are on general rules). These collectivists couldn’t be more wrong. Special rules for certain identities - even if these rules are meant to help - are not a sign of progress or freedom; they are an unintentional appeal to a dark past - to an age marked by massacres, with-hunts, persecutions, segregation, and dire poverty. Persecution & Toleration is what history should be: informative, easy to read, and subtly radical.
Now here's the list:
- 10. Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of its Special Path (2010) by Michael Mitterauer. A now-retired historian from the University of Vienna, Dr. Mitterauer argues that Europe’s rise was not due to state-building and war, as most historians now assume or at least take for granted, but rather to agricultural products specific to the region now known as Germany: rye and oats. Mitterauer also takes a look at feudalism, Christianity, and European kinship structures too. 2020, here we come.
- 9. Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (2019) by Ussama Makdisi. If Johnson & Koyama’s book explains why the rule of law helped set Europe apart, Makdisi’s book sets out to explain how identity-based rule in the Middle East was both confronted and reinforced by Ottoman reforms, European colonialism, and indigenous nationalist movements. I will benefit immensely from reading this book, and I can’t wait to do it.
- 8. T.R.M. Howard: Doctor, Entrepreneur, Civil Rights Pioneer (2018) by Linda Royster Beito & David Beito. The only biography to make the list, Beito & Beito’s book looks promising, to say the least. Dr. Howard was a gun-toting medical surgeon and philanthropist whose ideas about black-white relations in the United States were different than those of Martin Luther King Jr or Malcolm X. Howard's vision was more libertarian than that of his famous peers, and they also had broad support among the black middle class. Given that this same middle class is virtually gone today, wiped out after decades of identity-based government plans, Howard's arguments are worth a second look, if only to rue at what could have been (and hope for what still may be).
- 7. Great Society: A New History (2019) by Amity Shlaes. I don’t read nearly as much American history as I once did, but whenever Amity Shlaes comes out with a new book I make an effort to devour it as soon as possible. (Shlaes is the author of The Forgotten Man and Coolidge.) Her newest book confronts socialism and so-called “democratic” socialism directly, as well as what happened the last time Americans decided to elect a democratic socialist to office. I am keen to find out how Shlaes approaches LBJ’s one redeeming legislative victory: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- 6. A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution  (2019) by Toby Green. The Atlantic slave trade produced a paradox for West Africa. One the one hand, slavery forged several West African kingdoms into mighty empires. On the other hand, the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade diminished Africa’s economic, diplomatic, and cultural presence on the global scene. Green sets out to show just how interconnected West Africa was to the rest of the world at the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and then how this trade brought the region to its knees. I think I already know why, but there’s only way to really find out.
- 5. The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (2019) by Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson. This one is rumored to have several interesting case studies to help the authors make their argument. Some of the more interesting chapters - to me, at least - deal with European history, pre-Columbian Mexico, the imperial temptation in Chinese history, the caste system of South Asia, and the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
- 4. Maoism: A Global History (2019) by Julia Lovell. This is not a biography of the 20th century’s worst mass murderer. It’s a work of history about the philosophy of Maoism and the practical effects it has had on the world thus far. Maoism is not what Marx had in mind when he wrote of inevitable revolution. Maoism is what happened when “workers” were replaced by “peasants” in socialist parlance and socialist practice. There were far more peasants than workers during the Cold War. There are arguably more peasants than workers today, and while it might seem like Maoism has been discredited by China’s capitalist turn, it’s unwise to underestimate an idea that appeals to the most impoverished among us. I’m really looking forward to this one.
- 3. The European Guilds (2019) by Sheilagh Ogilvie. Want to know what held back economic growth and political progress in Europe for nearly one thousand years? It wasn’t religion. It wasn’t geography. It wasn’t monarchy. It wasn’t even the Mongols or the Ottomans. It was an institution known as a “guild,” and Ogilvie sets out to show us how and why the guilds functioned as medieval Europe’s most powerful conservative anchor. Guilds, crafts, and trades are still important for understanding the world we live in, so if you think this book is a bit too esoteric for you, think again.
- 2. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (2019) by William Dalrymple. The most powerful corporation in world history. The cobbling together of the Crown Jewel of the British Empire. The relentless rise of the British East India Company. Oh, the anarchy!
- 1. Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (2019) by Camilla Townsend. There have been some good histories of the Aztecs over the years (anthropologist Ross Hassig’s work stands out), as well as some not-so-good ones (basically all textbooks), but from what I hear Townsend’s book sets a new standard, mostly due to her painstaking work on translating Aztec language (“Nahuatl”) writings. Rutgers is lucky to have Dr. Townsend, and I’m hoping I’ll be lucky enough to find this book in my stocking on Christmas morning.
Have a great 2020, from my family to yours.