The best books for historians who wish they were anthropologists

The Books I Picked & Why

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

By Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

Why this book?

In addition to being an extraordinary novelist, Harlem Renaissance luminary Zora Neale Hurston was also an ethnographer, anthropologist, and folklorist. During her PhD studies at Columbia University, she traveled to Alabama to meet a man named Cudjo Lewis, then believed to be the last survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. Barracoon captures their conversations. Mr. Lewis recalls in crystalline detail life in his home village in West Africa before he was captured and brutally forced to voyage across the Middle Passage, never to see his homeland again. He tells Hurston of his harrowing arrival on these shores, about all his memories, and about his enslavement, how it ended, and his life after. Mr. Lewis, whom Hurston refers to by his original name, Kossula, is an extraordinary storyteller, and his words open up a whole way of understanding core aspects of American history. But Hurston captured in Barracoon the details of life in a way that only an ethnographer (or novelist) could, and these details, in turn, illuminate whole worlds.


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Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation

By Alexei Yurchak

Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation

Why this book?

Alexei Yurchak was part of the last Soviet generation—the last citizens born in the USSR who also lived through its collapse as adults. As the title suggests, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More is a profound and poetic work about truth and what we come to accept as real. Yurchak wants to explain the paradox that, while Soviet people knew by the 1970s that their government was telling them almost nothing but untruths, they were still shocked to their core by their country’s demise. What I loved most about the book was Yurchak’s descriptions of ordinary life among his generation (their intriguing taste for the operatic qualities of metal, the elaborate public pranks they staged, the way they treated life like performance art). With pathos and humor in equal measure, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More paints a brilliant portrait of a world that millions of people called home, but which, one day, all of a sudden, simply and inexplicably vanished.


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Reading the Holocaust

By Inga Clendinnen

Reading the Holocaust

Why this book?

A lot of Inga Clendinnen’s work dealt with what happens when two very different cultures and ways of making sense of things come into contact. In the subtitle of her book Aztecs: An Interpretation, she boldly asserted her method for approaching history. It is not merely a recitation of facts, it is an elucidation of those facts by an expert steeped in the knowledge of a particular past. Having written about the Maya and the Aztecs, Reading the Holocaust was a departure, topically, geographically, historically. What I found so extraordinary about the book was precisely Clendinnen’s decision to look anthropologically at staggering events historians had often written about in “functional” terms (who did what, when, and where). In so doing, she tried to offer insight into something unthinkable (what the perpetrators thought they were doing) and something unimaginable (what the victims experienced).


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The Anti-Witch

By Jeanne Favret-Saada, Matthew Carey

The Anti-Witch

Why this book?

The Anti-Witch is kind of a follow-up to Favret-Saada’s complex and brilliant Deadly Words, in which the author wrestled with the phenomenon of modern witchcraft beliefs in northern France’s Bocage region and tried to get inside the logic of those beliefs. I said modern witchcraft beliefs, because for me as a historian, what Favret-Saada contributed most to my understanding of this phenomenon lay in the way that she insisted on its historicity. That’s a historian’s way of saying that she did not treat witchcraft beliefs as “timeless relics” that some people weirdly “still” believe, but rather as an evolving set of practices and ways of thinking about how the world works, and the place of evil within it.


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Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo

By Mary Douglas

Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo

Why this book?

For me, the power of both history and anthropology as disciplines of knowledge is their shared capacity for taking a thing you thought you knew and showing you that you didn’t actually know anything about it at all—in fact, you didn’t even know what questions to ask about it. I would be seriously remiss in a list like this if I did not mention the book that first fascinated me, as a historian, with the anthropologist’s way of posing questions. In this towering classic of British social anthropology, Professor Douglas forces us completely to rethink something we actually never think about at all: dirt. But trust me, once you pose the question, “what is dirt?” you can never think about filth (and its structural counterpart, purity) in the same way again.


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