Catching up: a big post on summer reading

So I’ve been not updating this lately because I’ve been doing other writing, and I know nobody is likely going to read this massive post, but oh well, I want to do some catch-up with bits I’ve written here and there in order to cover the late-summer reading list.

I actually dropped the textbook I’ve been using for Colonial America, Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, largely because I felt like it was distracting students from what I wanted them focused on and discussing, and overwhelming them with details. I don’t really like dropping a central text completely, so I may reintroduce one later, but this semester I’m trying without. However, if I do return to one, I may have to consider using Dan Richter’s latest, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts instead. It’s a nice synthesis with a strong central narrative about how those ancient pasts conditioned the experience of colonization for North America’s natives and newcomers, and I think makes effective comparisons between English, Spanish, French, and Dutch colonial developments by consistently referring to processes at work in a larger Atlantic World.


I assign Jeffrey Ostler’s The Plains Sioux and US Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee in my Native American history class, and we always have a presentation from students who research the ongoing dispute over ownership of the Black Hills to think about some of the continuities connecting the late 19th century with today. His subsequent book serves as a baseline for students working on those presentations, and I finally had a chance to carefully read The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground. I’ve written about this Penguin series before, and its gearing towards a more general audience, and Ostler deftly manages to convey the complex history of the Lakotas and the Black Hills (saying they used to live there and thus claim ownership is far too simple) in a concise, straightforward volume. Great book, and one with fascinating tidbits as well (like that the original proposal for a monument at Mt. Rushmore included Sioux leader Red Cloud and other figures from western history, rather than presidents).


Before I came to UMW, I taught a class on Atlantic Slavery and Resistance, and considered assigning Marcus Redicker’s then-brand-new The Slave Ship: A Human History. Ultimately I instead assigned Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, in part because of price (Redicker was still only in hardcover), but also in part because Smallwood spent more time considering the trade’s American dimension. I loved her central metaphor of alchemy, the transformation of gold into humans and humans into gold, as a way of understanding commodification and Atlantic trade and the tensions inherent in trading in people whose human characteristics could not always be obscured, but could be made salable. I finally came back around to Redicker this summer after grabbing a copy at Riverby Books in Fredericksburg, and while I still think Smallwood better served my purposes, Redicker is fantastic, and I’d bet would be a hit with students.

I’ve heard Jennifer Morgan talk about the challenge of simultaneously addressing the scale of the Atlantic slave trade while not abstracting it, and I think that’s something Redicker does really effectively. He’s very interested in the narrative elements, and does a wonderful job putting together a narrative thread as a way of telling a larger story about the actual experiences of people–and not just those of African descent–in the Atlantic slave trade. While that story focuses–as it should–on the experiences of the enslaved, Redicker makes a convincing case that the violence inherent in the trade extended not just to slaves, but to common sailors as well (which won’t surprise anyone familiar with his other work, I suppose)–sailors, for instance, died at almost the same rate as the enslaved, were subjected to similar disciplinary measures and sometimes abandoned abroad, etc. We get a good look at ships’ crews, officers, financiers, cargoes, passengers, and critics, in a well-written “human story.”


I also recently finished Kostya Kennedy’s 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a decent enough read and a break from my usual fare. He clearly did a ton of research–interviews, newspaper reports, scrapbooks and diaries–to fill it out and consider the streak’s impact on players and fans and even those who paid little attention to the game but knew DiMaggio. He clearly makes a case for the streak’s significance in a larger American culture, though it inevitably pales somewhat next to the parallel developments of the summer of 1941–like, you know, Nazi Germany’s advances, Roosevelt’s radio broadcasts, Britain’s pleas for help, and the implementation of the draft–that Kennedy pulls in as a foil to the nation’s interest in baseball, and as a threat to individual players who might be drafted and to a sport that might be shut down to prepare for war. He does take some liberties in writing as though he knows the thoughts and feelings of some of the characters, which I was less enamored of–perhaps he has some reason for assigning the thoughts he does, but the historian in me wants footnotes and documentation to support those assumptions (while I’m sure the reader in everyone else wants the historian in me to shut up about footnotes and enjoy the damn book already).

But my favorite part of this book was the reading experience. I’ve never read a book on an iPad before, in part because I’ve never had an iPad (I recently was assigned one for work, so I’m getting to experiment a bit), and in part because even reading on my Kindle Fire can be really distracting since it does so much more than let me read. But in this case the iPad was perfect, mostly because I could switch back and forth between Kennedy and to check out the stats and bios and careers of guys I was reading about. Dom DiMaggio was pretty darn good, but most of us only know him because of his brother (Californians might know a bit more about all the DiMaggio boys who played ball in San Francisco). Charlie Keller was a slugger who walked a lot, somebody it seems like Billy Beane would have loved a few years ago. Lefty Gomez–Joe’s roommate on the road–was good, but a Hall of Famer?! Phil Rizzuto, too, strikes me as another Hall of Famer who benefits from a couple of big years, but even more from being a Yankee (and I’m not so sure what makes him noticeably more qualified than Dom DiMaggio). It was also a bit shocking seeing so many holes in these guys’ careers, 2-, 3-, and 4-year gaps when they were in the service (and also holy crap Ted Williams left those numbers with a 3-year hiatus).

The last little bit of the book gets into some probabilities of a 56-game streak, the odds of it happening, the odds of it happening with DiMaggio, how much it stands above the next-longest (Rose’s 44), its likelihood compared to the likelihood of somebody hitting .400, etc. A nice analytical addition, and something that will be familiar to folks who’ve read Nate Silver and his ilk on these things. This is a heavy way to end a light read, but it also drives home Kennedy’s larger point–this is the rare number that’s going to stand for awhile (unless DiMaggio makes a comeback, since he also hit in 61 straight as a San Francisco Seal).

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