Annette Gordon-Reed’s Book Picks
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for history digs up some underappreciated treasures.
An Experiment in Autobiography by H.G. Wells
His observations of others—like Bernard Shaw—are sometimes priceless.
Wells, one of the most famous men of the early 20th century, isn’t talked about much these days. I came across this book in high school, and read it compulsively. The voice is so strong and of its time. That has its good points and bad. But Wells is never dull. And, of course, he knew everyone. His observations of others—like Bernard Shaw—are sometimes priceless.
The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin
Essentially ‘James Baldwin Goes to the Movies.’
Essentially “James Baldwin Goes to the Movies,” this is one of his lesser-known works, but I think some of the essays are among his best. It’s refreshing to see him operating in an arena (film criticism) that was, at the time he was writing, almost exclusively the province of whites. All of his gifts are displayed here—his keen observational abilities, humor, and deep sensitivity about America’s racial predicament. He takes ownership over part of America’s cultural capital—the Hollywood dream factory—and transforms it.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
I would love to be able to write a book like this.
I don’t know why this book is not better known. I had read The Berlin Stories, liked it, but pretty much thought that was it for me and Isherwood. And then I just picked up a copy of A Single Man—I don’t remember where—and I was just stunned. It’s exactly the kind of fiction writing I love, and so seldom find. The simple realism of it floored me: to say so much with so few words. “I am a camera,” indeed! I would love to be able to write a book like that.
Burr by Gore Vidal
I’m sure many may find this offensive, but the Founders can take it.
This is just enormous fun and instructive in many ways. Vidal packs a lot of history into this work of historical fiction, and does it with great style and creativity. It works because Vidal is so well read and the history of the United States is his great subject. In anyone else’s hands, it could have been a disaster. I love the way he plays with the images and reputations of individual members of the founding generation, taking things we think we know about them, and putting a different (and very often plausible) spin on them. I’m sure many may find this offensive, but the Founders can take it.
American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America by Edmund S. Morgan
You get a sense of a powerful historical mind at work.
The title is slightly misleading. This book really isn’t about people who are “heroes” in the usual sense of the word. Washington and Franklin, and other famous American “Founders” make appearances. But this collection of Morgan essays, published and unpublished dating from the late 1930s until the present, highlights the lives of lesser-known figures. Students of history will know of Morgan’s very influential essays on New England’s Puritans; they were far sexier, he shows, than we give them credit for. You get a sense of a powerful historical mind at work over an amazingly long and influential career. He’s such a great stylist. Everyone, scholar and general readers alike, will come away with lots of information and insights from this.
Annette Gordon-Reed is the author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family , which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in History. She is also the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History , and Vernon Can Read! , a memoir she co-authored with Vernon Jordan.