In 2022 I read a bunch of books on American history from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, spanning the period that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. famously termed “the Age of Jackson.” The reading list is included here, along with some reflections on the process and product. In the coming year, I plan to make another pass at this period, with a tighter focus on religion and reform.
If I were to do college over again, I would do many (maybe most) things differently, starting with a major in history. In the past decade or so, as history majors and offerings have declined nationally, I have come to appreciate more and more the vital importance of broad historical awareness to effective citizenship. Every aspect of our political and social life together exists in historical context, and we simply cannot understand where we are without properly grasping where we were. Our views on social problems, policy solutions, politics, religion, the news media, and other important topics are all grounded in our conception of history, whether well- or poorly informed. Careful historical awareness is a central component of civic literacy, which is a central component of good citizenship. If we want good citizens, we need good historians, and therefore I think all students should major in history. If they prefer to major in something else, they should double-major in history and something else.
And had I known then what I know now, I would have liked to build my history major in a more coherent fashion than the offerings typically allow. Learning styles vary, of course, but I find that I’m able to learn and arrange information more cohesively when it arrives in some systematic fashion. Sometimes I worry that, once students have declared a major in any subject, they are confronted with a dizzying array of classes offered at more-or-less regular intervals, some with prerequisites, to be taken or not based on considerations like where they fit among remaining requirements or whether their meetings fall on desirable days and times. Though it would have placed an obvious restriction on my freedom to choose a schedule, I think I would have benefited from a clearly defined slate of courses to be taken in order, by each succeeding cohort, like what they offer at St. John’s College.
Having spent the past two decades in various roles on various university campuses, I have read a wide range of books on diverse subjects, forming a web of connections and associations between. But I have often felt a certain disorientation, as though my understanding of various religious, political, social, philosophical, and literary currents cohered only loosely, like puzzle pieces imperfectly cut. A few years ago I started trying to fix this subject-by-subject, often with help from syllabi that various professors had shared online. If I wanted to learn about Latin American literature, or abolitionism, or climate change, or some other subject, I would try to identify ten of the best books available, arrange them in some order that made sense to me, and read my way through over a period of several months. That way, instead of retaining whatever episodic knowledge I could pick up from one book, I would place ten good takes in conversation with each other, and try to integrate that exchange into my general idea of the world.
When on sabbatical in the fall of 2020, I got the idea to expand on this method year-by-year, devoting each of the 2020s to a particular era or area of American history and reading at least thirty books on the subject, arranged in chronological or thematic order such that each year cohered internally, and all built upon each other into a larger, cumulative whole. If I stick with the plan, by 2030 I should have something like the orderly, encyclopedic understanding of America that I’ve been after. It’s basically ten consecutive New Year’s resolutions building steadily toward the fulfillment of a decade-long project.
I don’t claim that any of these lists is exhaustive or properly representative or anything like that. If you see books that I need to add, feel free to share! If you’d like to give any particular project a try, have at it! They will appear here, syllabus-style, for anyone who cares to consult them. One of the great ironies of our own moment is that, even as history departments contract, history scholarship is enjoying something of a golden age. There is more available now, of higher quality and easier access, than ever before. In 2021, I tried to fill in my blanks from the Puritans to the Great Awakening. In 2022, I went from the Revolution to the Civil War, building my selections largely around the Oxford series, tending otherwise toward surveys, and with disproportionate input from Alan Taylor. I followed some threads into the French, Haitian, and Spanish American Revolutions. I dug into early American fiction, reading the best of Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Richard Henry Dana. And I closed out with Ibram X. Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones to add a racial context absent from or slighted by many of the earlier works. Here’s what it looks like in all its glory.
In 2023, I plan to stay in Revolutionary and Jacksonian America, orienting my reading around the religious reform movements of the day — especially those connected to Unitarianism and Transcendentalism. I may also move away from surveys and toward primary texts and biographies. Though focused mostly on New England, this reading will start here in central Pennsylvania, with Northumberland transplant Joseph Priestley.