The best books on the cultural history of the First World War

Who am I?

Joy Porter is an Irish writer who grew up in war (The Troubles). She is intrigued by how we relate to one another culturally and by what makes peace and conflict happen. She researches Indigenous, environmental, and diplomatic themes in an interdisciplinary context and co-leads the Treatied Spaces Research Group at The University of Hull. U.K. Fascinated by the mind, by what makes us love, persevere, transcend and escape the legacies of conflict, her work exposes how culture impacts the world.

I wrote...

Trauma, Primitivism and the First World War: The Making of Frank Prewett

By Joy Porter,

Book cover of Trauma, Primitivism and the First World War: The Making of Frank Prewett

What is my book about?

This book examines the extraordinary life of Frank “Toronto” Prewett and the history of trauma, literary expression, and the power of self-representation after WWI. Joy Porter sheds new light on how the First World War affected the Canadian poet, and how war-induced trauma or “shell-shock” caused him to pretend to be an Indigenous North American. It investigates his influence upon, and acceptance by, some of the most significant literary figures of the time, including Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves.

In doing so, it skilfully connects a number of historiographies that usually exist in isolation and rarely meet. By bringing together a history of the WWI era, early twentieth-century history, Indigenous history, the history of literature, and the history of class, it crafts an exceptional and fresh contribution to the field.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Great War and Modern Memory

Why did I love this book?

There’s a good reason this book remains current after so many years- quite simply, it is brilliant. It has all the grit and élan of a great and thoughtful writer who has seen combat. Fussell used the war of 1914 to articulate to American audiences what they needed to hear – that someone else appreciated the grim, visceral realities of warfare and loss, recognized the gap between rhetoric and reality, and understood the flood of irony it generated. As he admitted long after his best-selling book was published, The Great War in Modern Memory was “really about the Vietnam War as much as it [was] about the First World War”. If one is to start anywhere in attempting to understand the cultural history of the First World War, it really should be here.

By Paul Fussell,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Great War and Modern Memory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and named by the Modern Library one of the twentieth century's 100 Best Non-Fiction Books, Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory was universally acclaimed on publication in 1970. Today, Fussell's landmark study remains as original and gripping as ever: a literate, literary, and unapologetic account of the Great War, the war that changed a generation, ushered in the
modern era, and revolutionized how we see the world.

This brilliant work illuminates the trauma and tragedy of modern warfare in fresh, revelatory ways. Exploring the…

Book cover of Lars Porsena: On the Future of Swearing

Why did I love this book?

No one has ever heard of this book, but it is hilarious! Written by the inimitable poet, critic, author, and wit Robert Graves, it is a rumination on the future of swearing and improper language. Graves had a wonderful ability to talk about things of the utmost gravity in a way that, while not displacing their significance, allowed us to laugh about them. His were, as someone once said, “jests too deep for laughter”. Perhaps at no time in history was such a capability more culturally appropriate and important than during the First World War. Swearing bursts onto the mainstream in this era because, as Graves puts it in Lars Porsena with typical wry insouciance, “Silence under suffering is usually impossible.”

By Robert Graves,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lars Porsena as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Equal parts history and absurdity, this tongue-in-cheek treatise laments the decline of swearing and foul language in England and looks back with nostalgia at the glory days of oaths and blasphemies. Written when censorship in England was still in full sway, this was an impassionate defense of the foul-mouthed in literature and a resounding attack of hypocrisy and Puritanism.

Book cover of The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

Why did I love this book?

Philipp Blom has an exceptional mind. This book looks at the fourteen years prior to the outbreak of the First World War with a depth and breadth you won’t find anywhere else. It somehow captures the broad, transdisciplinary rush to knowledge, to comprehend the new, that at a deep level characterized this period. You learn something or get a fresh perspective on almost every page and you begin to understand the pre-war years for what they were - a powderkeg of change ready to burst across almost every established boundary.

By Philipp Blom,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Vertigo Years as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Europe, 1900-1914: a world adrift, a pulsating era of creativity and contradictions. The major topics of the day: terrorism, globalization, immigration, consumerism, the collapse of moral values, and the rivalry of superpowers. The twentieth century was not born in the trenches of the Somme or Passchendaele,but rather in the fifteen vertiginous years preceding World War I. In this short span of time, a new world order was emerging in ultimately tragic contradiction to the old. These were the years in which the political and personal repercussions of the Industrial Revolution were felt worldwide: Cities grew like never before as people…

Book cover of Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

Why did I love this book?

Another timeless classic. Inspired by Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, Modris Eksteins produced a daring new attempt to explain the First World War in cultural terms over a decade later. Rites of Spring took analysis of the cultural meaning of the war in another direction in terms of understanding what was true and how such understandings impacted the material world. Whereas Fussell had shown how Anglophone culture had been changed by the war, Eksteins implied that the artistic imagination was in some sense responsible for the war. Whereas Fussell focused upon memoirists who had fought, Eksteins chose to emphasise someone who had fictionalized his experience. He presented the emotional truths relayed in Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 bestseller All Quiet on the Western Front as being of more significance than any set of “facts”. For Eksteins, the war marked the point in human development when Art “had become more important than history”.

By Modris Eksteins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rites of Spring as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named "One of the 100 best books ever published in Canada" (Literary Review of Canada), Rites of Spring is a brilliant and captivating work of cultural history from the internationally acclaimed scholar and writer Modris Eksteins.

A rare and remarkable cultural history of World War I that unearths the roots of modernism.

Dazzling in its originality, Rites of Spring probes the origins, impact, and aftermath of World War I, from the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913 to the death of Hitler in 1945.

Recognizing that “[t]he Great War was the psychological turning point . .…

Book cover of Ottoline Morrell: Life on a Grand Scale

Why did I love this book?

Miranda Seymour sits at the head of critical and biographical writing on the literary elite at the time of the war. This book about an outrageously flamboyant aristocrat who knew intimately the cream of literary and political society in Britain is a must. Ottoline was rumoured to have had a long-term dalliance with H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister who took the empire into war. She cultivated (and was said to have had affairs with) almost all the great minds of the era. Miranda Seymour’s elegant writing gives us an unforgettable window on the world at a point of profound change- sexually, creatively, and perhaps most importantly, across boundaries of class and race. A delight!

By Miranda Seymour,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ottoline Morrell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale by Miranda Seymour.

'A seductive model of elegant scholarship.' Sue Gaisford, Independent

'A kind of blissography, teeming with bon mots.' Jilly Cooper, Sunday Times (Books of the Year)

'A sympathetic and surely definitive account, adding greatly to our knowledge of the people and the period.' Claire Tomalin, Independent on Sunday

This biography reveals Ottoline Morrell, London's leading literary hostess during the first three decades of the 20th century. Augustus John, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and W.B. Yeats enjoyed her hospitality and she was Bertrand Russell's mistress for many years.…

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