Best Books of 2017 – History!
The year 2017 was of course the anniversary of two enormous historical events: Martin Luther’s sparking of what would become the Protestant Revolution and the Russian revolutions of 1917 – and a bumper-crop of books dutifully appeared on both subjects, and quite a few of those books were excellent – certainly excellent enough to appear on this list, even though that inevitably leads to some clumping-up of subject matter. Considering how good these books are, I’m opting to consider it an embarrassment of riches:
10 Istanbul by Bettany Hughes (Da Capo) – The three ages of this remarkable place, Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul, provide an enormous amount of material for exploration and connection, and Bettany Hughes weaves it all into a story of exotic beauty and very human contradiction. The “ages of Istanbul” as a framework is centuries old, but there aren’t many living historians who can write like Hughes can.
9 The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis (Liveright) – Loyal reader that I am, I wouldn’t have thought it possible that George Stewart’s 1936 classic history of the Donner Party, Ordeal by Hunger, could ever be equalled, but in this fantastic book, Michael Wallis not only equals it but handily surpasses it, and he does so by placing the doomed Donners and their company in the much larger setting of their dreaming, grabby time.
8 Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock (Crown) & A Sovereign People by Carole Berkin (Basic Books) – 2017 produced quite a few first-rate Colonial-era histories, but these two stood out even from that crowded field. Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence tells the familiar story of the violent rift during the American Revolution between the minority who fervently wanted independence and the majority who didn’t, and Carole Berkin’s A Sovereign People tells the far less-known story of the 1790s, when the new country’s civilian leaders faced the weird task of forging a nation. Both books tell their stories with tremendous vigor without pandering to their obvious modern-day relevances.
7 Red Famine by Anne Appelbaum (Doubleday) – The great historian Anne Applebaum here chronicles the disastrous effects of Stalin’s farm ‘collectivization’ on Ukraine, where millions of people died of starvation as a result of one psychopath’s ideological monomania. The writing is magisterially precise but also thrillingly baffled and angry; the subject has never had a better account in English.
6 Protestants by Alec Ryrie (Viking) The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald (Simon & Schuster) Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall (Yale University Press) – The aforementioned anniversary of the fateful year 1517 coincided with the appearance of a great deal of new books on all aspects of religion, across the whole spectrum of history, as these three outstanding titles demonstrate: Peter Marshall’s thick tome gives readers the heart of the Protestant Reformation in England; Alec Ryrie gives an insightful and surprisingly boisterous overview of centuries of Protestantism; and most impressively of the three, Frances FitzGerald dissects with totally convincing dispassion the fissions, fusions, and frustrations of the Protestant faiths in American history – and all three do such a subtle and wonderful job that a subject that ought to be depressing ends up being engrossing.
5 Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport (St. Martin’s) – The eruption in Russian society that began in February of 1917 caught most of the sprawling country’s people by surprise, and Helen Rappaport captures this perfectly by focusing on a small cast of characters in sophisticated, jaded St. Petersburg and traveling with them through the tumultuous months that followed, and the combination of anecdote and research is stunningly effective.
4 Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat (Yale University Press) – The sheer confident wisdom with which Abbas Amanat navigates his enormous subject, centuries of Iranian history richly embedded in its broader world context, is incredibly impressive. He’s a steeply thoughtful historian with a fiercely complicated story to tell, and so it’s a book that won’t appeal to everybody, even to every history buff. But it’s a tremendous journey and a monument to English-language studies of its subject.
3 The House of Truth by Brad Snyder (Oxford University Press) – The informal gaggle of intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, charlatans, journalists, and jurists who began meeting regularly in a Washington row house in 1912 were mainly motivated by a desire to complain about President Taft, but as Brad Snyder’s enchanting account illustrates, the group and the discussions quickly broadened to become the capital’s first unofficial think-tank and amateur debating society. All the era’s larger-than-life personalities are here painted in joyfully lifelike detail.
2 The Allure of Battle by Cathal Nolan (Oxford University Press) – That biggest and baggiest of subjects for a grand historical overview – the history of warfare – has been tempting academics to excel each other in windbaggy pontifications for centuries, and the spirit of that temptation is treated with justly understated scorn in this brilliant study by Cathal Nolan, a study that looks at all the grotesque highlights of humanity’s warring upon itself, concludes quickly that all war is appalling waste and mud, and then proceeds to study the very allure it’s discounting. It’s an amazing work of scholarly compression.
1 The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine (Princeton University Press) – Even when I was half-way through this immense study of one sprawling apartment complex in the heart of Soviet Moscow, I had the strong suspicion it would end up on my list of the year’s best works of history, and as I finished it and re-read it, I became more and more impressed with the Tolstoy-like way Slezkine weaves together hundreds of personal narratives into a thrilling and incredibly heartbreaking portrait of an entire nation and era. Even in a strong year for history-writing, this was easily the year’s best.