Books

Alicia Martín biografías

Some history books that have er come my way* in the last couple of days:

  • Roger Knight, Britain against Napoleon: the organization of victory, 1793–1815 (London, 2013). I’ve just read and enjoyed Jenny Uglow’s In these times—there may be a post about that—which mentions all sorts of things that demonstrate how the British state was transformed in the course of the wars, in ways that mirrored the transformation of the French state during the revolution and then every state that Napoleon’s armies conquered. It sent me to The Times digital archive, for example, to read the reports on the parliamentary debate on the Levy en Masse Act of July 1803 (fascinating, and not just because it was immediately—and not coincidentally—followed by a debate on the introduction of extensive new property and income taxes). Uglow’s book is a social history written for a general audience; Knight’s book, barely a year old, is a more academic version of the same story. I was also struck by how the title echoes another recent book about the Napoleonic wars, the only other book—not counting Patrick O’Brian—that I’ve read about them, Dominic Lieven’s Russia against Napoleon. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll read this at some point: military history isn’t my thing, but the formation of modern state institutions certainly is, professionally speaking, and the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were a pressure cooker for it.
  • Lewis Mumford, The city in history (originally published in 1961). This has been on my radar for a while, I think since I read Seeing like a state. Just recently I came across more references to it in Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The railway journey, which reminded me to obtain a copy—especially as I’m teaching an undergraduate course on cities next term. It’s massive, though, and there’s no chance I’ll get through it by then. Historical aside: Mumford’s German immigrant grandfather, in whose home he was raised, was the head waiter at a very upscale restaurant in New York. A serious and hardworking man, he started his long shift each day with a large manhattan at 11am.
  • Selina Todd, The people: the rise and fall of the working class, 1910–2010 (London, 2014). Some of my former colleagues at Birmingham are involved in the new Modern British Studies at Birmingham initiative, which published its first working paper earlier in the year, then a set of responses to it more recently. One of the responses, by Deborah Cohen, noted that work on modern British history—unlike German or Russian—is quite evenly split between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but that while there are plenty of big overarching frameworks for British history in the nineteenth century, there are relatively few for the twentieth. This book might provide one. It’s got plenty of attention beyond academia too: it’s certainly timely. I also listened to Todd’s excellent Caroline Benn memorial lecture to the Socialist Educational Association, on the myth of the grammar school (which you can read here). Plenty about this works as my family history, too.
  • James Vernon, Distant strangers: how Britain became modern (Berkeley, 2014). This is the one I’m most likely to read soon, as it’s short. I wish more historians would remember the French saying: un gros livre est un grand malheur. (I’ve used that line in a previous incarnation, but that’s because it comes to mind every time I sit glumly looking at another 700-pager. Roger Knight, Lewis Mumford: I’m looking at you.) And, proving Deborah Cohen’s point, it offers a big overarching framework for understanding British history in the nineteenth century. Despite being short.
  • Kirsten Weld, Paper cadavers: the archives of dictatorship in Guatemala (Durham, 2014). With Lesley Richmond, the university archivist here at Glasgow, I ran an event on looted archives last month. Coming out of it, there’s a PhD studentship (watch this space) and some kind of collaboration with a US-based colleague, so I’ve been picking up articles and books on archives and how historians (and others) use them. This is one of them, and it looks fascinating. I’m also reading up on Guatemala because I’m hoping to do some research on Guatamalteco refugees in Mexico in the 1980s and 90s. So it probably stands a fair chance of being read in full at some point.

Boy. All of these books look interesting; none of them are directly connected to my own research (though there are plenty of indirect connections). And that’s just what I’ve acquired in the last two days. I should run a sweepstake on which ones I actually manage to read before my next research leave in three years’ time.

*Partly this means that I went Christmas shopping and bought loads of books for me instead. And partly it’s because I got back to the office after a week off campus and found some books I’d ordered a while back had arrived while I was away.

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