History is always looming.

Photographer: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

History Books With Insight for the Future

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

As regular readers know, I am a great believer in the study of history, and not only because we seem endlessly doomed to repeat it. I also believe that the study of what has gone before is a useful if generally ignored corrective to our contemporary tendency to see every problem as sui generis.

Happily, 2015 has been an outstanding year for history books. I mention a baker’s half-dozen here, not necessarily because they’re the best -- although they might be -- but because of what they teach us about the perils of the present. Every book on the list taught me something new.

Timothy Snyder, “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.” Contrary to the views of some critics, Snyder isn’t minimizing the role of anti-Semitism in the Holocaust. Instead, he’s emphasizing the often-overlooked role of geography. The elimination of the Jews, he contends, was accomplished most completely in “stateless” lands -- places where government collapsed, often because of consecutive onslaughts from the Soviet Union and Germany. Countries where bureaucracy survived proved more resilient against the Final Solution, although many adopted some part of its ideology. If you know your history, you’ll likely point out that the most obvious counterexample is France. Snyder’s answer is that France adapted the eliminationist ideology to its own purposes, seizing the opportunity to rid itself of foreign Jews.

Although I read widely about the Holocaust, I learned something new in every chapter. The multilingual Snyder has mined contemporaneous Eastern European sources that are often overlooked. Not every reader will like the final chapter, in which he draws explicit connections with several controversies of today, but the rest of the book is excellent in every respect.

Martin Meredith, “The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor.” This book was actually published late in 2014, but I didn’t have a chance to read it until this year. Meredith is a frequent chronicler of African history. This one clocks in at over 700 pages, but it’s well worth the read. In many ways it’s a narrative of civilization itself. Meredith rejects both the romantic view of pre-colonial Africa as a paradise and the deterministic view that geography uniquely held Africa back. For Meredith, the continent’s history is one of constant battle over the remarkably rich deposits of natural resources. Slavery and colonialism are the most visible eras in that history, but they are hardly the only ones. Every page is vividly written. I especially liked the bits on Cecil Rhodes (about whom Meredith has written before) and on the ways that the difficulty over the centuries of producing a reliable map of the continent’s interior led to bloodshed.

Mark Greif, “The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973.” An intellectual history, but history still, that definitely belongs on this list. Turns out we’re not the first generation to worry about the death of the novel. Greif, who teaches at the New School, worries about the death of the project of searching for the nature and purpose of man, a project that motivated a great deal of writing in the period he covers. A particularly nice bit on Lionel Trilling, and on Saul Bellow’s and Ralph Ellison’s influences on each other.

Pamela Newkirk, “Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.” Others have told the story of Benga, the Congolese man who early in the 20th century was exhibited in a cage at the Bronx Zoo alongside an orangutan. But Newkirk, a professor of journalism at New York University, has tracked down new sources, and completely demolishes the tale that those who brought him to the U.S. had any motive other than commercial exploitation. She also traces the tragedy of his life after he was “freed.” It would be wrong to overemphasize what the book teaches us about race in America today, but it would be wrong to underemphasize it, too.

John Witte Jr., “The Western Case for Monogamy Over Polygamy.” An important book for those who want to support same-sex marriage but worry about the slippery slope. Witte, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, mines both religious and philosophical sources on the nature of marriage, giving us in effect a guided tour on where the traditional norms over which we do harsh battle came from. From this history, he offers intriguing reasons for distinguishing polygamy as posing a particular threat to a broad range of Western values in ways that same-sex marriage does not.

Richard Thaler, “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics.” Another intellectual history. Thaler, a professor at the University of Chicago and one of the pioneers of behavioral economics, is a marvelous read. I won’t go into the details, because they’ve been so widely discussed elsewhere, including in an appreciation by my fellow Bloomberg View columnist Cass Sunstein the other day. I will say that what’s truly enjoyable about Thaler is his lighthearted style, even when aiming daggers at the lions of the Chicago school.

Christine L. Corton, “London Fog: The Biography.” Okay, I’m not sure what insights this book has for the present day. But rarely has a volume of history been more fun to read. Why do we all think of London as foggy? How has the fact of the London fog (if it is a fact) influenced literature and art, even economics and politics? The bits on 19th-century writers are especially vivid.

  1. Snyder touches upon but does not emphasize this point in his magnificent 2010 volume “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net