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BackStory’s New Year’s Reading List

Our goal at BackStory is to look at the history behind the headlines. That’s what we do in all the content that we produce. And what we read is no different.

As we welcome 2018 and anticipate what stories will break this year, it’s worth reflecting on what captivated us in 2017-and consider which history books can help us make sense of those headlines!

So we’ve compiled a second edition of our annual New Year’s reading list. If you’re interested in what books we featured for 2016, check us out here! And as always, you can add to the list by giving us your own recommendations or letting us know what you think about the selections in the comments section below.

1. Hurricanes

Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England by Stephen Long (2017)

Experts are calling 2017 the worst hurricane season in recorded history, as Hurricanes Maria, Jose, Irma and Harvey struck the Caribbean and parts of the United States and Mexico. The disasters caused unprecedented damage and resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.

1938 was another significant year in hurricane history. That year, a major storm hit Long Island and New England, killing hundreds of people and leaving widespread destruction in its wake. Stephen Long unpacks the environmental history behind the hurricane and looks at how it rendered widespread social and ecological changes.

2. Changes to DACA 

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae M. Ngai (2004)      

In September, Donald Trump followed up on a campaign promise by announcing plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Introduced by President Obama, DACA protects 800,000 youth who were brought to the U.S. illegally from deportation.

It’s still unclear what will happen to the program. Yet, the battle to protect DACA recipients speaks to a broader history over the concept of the “illegal alien.” In this now-classic book, Mae Ngai shows how the concept of “legal” and “illegal” persons developed from 1924 to 1965, with dramatic consequences for how we imagine race and immigration in America.

3. Women’s March 

No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freedman (2003)

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. The next day, millions of Americans participated in Women’s Marches that opposed the new president and his policies, particularly those concerning human and environmental rights. The largest march took place in Washington D.C., where the demonstration joined other historic events including the 1963 March on Washington, protests against the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and the first Earth Day celebration.

The 2017 Women’s March is part of a long history of American women’s political mobilization. Estelle Freedman tells this story in a compelling narrative that links the history of American feminism to a range of contemporary issues, including work, sex and family.

4. North Korea

The Korean War: A History by Bruce Cumings (2010)

Donald Trump’s tweets about North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un repeatedly made headlines in 2017. The vitriol between the two led to increased tensions, which many fear pushes the world closer to nuclear warfare.

Although U.S. relations with North Korea dominated headlines in 2017, the Korean War (1950-1953) remains what some observers have called “the Forgotten War.” Overshadowed in popular memory by World War II and the Vietnam War, the Korean War and U.S. involvement in it profoundly shaped the world that we live in today. In this book, Bruce Cumings provides essential background.

5. Las Vegas Shooting 

The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture by Pamela Haag (2016)

In 2017, the debate over America’s gun culture raged yet again. This time it was in response to the tragic October 1 shooting of more than 558 people at a Las Vegas concert. The violence left 58 dead and prompted stocks in American gun manufacturers to rise.

For several decades, a new generation of historians have started to explore the history behind America’s contentious relationship to guns. Few accounts are more innovative or provocative than Pamela Haag’s exploration of how gun manufacturers responded to sluggish sales at the turn of the 20th century by using aggressive marketing and advertising techniques to create an American gun culture.

6. Solar Eclipse

Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth by Robert Poole (2010)

On August 21, many of us watched in fascination as a solar eclipse crossed the U.S. A monumental celestial event, the solar eclipse served as a reminder that our world is just one small part of a galaxy that-for a moment-didn’t seem so far, far away.

Over forty years ago, the first photographs taken of Earth from space were released, eliciting a similar effect. Robert Poole tells the story of these revolutionary photos and how they changed our understanding of the Earth, its environment and outer space.

7. Bitcoin

Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink by Louis Hyman (2011)

In 2017, we saw increased speculation in Bitcoin, the controversial cryptocurrency that excites some, terrifies others and elicits confusion in those who are less tech-savvy. No one knows how Bitcoin will shake up global finance. But its rising value has left many intrigued.

Interest in Bitcoin harkens back to another time when Americans saw major changes in how they spent money and the money that they spent. In this timely book, Louis Hyman tells us how corporations and banks became money lending leaders throughout the 20th century and debt became a way of life for most Americans.

8. White Supremacy

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (2016)

On August 11 and 12, protestors that included neo-Nazis, white supremacists and neo-Confederates descended on Charlottesville, Virginia for the “Unite the Right” rally. Violence quickly ensued, as marchers clashed with counter-protestors and a man drove his car into a crowd, killing one person and injuring many others.

Many Americans found the overt racism of the protestors surprising but as Ibram Kendi’s award-winning book shows, anti-black, white supremacist ideology has deep roots in America. This engaging narrative traces how racist ideology has been simultaneously constructed and challenged by major figures including Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis.

9. #MeToo

Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work by Gillian Thomas (2017)

Originally created by Tarana Burke in 2007, the phrase “Me Too” became a hashtag after news broke that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has been sexually assaulting women in the entertainment industry for decades. Soon, millions took to social media to describe their experiences with sexual violence inside and outside the workplace.

Women have always resisted sexual violence. But popular interest in the #MeToo movement, not to mention the firing of prominent media figures accused of sexually harassing co-workers, wouldn’t have been possible without the thousands of women who paved the way for a safer workplace during the 1960s and 1970s. Gillian Thomas tells the story of those women in this engrossing book.

10. Somalia’s Worst Terrorist Attack

A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa by Alexis Okeowo (2017)

In October, terrorists whom many believe to be associated with the militant group al-Shabaab drove a truck filled with explosives into the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, killing over 300 people and leaving another 200 wounded. The number of casualties meant that the attack was one of the deadliest terrorist acts to happen anywhere in the world for several years. But minimal coverage of the attack in many western countries left critics pointing to a double standard and asking “why aren’t we all with Somalia?”

In a book that critics call “absolutely essential reading,” Alexis Okeowo introduces American audiences to the stories of several Africans, from anti-slavery crusaders in Mauritius to a women’s basketball team in Somalia, who are resisting extremism daily in their ordinary yet also extraordinary lives.

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