The best books about village lives as keys to history

Why am I passionate about this?

Working as a social anthropologist in Uganda, Ghana, Malaysia, and Catalonia, I became fascinated by villages as microcosms of broader social change, places where history can be observed in the making through the lives and histories of families and of their members. Villages are anything but ‘natural’ communities or social backwaters. They survive (or perish) because people, beliefs, and goods are continually moving in and out. Village lives are certainly shaped by state and society, but the impact goes both ways. Each of my selected books tells a gripping and distinctive story of villagers grappling with social and cultural tension, the forces of change, and the challenges of survival.


I wrote...

Mieres Reborn: The Reinvention of a Catalan Community

By Alexander F. Robertson,

Book cover of Mieres Reborn: The Reinvention of a Catalan Community

What is my book about?

Not long ago Mieres, a village in the foothills of the Pyrenees, seemed destined to die. The community had survived the hardships and enmities of the Civil War and the ensuing misèria. But then, as Spain’s economy modernized, as in countless rural communities around the world, young Mierencs moved to the towns, leaving behind abandoned fields, derelict houses, and their aging and disconsolate parents. 

The tide gradually turned with a reverse flow of migrants from the cities bringing an infusion of youth to the community, devising new livelihoods, and revitalizing the village school. In a vigorous round of fiestas, fairs, and other public events, natives, exiles, and newcomers worked together to create a lively sense of belonging, rediscovering historical roots and political identity.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294-1324

Alexander F. Robertson Why did I love this book?

An instant best-seller when it first appeared in 1978, Montaillou uses Inquisition records of the cross-examinations of Cathar heretics and their Catholic neighbours and kin to recover the religious, social, emotional and sexual lives of medieval Pyrenean villagers.

Shepherds, mayors, matriarchs and servants, priests and laity, come vividly to life as they recount their work and pleasures, friendships and enmities, doubts and beliefs. 

Montaillou is the most influential example of what was then a speciality of the French Annales school of history, namely, studies of everyday life (la vie quotidienne) in a particular historical milieu.

Since then micro-histories, detailed accounts of social microcosms and what they tell us about the wider worlds in which they were embedded, and the historical shifts or transformations to which they bear witness, have become the bread and butter not only of local but of global historians.   

By Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Barbara Bray (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Montaillou as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

APPEARS UNREAD. Hardcover with slipcase. Slipcase shows minimal shelving wear, binding is very slightly pulling away from the spine, otherwise an UNBLEMISHED copy.


Book cover of The Temple of Memories: History, Power, and Morality in a Chinese Village

Alexander F. Robertson Why did I love this book?

On a cold winter night in 1960 the families of Dachuan village were forced out of their homes to make way for the waters of a huge new dam. Some managed to retrieve a few bones from the family graves to take to their new homes. But the ancestral temple that had been at the heart of village life and identity for centuries was lost to the rising waters. 

For decades Maoist policy suppressed all religious expression in China, but the reforms of the 1980s saw many forms of religious revival, including the triumphant reconstruction of Dachuan’s Confucius temple, its rituals, ethics, and ancestral spirit tablets. 

Jing’s book is an outstanding study of social memory, its powers of resistance to crisis and oppression, and its mobilization as a resource to rebuild community and history. A unique window onto the travails of modern China, it also invites us to reflect on our own strategies for crafting memories of the dead that give meaning to our lives.

By Jun Jing,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This study focuses on the politics of memory in the village of Dachuan in northwest China, in which 85 percent of the villagers are surnamed Kong and believe themselves to be descendants of Confucius. It recounts both how this proud community was subjected to intense suffering during the Maoist era, culminating in its forcible resettlement in December 1960 to make way for the construction of a major hydroelectric dam, and how the village eventually sought recovery through the commemoration of that suffering and the revival of a redefined religion.

Before 1949, the Kongs had dominated their area because of their…


Book cover of Moroccan Households in the World Economy: Labor and Inequality in a Berber Village

Alexander F. Robertson Why did I love this book?

The Berber village of Tadrar clings to the steep slopes of the High Atlas. Lives are hard.

Women, men and children labor to bring precious water to homes, fields, and byres, to coax barley from narrow terraces, keep houses warm, feed families, tend the sick, and support the mosque and school. Most younger people go to the city for work, at least for a while, sending money home to help their families. 

So how do families and individuals view their options, their place in the village and in the world?

Vivid interviews and observations stud Crawford’s affectionate and perceptive account of how people in Tadrar decide to become involved in the larger world economy, and their views on what it does for them and to them. 

By David Crawford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Moroccan Households in the World Economy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, far from the hustle and noise of urban centers, lies a village made of mud and rock, barely discernible from the surrounding landscape. Yet a closer look reveals a carefully planned community of homes nestled above the trees, where rock slides are least frequent, and steep terraces of barley fields situated just above spring flood level. The Berber-speaking Muslims who live and farm on these precipitous mountainsides work together at the arduous task of irrigating the fields during the dry season, continuing a long tradition of managing land, labor, and other essential resources…


Book cover of A Man's Place

Alexander F. Robertson Why did I love this book?

What are the cultural and psychological burdens in our rapidly urbanizing world of being born a peasant?

In her spare, unflinching biography of her father, born just before 1900 in a Normandy village, Nobel Prize-winner Ernaux traces the inheritance of shame and defiance that marked her grandfather, her father, and herself, building painful barriers between the generations. 

‘Peasants’ were held in contempt by society, treated as ignorant and brutish by their school teachers, derided as comic fools in movies and jokes.

If you escaped from the village to the town, as Ernaux’s father managed to do, your fear of exposure never left you. Your parents resented your pretensions, your children were embarrassed by your lack of culture, your wife complained that you were ‘still a village boy’. 

Ernaux resists nostalgia or romanticization in this painful depiction of the costs of change. 

By Annie Ernaux, Tanya Leslie (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Man's Place as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2022 NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE

A New York Times Notable Book

Annie Ernaux's father died exactly two months after she passed her practical examination for a teaching certificate. Barely educated and valued since childhood strictly for his labor, Ernaux's father had grown into a hard, practical man who showed his family little affection.

Narrating his slow ascent towards material comfort, Ernaux's cold observation reveals the shame that haunted her father throughout his life. She scrutinizes the importance he attributed to manners and language that came so unnaturally to him as he struggled to provide for his family…


Book cover of English Pastoral: An Inheritance

Alexander F. Robertson Why did I love this book?

This too is a tale of three village generations grappling with historical change.

Here the story is about changing ideas of stewardship of the land, an enthralling account of farming ways in flux and of the intricate, back-breaking, and unpredictable work of restoring degraded farmland to health.

The Rebanks family run a hill-farm in a Lake District village. Rebanks’ grandfather started with horse-ploughs. A tractor replaced the horses, yet he still knew the individual ways of every ewe and cow and farmed lightly on the land. But Rebanks’ father, caught in market pressures, industrialized his farming methods.

Progress became the mantra of all the village farmers, including the young Rebanks himself.

Today, although they recognize the precarity of their livelihood and the damage to the land, most see no alternative to intensifying production. When Rebanks decides to switch to regenerative farming to preserve the land for future generations, his fellow farmers are not easy to convince. 

By James Rebanks,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE SUNDAY TIMES NATURE BOOK OF THE YEAR

The new bestseller from the author of The Shepherd's Life

'A beautifully written story of a family, a home and a changing landscape' Nigel Slater

As a boy, James Rebanks's grandfather taught him to work the land the old way. Their family farm in the Lake District hills was part of an ancient agricultural landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. And yet, by the time James inherited the farm, it was barely recognisable. The men and women had vanished from the…


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The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

Sammy Stein Author Of Fabulous Female Musicians

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been passionate about music for almost my entire life. Jazz music in particular speaks to me but not just jazz. I love music, full stop. I really discovered jazz when I attended a jazz club workshop in London and there, I had to join in or leave. I chose to join in and since then I have never looked back. I was introduced to more jazz musicians and now write about music for three major columns as well as Readers’ Digest. My Women In Jazz book won several awards. I have been International Editor for the Jazz Journalist Association and had my work commissioned by the Library of Congress. 

Sammy's book list on female musicians

What is my book about?

With input from over 100 musicians, the book discusses what exactly jazz is, and how you know you are listening to it. Do we truly know when and how jazz first originated? Who was the first jazz musician? How does jazz link to other genres? What about women in jazz? And writers and journalists? Do reviews make any difference? 

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The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

What is this book about?

This book is very different from other, more general jazz books. It is packed with information, advice, well researched and includes experiences from jazz musicians who gleefully add their rich voices to Sammy's in-depth research. All genres, from hard bop to be-bop, vocal jazz, must instrumental, free jazz, and everything between is covered in one way or another and given Sammy's forensic eye. There is social commentary and discussions of careers in jazz music. The musical background of those in the book is rich and diverse.
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