This month, I traveled across the country to visit my brother in California, reading as many historical markers as I could along the way, at parks and rest stops and hotel lobbies and street corners and local museums, from an Art Deco display in Tulsa to a wall of backlit bourbon bottles in Kentucky to a small town on Route 66 that’s home to a herd of wild burros. I plan to write here about some of the fascinating stories I encountered on the trip, which took me through 11 states, four timezones (plus whatever it is that’s going on in Arizona), and eight cities. I’m also working on new interviews with authors of recently published works of history, which I’m excited to share soon.
In the meantime, I’ve put together this list of history-minded books, podcasts, newsletters, and shows that I loved in 2021. I’m always looking for recommendations, and I’d love to hear your suggestions for your favorites from 2021 in the comment section below: what did you read, listen to, or watch that taught you something new? What changed your perspective or shifted your point of view? What are you still thinking about, weeks later?
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: This lyrical, textured book begins with Ní Ghríofa’s quest to uncover more about the Irish poet Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, who composed a tragic lament after her husband was murdered by a British government official. The poem was preserved in oral tradition for decades before it was recorded in writing, but little was preserved about Eibhlin’s life. A Ghost in the Throat is part history, part mystery, part ghost story, part memoir, and part poetry (Ní Ghríofa provides her own English translation of the famous poem at the back of the book); it is also a celebration of the value of women’s work, women’s voices, and women’s art, not only in the 18th century of Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill’s life but in the 21st century of Ní Ghríofa’s. “This is a female text,” Ní Ghríofa writes, repeating the phrase like a refrain. If you read this book, you will start to hear those words in your head, too, but laden now with new meaning: This is a female text.
Run It Back by Victor Luckerson: This year marked the 100th anniversary of the destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, a thriving Black neighborhood in Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street, that was burned down by a violent white mob in 1921. The anniversary sparked the release of new articles, documentaries, and podcasts (Tulsa Burning, for example, from WNYC, provides an excellent audio retelling of the events of 1921). But I especially recommend Victor Luckerson’s newsletter, Run It Back, which focused in 2021 on Luckerson’s research into the story of Greenwood for a narrative nonfiction book he is working on. Luckerson’s posts will teach you about 20th-century Greenwood and the people who lived there, but they are also a peek into the process of researching, interpreting, and writing history, including the contradictions and absences that plague the historical record and any fact-bound attempt to use that record to weave a coherent narrative. “You have to be limber to write history…There is no such thing as an authoritative document, really. There are people crafting documents in order to assert their own authority over the world,” Luckerson writes, in a recent issue. “I’m telling you, you have to be limber for this.”
The Repair Shop on Netflix: Have you watched every episode of the Great British Bake-Off twice? Do you reminisce fondly about the early seasons’ earnest segments about the history of British cuisine? Are you obsessed with Antiques Roadshow, but wish it had an English accent? The Repair Shop, filmed at a museum in West Sussex, is here to soothe your pandemic-frazzled nerves. Each episode follows professional craftsmen and women as they carefully restore cherished heirlooms, like a threadbare Teddy bear, a 200-year-old sea chest, and a garnet bracelet. Every object has a story to tell about the family who owned and kept it, the era in which it was made, and the memories it has accrued over time.
Bernadette Banner on YouTube: Bernadette Banner’s fashion history-focused YouTube channel will teach you how to make an Edwardian cape, use an antique sewing machine, and curl your hair like a Victorian. Her enchanting videos offer a peek into the everyday lives of women of the past, in part by tackling our misconceptions about quotidian items like corsets, pockets, and portraits.
How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith: Fusing the personal, the historical, and the political, Smith’s book is a powerful meditation on how we remember, how we forget, and why it matters. In his national tour of monuments, memorials, museums, and landmarks, from Monticello to New York City, and with a poet’s eye for detail and image, Smith leads readers on an urgent and vivid tour of the history of American enslavement and its long aftermath.
Stuff the British Stole with Marc Fennell: Stuff the British Stole reveals the history of the British empire through the stories of precious objects that were looted from around the world over centuries of colonization, imperialism, and invasion. Many of these objects were later put on display in prestigious museums in the United Kingdom, and some of them, like the moving Tiger sculpture in the podcast’s first episode, are still there. The result of host Marc Fennell’s mission to trace the journeys these objects have taken, often across continents and generations, is a series that is both complex and layered—and a reminder that investigating the past rarely yields easy answers.
I also loved and recommend the wonderful books by the writers I’ve interviewed for this newsletter: All That She Carried (now a National Book Award winner!), Stampede, and Out of the Shadows, as well as the podcast 9/12, which I wrote about in October.
What books, podcasts, shows, films, and stories did you love this year? Share your recommendations below!