History fans have big treats in store this year, including groundbreaking books on American history and baseball, plus visual extravaganzas devoted to legendary women and design innovations. There are even lessons in how to survive a sea monster attack—because you just never know.
Relics: A History of the World Told in 133 Objects is my idea of the perfect coffee-table gift book. Billed as “four billion years in the palm of your hand,” it’s small enough not to be cumbersome, weighty enough to be substantial and full of colorful photos and intriguing text. Open it to any random page and get lost in the images of tiny relics and their histories, ranging from a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid fragment to a tiny piece of Winston Churchill’s faux leopard-skin hand muff. (Poor circulation in his later years caused Churchill’s hands to get cold.) The book is part of the Mini Museum project, intended to share a collection of hand-held bits of wonders from around the world—a whole exhibition, Polly Pocket-style.
Young and old will be enticed by the variety of natural, historical and cultural tidbits, including a specimen of petrified lightning from the Sahara, a piece of a Martian meteorite, coal from the Titanic and a morsel of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding cake. Enjoy at your leisure, with no museum crowds invading your space.
★ Original Sisters
Award-winning artist Anita Kunz certainly made the most of her COVID-19 lockdown: She began researching and painting portraits of more than 150 extraordinary women from ancient times to the present, many whose stories have been lost to history or whose glory has been stolen by men. The result, Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage, brings these heroines to life in wonderfully bold portraits, each accompanied by a paragraphsummarizing her notable life. These portraits are so vivid that readers will feel as though they are meeting these women face-to-face—and believe me, you will feel their power.
You’ll recognize many women’s names, like Temple Grandin, Nina Simone and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but others may be new, such as Amanirenas, the partially blind African warrior queen who defeated Augustus Caesar. Patricia Bath, the first Black female ophthalmologist, invented a medical device to remove cataracts. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a Chinese American suffragist who led a parade on horseback in New York City to advocate for voting rights. A wonderful gift for friends, family or yourself, Original Sisters is an inspiring springboard for further study of these noteworthy souls.
★ The 1619 Project
For any lover of American history or letters, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is a visionary work that casts a sweeping, introspective gaze over what many have aptly termed the country’s original sin: the moment in 1619, one year before the Mayflower arrived, when a ship docked at the colony of Virginia to deliver 20 to 30 enslaved people from Africa. While many books have addressed enslavement and its repercussions, few, if any, have done so in such an imaginative, all-encompassing way, incorporating history, journalism, fiction, poetry and photography to show the cataclysmic repercussions of that pivotal moment.
A superb expansion of the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” issue, this book contains 18 essays as well as 36 poems and stories that examine how slavery and its legacy of racial injustice have shaped the U.S. over the last 400 years. Each piece was curated by MacArthur “genius grant” winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, who pitched the original “1619 Project” to the Times and won the Pulitzer Prize for her contribution to it. The book’s many talented contributors include Ibram X. Kendi, Terry McMillan, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, ZZ Packer, Darryl Pinckney, Claudia Rankine, Jason Reynolds, Bryan Stevenson and Jesmyn Ward. Seven essays are new, and existing essays have been substantially revised and expanded to include additional details. Black-and-white portraits have also been added—both historical and present-day images—as another way of allowing readers to look history in the eye.
A new concluding essay from Hannah-Jones explores economic justice, and her wonderful preface is a special standout. It’s a powerful, personal essay in which she notes that she is “the daughter and granddaughter of people born onto a repurposed slave-labor camp in the deepest South, people who could not have imagined their progeny would one day rise to a position to bring forth such a project.”
The sheer breadth of this book is refreshing and illuminating, challenging each and every reader to confront America’s past, present and future.
Make Good the Promises
As Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, “Slavery was mentioned briefly in the chapter on this nation’s most deadly war, and then Black people disappeared again for a full century, until magically reappearing as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech about a dream.” What happened in between? Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies, edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo, attempts to fill in those gaps, leading readers through Black history from 1865 to today.
Presented by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the book has a beautifully rendered and highly accessible narrative that’s also methodically organized, with helpful timelines, colorful illustrations and photographs. The book does a particularly good job of laying out the long view of events and their consequences while shining a light on more recent incidents, such as #SayHerName, George Floyd’s murder and the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Make Good the Promises is a distressing yet essential, enlightening read.
How to Slay a Dragon
Medieval historian Cait Stevenson admits that she has sometimes “trampled over scholarly conventions in ways that will leave other medievalists curled up in agony.” But armed with her passion for the Middle Ages, she has carved out a unique niche for herself, straddling the worlds of scholarly and popular history. Her fervor is contagious in How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages.
In a tongue-in-cheek but firmly historical way, Stevenson addresses the stereotypical events that happen in popular media set in and inspired by the Middle Ages, like saving a princess, digging for treasure, slaying a dragon and defeating barbarian hordes. Her writing is informative yet humorous (there’s a chapter titled “How to Not Get Eaten”), so even if you’re not a gamer or “Game of Thrones” fan, you’ll find yourself riveted. In a section on bathing, she notes, “Twelfth-century abbess and prophet Hildegard of Bingen went so far as to suggest that natural hot springs were heated by the underground fires of purgatory, cleansing bathers’ souls as well as their bodies.” Stevenson may not be able to tell you where to find real dragons, but readers will have a blast getting ready for their quests.
★ The Baseball 100
Major League Baseball fans, you just won the lottery. In The Baseball 100, noted sports writer Joe Posnanski presents 880 pages of sheer baseball bliss, discussing the history of the game by examining the lives, obstacles and achievements of his nominations for the 100 greatest players of all time, including MLB stars and players from the Negro Leagues. It’s a true masterwork, and his writing is so good that it’s likely to engross even those who know nothing about the sport.
Avid baseball fans will easily become absorbed in these pages, and when they reemerge, they’ll be all too ready to debate Posnanski’s rankings. He’s prepared for this, writing, “I stand firmly behind them, and I expect you to come hard at me with vigorous disagreements. What fun would it be otherwise?” In fact, the author even teases, “I have a list of more than 100 players who could have made this list. I think I’ll save them in case the Baseball 100 ever needs a volume 2.” Perhaps he’d better start writing now.
At over 1,000 pages, Patented: 1,000 Design Patents is thicker than an old phone book but much more fun to thumb through. Architectural designer Thomas Rinaldi frequently found himself getting lost in “odd internet searches” of design patents, eventually realizing that he was uncovering “a design historian’s El Dorado, a proverbial rabbit hole of unfathomable depth.” He sifted through more than 750,000 patents issued from 1900 to the present to come up with this collection of visual treats.
The patents are presented chronologically, with line drawings and key information such as the date and designer’s name. It’s an interesting mix of many universally owned, everyday objects—ranging from teapots to barbecue grills, from salt and pepper shakers to the Fitbit—along with patents for much larger things, such as Pizza Huts and Boeing airplanes, unusual entries like the Mars Rover and famous designs like Eames chairs.
For some, this will become a trusted reference, but Patented will also appeal to historians, engineers and kids interested in how things used to look, plus anyone passionate about design, innovation and technology. One could even turn the pages and play a “name that item” game. Some are a cinch to guess, while others, like a 1930 “ozonizing apparatus,” will likely leave you stumped. Once you start browsing, however, you may find yourself hooked.