One of the weird things about being an academic historian is that, after the pre-dissertation phase of graduate school—when we do our coursework and study for our comprehensive exams—there is an unexpected lack of time to read history books. This is not to say that we don’t constantly read specific to our ongoing research and teaching projects. We read all of the primary and secondary sources pertaining to our dissertations, books, and articles. We read books that we assign to our students. And we read student writing—oh, do we ever read student writing. But none of this is the same as reading broadly in our field. I’m not nostalgic for graduate school—believe me! But I do long for more time in my life to simply read history books for the sake of it—and for the sake of trying to better understand a field, specifically, my field, our field: U.S. intellectual history.
With that as motivation—and since my manuscript on the culture wars is done and sent off to the press (more work on the book is coming, but for now it’s out of my hands)—I plan to read at least one book per month in U.S. intellectual history, broadly defined, for the next two years. And I plan to blog about these books. My posts will not necessarily be book reviews in the traditional sense, particularly since many of the books I plan to read will be old. Rather, I want to read and write about books that, however subjectively defined, are Great Books in U.S. Intellectual History. Since I will be reading most of these books for the first time, there’s a distinct possibility I will conclude some of them are not, in fact, great. But I want to find books that have the potential to be great and for that I need your help.
I have my own ideas about what makes a great book. I’m interested in books that reshaped the field, books that are beautifully written, books that make us think about a topic in new ways, books that are provocative and challenging, books that nicely represent a particular historiographic moment, books that are, for lack of a more precise word, enjoyable. These are all subjective standards. So, what I would like to do today is open up a thread to you, dear reader: in your opinion, what are some of the Great Books in U.S. Intellectual History? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section, and also please give a rationale for what makes your suggestions Great Books in U.S. Intellectual History.
I have not yet decided which books will form my list of 24 books (one per month, for two years), so please try to convince me that your favorite should be on my list. Although I have a tendency to want to read about the 20th century, and about political culture, I am open to expanding my horizons: so by all means suggest books about 19th-century American intellectual history, or about literature, etc. No limitations, as long as the book can reasonably be considered intellectual history, and as long as you can justify it as a Great Book. Also, I am open to reading books published last year, and books published 100 year ago.
I’m excited to see what you all come up with—so suggest away! Next week, I will post the list of 24 books that I plan to read and blog about here. Many of the books that make the cut will be based on my own particular reading desires. But perhaps some of your suggestions will make my cut. Cheers.