The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


BackStory’s Holiday Reading List


Our goal at BackStory is to look at the history behind the headlines. As the holiday reading season gears up, we’ve compiled a list of engaging and insightful books that will help unpack the backstory to some of this year’s top news stories. Help us add to the list: give us your own recommendations and let us know what you think about our selections in the comments below!


  1. The Worst Year in History?
    The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret Macmillan (2014)

A lot of pundits have suggested that 2016 is “the worst year in history.” Historians have countered with a few other suggestions, like 1914. That year, Europe, armed with deadly technological advances, unleashed a global conflict that the U.S. joined in 1917. By the end of the following year, war and disease had killed an estimated twenty to fifty million people–but few knew what they’d fought for in WWI. Searching for answers, many responded with increased violence, xenophobia, decolonization movements, or isolationist policies.

To understand the background for 1914, and how Europe paved the way for a transformative global war, check out “The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914” (2014), by the award-winning and New York Times bestselling historian, Margaret Macmillan.

  1. Pulse Nightclub Shooting
    Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940  by George Chauncey (1994)

On the night of June 12, 2016, an armed gunman killed 49 people at Pulse Nightclub, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Although mistakenly referred to as the “worst” armed massacre in U.S. history, the attack was widely seen as a hate crime against the LGBTQ community. The incident also initiated a broader discussion of the persecution and violence LGBTQ people have faced throughout history.

Commonly referred to as one of the first histories of the LGBT experience, George Chauncey’s pioneering book, “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940” (1994), offers a detailed and readable social history of the community that gay New York men made in the first half of the 20th century.

  1. Hillary Clinton’s Candidacy
    Sisters: The Lives of American Suffragists by Jean H. Baker (2008)

This year, Hillary Clinton made history when she became the first woman to run for the presidency on a major party ticket. But as we explored on our show, Women in Politics, women have always shaped American politics–just rarely as major party candidates.

Although the Constitutional amendment that allowed women the right to vote is commonly referred to as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” thousands of women (and some men) worked over the decades to make women’s suffrage possible. In this book, renowned historian and biographer Jean H. Baker weaves together the biographies of some of the suffrage movement’s most prominent leaders. By focusing on their private lives, Baker confirms that the personal is still indeed, the political.

  1. Dakota Access Pipeline Protest
    Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allan Warrior (1997)

This fall saw one of the biggest acts of opposition by Native Americans in recent history. Thousands joined forces with Canadian First Nations and environmentalists to protest the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline. Yet, the response of the water protectors is just one of many episodes in a long history of Native American resistance.

The late 1960s and 1970s proved a pivotal moment in this history, as Indigenous peoples throughout North America launched protests as part of a wider American Indian Movement (AIM) for civil and treaty rights. In “Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee” (1997), Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allan Warrior chart AIM resistance efforts, from the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz to the 1973 incident at Wounded Knee. The book offers a gripping and insightful retelling of a critical period in both Native American and 20th century U.S. history.

  1. Brexit
    American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor (2016)

This year, British voters opted to leave the European Union. The vote has ushered in a period of economic and political instability as many Brits wonder how the U.K. will fare without a leading role in the E.U.
In 1776, thousands of Anglo-American colonists wondered how they too would fare without the protection of the mighty British Empire. Although commonly seen as an inevitable and honorable struggle for liberty, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor’s new book “American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804″ (2016) provides a nuanced and complicated history of what independence meant for a wide range of Americans. In particular, Taylor shows that, as in Britain today, support for independence proved far from unanimous.

  1. Fake News
    Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 by Karen Halttunen (1982)

This year saw the proliferation of “fake news” and a scrambling by media outlets and readers alike over the importance of fact-checking. While social media and the internet has certainly made fake news more accessible, nineteenth-century Americans constantly feared that they were being “duped.”

Con men, tabloid newspapers, and even famous authors played upon this fear. In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe published his famous “Balloon Hoax,” which charted the unbelievable (and fake) story of navigators taking 75 hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean–in a balloon! The New York Sun ran the story but retracted it two days later, suspecting that “the intelligence is erroneous.” A classic of American cultural history, Karen Halttunen’s “Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America,” 1830-1870 (1982) provides a detailed and sophisticated reading of nineteenth-century Americans’ search for “sincerity.”

  1. The Rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump
    Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression by Alan Brinkley (1982)

The 2016 presidential election proved that populism is back. Unconventional candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have garnered a wellspring of support from millions of Americans. Most of these supporters maintain that amid years of economic instability, stagnant wages, and disappearing jobs, they’re simply frustrated with the status quo.

In the 1930s, Americans were also hurting economically. The Great Depression upended the U.S. economy and many Americans looked to unconventional, populist candidates for answers. Focusing on Louisiana Senator Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, Alan Brinkley’s “Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression” (1982) looks at the development of competing right- and left-wing populism in 1930s America. 

  1. The “Dirtiest” Presidential Election
    The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons (2009)

With references to “nasty women” and “deplorables,” pundits quickly labeled this year’s presidential election the “dirtiest” in American history. Historians responded by suggesting some alternatives, including 1800, 1860 and 1872 as possible contenders.

Historian Lynn Hudson Parsons suggests that the 1828 election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson both modernized American politics and has proven strangely similar to political divisions we experience today. Check out his book “The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828” (2009) and see for yourself if 1828 stacks up against 2016.  

  1. Hottest Year on Record
    Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement by Neil M. Maher (2007)

According to scientists, 2016 is likely to be the hottest year on record (replacing 2015). This finding is unsurprising to Americans in the modern environmental movement, who see the climate crisis as the most pressing issue of our era. Throughout history, other Americans also urged greater action on behalf of environmental protection.

While many historians place the roots of the modern environmental movement in the late 19th or early 20th century, historian Neil M. Maher urges us to look at the New Deal, and specifically the Civilian Conservation Corps. In his prize-winning book, “Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement” (2007), Maher suggests that the CCC changed Americans’ relationship to the land and helped kickstart the post-WWII environmental movement.

  1. Zika Virus
    Polio: An American Story: The Crusade the Mobilized the Nation Against the 20th Century’s Most Feared Disease by David M. Oshinsky (2006)

This year saw the rise and fall of the Zika virus throughout the Americas, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia. A mosquito-borne illness, Brazilians proved especially vulnerable to Zika and many doctors urged the International Olympic Committee to postpone the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, for fear of the virus spreading.  

In the 20th century, polio elicited a similar terror among Americans, who rallied to develop a cure and care for those affected. In what many describe as a mix between history, science, and mystery, David Oshinsky traces the historical influence of polio and recaptures the powerful hold that diseases can have on an entire nation.  

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