Here’s the Ann Little blog post that inspired this self-interview.
Matthew Linton: The New York Times Book Review Interview.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Usually, I keep two books I’m currently reading on my nightstand: one fiction and one non-fiction (usually history). I just finished Ian McEwen’s Sweet Tooth, which is a love story set in the atmosphere of the cultural Cold War in Great Britain. It was enjoyable, though not particularly profound. For nonfiction, I’m reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I’m nearly finished and find Piketty’s argument about growing wealth inequality compelling. If you’re looking for this century’s Marx though you best look elsewhere, Piketty is not a particularly radical thinker.
What was the last truly great book you read?
Earlier this year I read David Igler’s The Great Ocean about the history of the Pacific Ocean and was blown away. Igler’s ability to tell a story about imperialism, global trade, epidemiology, and environmental history is incredible. A definite must read, even if you’re not drawn to Pacific history.
Who are the best historians writing today?
Since I’m not a particularly fluid writer, I feel uncomfortable passing judgment on others’ prose. That being said, there are a plethora of historians – and young historians in particular – making important contribution to contemporary historical scholarship. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Odd Arne Westad, Sam Moyn, James T. Kloppenberg, Daniel Rodgers, and Harold Isaacs are just a few of the many names that come immediately to mind.
What’s the best book ever written about American history?
This is obviously an impossible question to answer, since it presupposes a universal objective measure of quality for historical scholarship exists (hint: it doesn’t). But since I don’t want to be a total coward, I will reinterpret the question as “what is my favorite book ever written about American history?” Though there are many contenders, I always find myself returning to Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition for inspiration about how to become a better writer and create three-dimensional characters. Hofstadter was one of the first historians whose writing made me want to become a historian, so there is also a sentimental attachment to his work.
Do you have a favorite biography?
Not particularly. I’ve never been a big biography reader. I am relying on a couple of biographies for my dissertation including Robert P. Newman’s Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China and John Evans’ John Fairbank and the American Understanding of Modern China. I am thankful for the hard work biographers have put into understanding these characters. These books have saved me hours in the archives.
What are the best military histories?
I don’t read too many military histories, but one I read recently, S.C.M. Paine’s The Wars For Asia, 1911-1949, which consolidates the various wars that embroiled Asia in the early 20th century into a single, unbroken conflict. It’s very well-written and unlike many military histories does not get caught up in the tactical minutiae of war. These strengths make it an ideal introductory text for those unfamiliar with the history of East Asia before the Cold War.
And what are the best books about African American history?
Most of my favorite books about African American history examine their role in shaping US foreign policy. Penny von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up the World about jazz ambassadors during the Cold War shows the way jazz musicians like Duke Ellington navigated their roles as disseminators of American liberalism and critics of American racism. Thomas Borstelmann’s The Cold War and the Color Line is another book that effectively shows the interrelationship between US advocacy of democracy abroad and unjust racial policies at home. Finally, Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism, which examines the intellectual cross-pollination of the Indian Revolution and Civil Rights Movement, is pioneering in looking African American intellectual history in a global context.
During your many years of teaching, did you find students responded differently to the history books you assigned?
I have only been teaching for one year. I’m amazed how teaching 18-21 year olds makes me feel like the oldest person in the world.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
When I was a young child I was an active reader. I was addicted to the Goosebumps series and read as many of them as I could get my hands on. My grandmother worked at the local public library and supported my reading habit by buying and recommending me new books. As a teenager my interest in reading waned, I was much more interested in athletics and having fun with friends. Sophomore year of high school I was exposed to continental philosophy through a world history course and started reading Friedrich Nietzsche and, later, Michel Foucault. This changed my entire approach to reading and learning. I began devouring classic philosophy texts as well as great works of fiction. I haven’t stopped since.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
I am a composite of the many books I’ve read over my lifetime, but if I had to pick one book it would be G.W.F. Hegel’s The Philosophy of History. I was already interested in philosophy, but Hegel’s work showed me how philosophy and history were bound together. Since then, I’ve always found the best history is built on a strong theoretical foundation and the most successful philosophy remains grounded in historical evidence. Hegel’s work was also some of the first intellectual history I ever read and though it is much different then contemporary intellectual history scholarship, it was crucial in exposing me to the genre.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Given the instability of the current political situation in the Middle East I would recommend Frederick Logevall’s Choosing War about LBJ’s decision to commit to American involvement in Vietnam. The crucial lesson of Logevall’s book is that offensive war is always a choice for the aggressor and that other options must always be seriously weighed.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
If we’re limited to literary figures, I’d choose Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, and Lu Xun. I’d predict substantial disagreement at the party.
What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I though John Gaddis’ biography of George Kennan was disappointing. It was too long and hagiographic. I also dislike Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision, but probably just because I don’t like the populists. The last book I put down without finishing was Norman Rush’s Mortals. It was very boring and, since I read fiction for enjoyment, I gave up after 400 pages (I blame Andy Seal).
What books are you embarrassed to not have read yet?
So many. I’ve never read any Jane Austen or Herman Melville. I should probably read the Bible all the way through at some point. In terms of history, I have somehow missed out on reading Jackson Lears’ No Place For Grace.
What do you plan to read next?
Up next is Christopher McKnight Nichols’ Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of the Global Age.