The best books for historians who wish they were anthropologists

Who am I?

I am fascinated by the things people do and the reasons they give for doing them. That people also do things in culturally specific ways and that their culturally specific ways of doing things are related to their culturally specific ideas about what makes sense and what does not inspires in me a sense of awe. As a professor and historian, thinking anthropologically has always been an important tool, because it helps me look for the hidden, cultural logics that guided the behavior of people in history. It helps me ask different questions. And it sharpens my sense of humility for the fundamental unknowability of this world we call home.

I wrote...

A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post-WWII Germany

By Monica Black,

Book cover of A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post-WWII Germany

What is my book about?

After World War II, a succession of mass supernatural events swept through war-torn Germany. A messianic faith healer rose to extraordinary fame, prayer groups performed exorcisms, and enormous crowds traveled to witness apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Most strikingly, scores of people accused their neighbors of witchcraft, and found themselves in turn hauled into court on charges of defamation and even violence. What linked these events, in the wake of a catastrophic war and the Holocaust, was a widespread preoccupation with evil.

While many histories emphasize Germany’s rapid transition from genocidal dictatorship to liberal democracy, A Demon-Haunted Land places in full view the toxic mistrust, bitterness, and spiritual malaise that unfolded alongside the economic miracle. This shadow history irrevocably changes our view of postwar Germany, revealing the country’s fraught emotional life, deep moral disquiet, and the cost of trying to bury a horrific legacy.

The books I picked & why

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Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Alexei Yurchak,

Book cover of 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.

Reading the Holocaust

By Inga Clendinnen,

Book cover of 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).

The Anti-Witch

By Jeanne Favret-Saada, Matthew Carey (translator),

Book cover of 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.

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

By Mary Douglas,

Book cover of 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in slaves, France, and the Soviet Union?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about slaves, France, and the Soviet Union.

Slaves Explore 55 books about slaves
France Explore 537 books about France
The Soviet Union Explore 207 books about the Soviet Union

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust, Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, and The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry if you like this list.