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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

NYTimes Interview With Myself

Historiann has posted a self interview inspired by the James McPherson Interview in the NYTimes Book Review. Historianns' interview can be found on her blog here: Historiann the New York Times Book Review Interview

See her scathing review of that interview here whered-ya-go-chip-hilton-our-historical-imagination-turns-its-lonely-eyes-to-you

I've accepted her challenge and decided to dust off the old blog. Here is the AFFOP NYTimes Book Review Interview in all its glory. 

--> What books are currently on your night stand?
Stanislaw Lem, Tales of Pirx the Pilot; Karl Marx, Capital vol 1, and David Harvey’s Guide to Reading Marx’s Capital. Marx is my breviary if you will. 

What was the last truly great book you read?
For my area specialization in history, Modern Central and Eastern Europe, its got to be Martin Mevius, Agents of Moscow: The Hungarian Communist Party and the Origins of Socialist Patriotism 1941-1953 (oxford 2005). The book really changed how I understood the wartime and late Stalinist communist parties of Eastern Europe. A revelation. Those bastards at Oxford only have it as a print on demand hardback for 117 quid.

Another book I stand in awe of is Derluguian, Georgi M. Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Totally mind blowing. It canvases everything from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wars in the Caucasus, to late Soviet politics on the regional level. The interpretive framework is unique. The sources and fieldwork are incredible. A unique book. 

Who are the best historians writing today?
In my specialization, Holly Case, Nancy Wingfield, Katherine Verdery, Tara Zahra, Larry Wolff, Keely Stauter-Halsted, Michael Palairet, John Lampe, and Mary Gluck among others. 

What’s the best book ever written about American history?

I have no clue about American history. My knowledge does not go beyond the anecdotal and trivial.

The best book in my field is really hard to say. I think Robin Okey has written the best survey history of the Habsburg Monarchy, but it isn’t exactly Friday night pleasure reading.

Okey, Robin. The Habsburg Monarchy: From Enlightenment to Eclipse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

Sorry–I didn’t realize.  Maybe I should ask if you have a favorite biography?

How about Litván, György. A Twentieth-Century Prophet: Oscár Jászi, 1875-1957. Budapest ; New York: Central European University Press, 2006? It’s a nice look at an intellectual whose career spanned three states and both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Plus I reviewed it for H-net. 

What are the best military histories?
Most Americans are woefully ignorant of World War Two as it was fought on the Eastern Front and in China. I can’t recommend any off the top of my head about the later, but for the former everyone should read: Bartov, Omer. The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. I hear that Timothy Snyder fellow wrote a good book about Eastern Front as well. 

During your many years of teaching, did you find that students responded differently over time to the history books you assigned?
Marx and the Communist Manifesto. When I started teaching we were in the throws of Post-Cold War Triumphalism. My students were very dismissive of Marx and I had to work hard to make a case for why he was still relevant for understanding contemporary European politics. After the 2007-2008 recession, I find students somewhat more receptive, but he is totally alien to their mode of thought. 

What kind of reader were you as a child?
A voracious one but almost exclusively non-fiction. My best remembered summer was in middle school when I would bicycle down to the public library every other day and check out as many books as I could fit in my book bag. I would read them, sometimes two or three a day, until I ran out. Then I would go back to the library and get some more. I read the requisite (for young males) American Heritage History series on the Civil War and everything on World War Two. My favorite book was about the history and technical development of Dutch windmills. I wish I could find that book today.
The only fiction I read outside of the required readings for high school was Alistair McLean novels, Sci Fi (especially Isaac Asimov), Tolkien, and the Encyclopedia Brown mystery series. 

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
One book is tough. I guess it would be Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. New York: Vintage books, 1981. Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is another influence. I am ashamed to admit it, but everything I wrote starting out as a graduate student was a pale and failed imitation of either Carl Schorske or Walter Benjamin. You are what you eat, or read, in this case. Fortunately, I learned not to be an imitator of Schorske. The Benjamin habit is proving harder to kick. It remains mostly in remission. 

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
???Mine, if I finish it???

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Since this is imaginary, its OK that they are all dead, right? Richard Kapuczinsky, Stanislaw Lem, and Doris Lessing. These writers have all made me weep when I didn’t want to. 

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I refuse to say that a book is not any good. That is such a gossipy question, asking someone to dish like that. But there is a book I haven’t been able to finish it since I started reading it this summer. Edwards, Elizabeth. The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885-1918. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. It’s a shame, because this book is in my wheelhouse in terms of time period and subject matter. I have not been able to get a handle on it.  I’d say that just because a book is hard to read or demands our undivided attention or stretches us in an unexpected way, that doesn’t mean that it is automatically bad. We might just be bad readers.  

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Lieberman, Alicia F. The Emotional Life of the Toddler. New York : Free Press, 1993.
My kid has just moved from toddlerhood to preschool and I have not been able to keep up with the relevant literature. In terms of the history books I should be reading, I suppose I’ll get around to those when I need to for a paper or for a class. 

What do you plan to read next?
I don’t know.