A Few “Best History Books of 2018”

History research generally does not need to be consumed as quickly as scientific work. History books can remain the definitive voice on a topic for 10, 20, even 30 years. So, as a historian, I don’t always try to read the newest books, but the best ones. In 2018, I’ve made a conscious effort to read new books on history and historical methods. I’ve already written (and blogged) positive book reviews for some of my favorite books of 2018. These includes Sarah Maza’s Thinking About History and Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). What follows is a list of some other great books from 2018 that I’ve read but haven’t yet written about. For the sake of time and effort, I’ll only say a few lines about each one.


Alain Bertaud, Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities (MIT Press, 2018)

Bertaud is the best thing since Jane Jacobs. This is primarily a work for economists and urban planners, but it has a historical element as well. Bertaud calls for urban planners to learn economics and for economists to work alongside urban planners. He shows what kinds of designs are impractical, and what is useful. He is not opposed to regulation or all top-down design, but he wants urban designers to understand how market forces create organic, well-connected cities. Bad design, he shows, derives from ignoring economic principles and leads to poorly allocated land, crowded roads, and intrusions in everyday life. Absolutely packed with ideas, this book is a reflection on Bertaud’s long career as an urban planner in places like Yemen, Algeria, Haiti, Shanghai, and New York City, among others. I can hardly overstate how interesting this book is. It is bound to become a classic.

Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of The United States (W.W. Norton, 2018)

Next to David McCullough, Lepore has probably the best narrative style among working historians in the U.S. today. This book is a condensed history of the United States, from Christopher Columbus (I know, he wasn’t in the U.S. exactly) to the present. It would be easy to find a few areas to nit-pick, but this is really a seminal work for American historians, for history classrooms. It is the new civics course in American history. Everyone should skip high school history class and just read this book. I’m certain it is going to sell very well.

Gerard Magliocca, The Heart of the Constitution: How the Bill of Rights Became the Bill of Rights (Oxford University Press, 2018)

Just as I was finishing my article “How the First Ten Amendments Became the Bill of the Rights” for the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, I discovered that Magliocca was writing a book on the topic. Our independently-derived theses are quite similar, although we disagree on some interpretations. For example, I think Magliocca puts too much focus on Franklin Roosevelt and on the 1930s, whereas I give more emphasis, I think, to the late 19th and early 20th century as an important “run-up” to the icon-ization of the Bill of Rights. I emphasize the role of language in the public sphere beyond the politicians, public figures, and print sources. Still, this is a very solid book, and the general argument will stand: the Bill of Rights is primarily a 20th century invention.

Wim Klooster and Gert Oostindie, Realm Between Empires: The Second Dutch Atlantic, 1680-1815 (Cornell University Press, 2018)

This book synthesizes the research of two leading figures in the history of the Dutch Atlantic. The authors connect Dutch colonial history to the wider Atlantic. The Dutch were not numerous in the Atlantic World, but they pulled beyond their weight. They were, unfortunately, major players in the slave trade, and in merchant networks more generally. The author treat the Dutch in New York and New Jersey as mostly separate from, outside this Dutch Atlantic World. They also do not incorporate South Africa into this picture. They focus instead on the Dutch on the coast of Africa, in Suriname, Curacao, St. Eustatius, and the other Dutch West Indies. This book will be a standard, especially for scholars who can’t read the Dutch-language historiography on this topic.

Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge, Capitalism in America: A History (Penguin, 2018)

A mostly positive history of American capitalism, written in a style that is easy to read.  It was property rights and trade in the beginning of the nation that launched it on a successful economic course of growth. Immigration strengthened the nation with new blood, new ideas, and cheap labor. The authors’ approach is indebted to Schumpeter and his “creative destruction”. The United States has been one of the most dynamic, changing countries, and so it has also had to deal with the social consequences of so much change. The U.S. has been unique successful in this, the authors suggest. They also offer a few suggestions to keep American capitalism sound: entitlement reforms should be on a system of defined contributions, banks should be required to hold more capital. These two reforms sound fairly modest, but each, in its own right, would be massive. One of my criticisms is treating “capitalism” as a thing, and then going into the past to find out about it.  Capitalism, is instead, in my mind, a description of things, not a thing-in-itself, and it has many possible definitions, such that the word is almost useful in describing something accurately.  It seems to me that the book is a bit old-fashioned and its sections probably wouldn’t all hold up to rigorous questioning from narrowly-focused experts. Yet again, this is the kind of book   (not the crap by Thomas Friedman) that really should be sitting on everyman’s shelf.

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