Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas Books

In the past few weeks, as posters advertising Christmas gifts have started to appear at railway stations in and near Oxford, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how many of them feature books, and history books in particular. On one windswept platform, the publisher Dorling Kinderslee set out their Christmas wares – glossy books on motor racing, puzzle books for children, and in pride of place History Year by Year: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Events that Shaped the World. The cover, gleaming out at commuters, shows some thirty images of people and objects of global historical significance, from Gandhi to the astrolabe. Next to one particularly gloomy set of lifts, meanwhile, there is a large poster urging you to buy Simon Jenkins’ Short History of England. The names of Elizabeth I and Churchill feature in large font, but the poster then asks “How much do you know?”, listing underneath the Gordon Riots, the Barebones Parliaments and other less celebrated or edifying episodes of the English past. The idea that you could market a mass history book specifically by flagging up its revisionism, suggesting that the past you have been taught at school or on television might be read in a completely different way, is I’m sure pleasing to many academic historians – so much of what we write is revisionist and iconoclastic, rewriting narratives, that it’s good to know a wider public is comfortable with, and enjoys, that as an approach to history. In some countries on the European continent, books which celebrate the national past fly off the shelves, but it’s hard to imagine works which seriously challenge accepted national history doing particularly well, far less being robustly marketed as such.

            Great though both these books sound, if I were able to buy up advertising space at British railway stations this Christmas, there are two history-related books which I’d like to encourage people to buy for their friends. Neither of them are brand new, but both are imaginative, unusual and exciting books that I keep going back to, months or years after reading them. The first is Chris Lavers’ Natural History of Unicorns (Granta Books, 2009) a highly original journey through zoology, medieval iconography, Victorian travel literature and ancient Hebrew texts, as Lavers pieces together the different myths, sightings, traditions and animals which came together to create the unicorn. The second is a historical novel which won the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel back in 1999, Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence. The story of an English musician who is employed by the seventeenth-century Danish monarch Christian IV, this book for me at least prefigures Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in many ways – in its persistent use of the present tense, its lyricism, and its haunting evocation of an early modern European court. Happy Christmas - whatever books you find in your stocking next week…

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