Smithsonian's Ten Best History Books of 2021

Historians in the News
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After 2020 brought the most devastating global pandemic in a century and a national reckoning with systemic racism, 2021 ushered in a number of welcome developments, including Covid vaccines, the return of beloved social traditions like the Olympics and public performances, and incremental but measurable progress in the fight against racial injustice

During this year of change, these ten titles collectively serve a dual purpose. Some offer a respite from reality, transporting readers to such varied locales as ancient Rome, Gilded Age America and Angkor in Cambodia. Others reflect on the fraught nature of the current moment, detailing how the nation’s past—including the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and police brutality—informs its present and future. From a chronicle of civilization told through clocks to a quest for Indigenous justice in colonial Pennsylvania, these were some of our favorite history books of 2021.

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz

“It’s terrifying to realize that most of humanity lives in places that are destined to die,” writes Annalee Newitz in the opening pages of Four Lost Cities. This stark statement sets the stage for the journalist’s incisive exploration of how cities collapse—a topic with clear ramifications for the “global-warming present,” as Kirkus notes in its review of the book. Centered on the ancient metropolises of Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement in southern Anatolia; Pompeii, the Roman city razed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E.; Angkor, the medieval Cambodian capital of the Khmer Empire; and Cahokia, a pre-Hispanic metropolis in what is now Illinois, Four Lost Cities traces its subjects’ successes and failures, underscoring surprising connections between these ostensibly disparate societies. 

All four cities boasted sophisticated infrastructure systems and ingenious feats of engineering. Angkor, for instance, became an economic powerhouse in large part due to its complex network of canals and reservoirs, while Cahokia was known for its towering earthen pyramids, which locals imbued with spiritual significance. Despite these innovations, the featured urban hubs eventually succumbed to what Newitz describes as “prolonged periods of political instability”—often precipitated by poor leadership and social hierarchies—“coupled with environmental collapse.” These same problems plague modern cities, the writer argues, but the past offers valuable lessons for preventing such disasters in the future, including investing in “resilient infrastructure, … public plazas, domestic spaces for everyone, social mobility and leaders who treat the city’s workers with dignity.”

Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America by Nicole Eustace

In the winter of 1722, two white fur traders murdered Seneca hunter Sawantaeny after he refused their drunken, underhanded attempts to strike a deal. The ensuing furor, writes historian Nicole Eustace in Covered With Night, threatened to spark outright war between English colonists and the Indigenous inhabitants of the mid-Atlantic. Rather than enter into a prolonged, bloody battle, the Susquehanna River valley’s Native peoples forged an agreement, welcoming white traders back into their villages once Sawantaeny’s body had been metaphorically “covered,” or laid to rest in a “respectful, ritualized way,” as Eustace told Smithsonian magazine’s Karin Wulf earlier this year.

“Native people believe that a crisis of murder makes a rupture in the community and that rupture needs to be repaired,” Eustace added. “They are not focused on vengeance; they are focused on repair, on rebuilding community. And that requires a variety of actions. They want emotional reconciliation. They want economic restitution.”

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