Gift-buying trends come and go, but for some readers, history books are a sure source of enlightenment and pleasure. Here are five of our favorites this season, sure to brighten the holidays for any history buff.
SHAPING NEW YORK
Looking for the perfect gift for someone who loves all things New York? You can’t go wrong with The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, which covers the 40-year period known for rampant capitalism and audacious displays of wealth. With its handsome cover featuring the Flatiron Building and a full-page photo of the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion facing the introduction, this is a book that cheerfully joins in the celebration. But don’t be fooled—author Esther Crain has produced a comprehensive look at the Gilded Age, peeling back the veneer to examine the multiple flaws that led to progressive reforms. So yes, there are plenty of photos and reproductions of mansions, costume balls and luxury hotels, but Crain also carefully depicts all aspects of life in the Big Apple, with chapters focusing on the poor, crime (and sin!) and the rise of the “New Woman.” Treat this like a coffee table book, merely flipping through pages to gaze at the pictures, at your peril. With numerous breakout sections on such topics as crusading reporter Nellie Bly, “The Opera House War” and an all-female stolen-goods ring, it’s a fascinating history lesson as well.
BLACK PANTHER LEGACY
The founders of the Black Panther Party probably didn’t expect a coffee table book about the group’s creation when they got together 50 years ago, but this year’s anniversary commemorations include Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers. Authored by Stephen Shames and party co-founder Bobby Seale, the book uses photographs from the early days (almost all of them black and white) and oral recollections to tell the story of the revolutionary social organization created as a response to racism and social inequality. Most controversially, the Black Panthers advocated armed self-defense to counter police brutality. (One of the most striking images shows Seale and other party members armed during a protest at the California State Legislature.) Seale’s voice dominates the text, but many figures important to the movement, including Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver, are also heard from. The photographs are by Shames, who acknowledges in the introduction that the Panthers have made errors but emphasizes a legacy of positive social programs, including free breakfasts and health care. His photographs capture it all, including recent images that make it plain that the struggle continues.
MARVELS OF INVENTION
Just as you can’t eat only one potato chip, it would be impossible to stop with one selection from America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World. Written by novelist and journalist Kevin Baker (Paradise Alley), it’s a celebration of more than 75 inventions and innovations—some of which we take for granted, some of which we’ve almost forgotten (cotton gin, anyone?) and some of which we still marvel at. Each entry checks in at about three pages, including illustrations, which makes this the book to pick up any time you’re looking for that perfect factoid or cocktail party anecdote. Did you know that the death of legendary football coach Knute Rockne hastened the development of the transcontinental airplane? Or that 3-D printing has been around in some form since the 19th century? Thanks to Baker’s efficient and witty commentary, the learning goes down easily and leaves the reader wanting more. His selections are eclectic—don’t go looking for a recounting of how Bell invented the telephone—and he casts a wide net, somehow managing to work in such disparate subjects as the safety pin and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The weekly Life magazine that baby boomers grew up with may be gone, but its editors still maintain an online presence and publish books on a broad range of subjects. The latest is Pearl Harbor: 75 Years Later, which carries on the Life tradition of iconic photographs, with additional features. The photographs—most of them black and white—are striking, of course, and include images from a Japanese aircraft carrier bound for Pearl Harbor in December 1941. As for the attack itself, destruction on the ground and at sea is depicted in page after page of photos, with black smoke filling the sky. But don’t overlook the accompanying words, including a thoughtful explanation of the run-up to the war and a valuable timeline for Dec. 7, 1941. Additional features include maps, breakouts such as “Did Roosevelt Know?” and a look at another surprise attack on American soil: Sept. 11, 2001. And in a nod to tradition, archival pages from Life coverage of the attack on Pearl Harbor are replicated at the end of the book. One indication of how things have changed: No photos from the actual attack appeared until the Dec. 29 issue.
If you like your gift books with a little ambition, look no further than Big History: Examines Our Past, Explains Our Present, Imagines Our Future. As the subtitle indicates, all it seeks to do is “ponder some of the most exciting and enduring questions about life, the universe, and what the future holds for humans.” A project of the Big History Institute at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, this is a fascinating book with vivid illustrations and—despite its high-flying ambitions—easy-to-understand, forthright text. Divided into eight sections, from “The Big Bang” to “Industry Rises,” it presents an array of maps, graphics and text to educate the reader on what it terms a “grand evolutionary epic.” Particularly useful are the “Goldilocks Conditions” charts that open each section, laying out how the right conditions occurred at just the right time to trigger fundamental change—including the emergence of life. Also useful: back-of-the-book timelines of world history, with breakouts on such topics as culture, inventions and great buildings. Even at more than 400 pages, it’s a book you don’t want to see end.