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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Great War and Modern Memory

By Paul Fussell

The Great War and Modern Memory

Why 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.


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Lars Porsena: On the Future of Swearing

By Robert Graves

Lars Porsena: On the Future of Swearing

Why 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.”


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The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

By Philipp Blom

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

Why 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.


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

By Modris Eksteins

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

Why 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”.


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Ottoline Morrell: Life on a Grand Scale

By Miranda Seymour

Ottoline Morrell: Life on a Grand Scale

Why 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!


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