What to Read While I am Working…

This morning I am working my way through 1920s Klan fraternal manuals (aren’t you jealous?) for a current project, so I should not be blogging. Yet here I am. This must come from all the piled-up guilt about not blogging while teaching a 4-4 load.

Instead of blogging about fraternal rituals (you’re welcome), I’ll direct all of you to some quality reading this morning about how we write, what we write and how we look.

1. Ben Alpers at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog takes on the question of whom academic historians write for and discussions of accessibility. Here’s a preview:
I’m as much as a believer in broadly accessible history as Cronon or Potter. And, lord knows, I’m not in favor of boring history (though I think we can all think of great works of history that are boring). But the story we tell ourselves about academic history appealing to a mass audience is to a very great extent a myth.

Public interest in academic history is limited to a very small number of historians, generally writing on a small number of topics. And most popular works of history are written by authors who are not academic historians. The current New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Nonfiction Best Seller List contains four works of history (broadly understood) among the top fifteen books, none of them written by an academic historian: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson at #7, Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dougard at #8, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand at #10, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot at #13. No works by academic historians appear further down the list, either.

2. Rachel Toor on whether book reviews are actually worth our time at The Chronicle.  Here’s a sample of Toor’s well-placed grouchiness:

If the current climate in publishing and academe requires that scholars be ambitious and accessible, that they write clearly (if not simply) for more than the 15 people in a sub-sub-subfield, then professors will have an opportunity to become engaged in American cultural, social, and political life in meaningful ways. The monograph and book-review sausage factories are not, I think, the best use of our collective cerebral resources. It’s better to write one good article than to review 20 books, and even better to write one good book.

3. Ed Blum’s curated a lovely series on the faces and places of Christ at the Religion in American History blog with posts from David MorganAnthony PinnArlene Sánchez Walsh and others. This curation paves the way for Ed and Paul Harvey’s new book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, available in September. Here’s a preview of the series from Ed:

Looks matter. They can mean the difference between life and death, freedom and incarceration. They can make millions, and they can ruin fortunes.

These were exactly the kinds of issues that drove Paul and I as we wrote about The Color of Christ: how people looked at Jesus, how they imagined him looking at them, and what role appearances of the sacred played in America’s long saga with race. At the end of our writing, we were in search of a cover image. How would one evoke the passions, problems, and perils of living with material depictions of the immaterial? 

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