is this Saturday, March 22 at 10:30 in the Roosevelt Room.  We’ll be talking about the books we love (or find frustrating or were never able to finish or read a half dozen times) – books, books, books.  Hope you can join us.  

(we found last year that once the weather got nice Saturdays were just too busy for a leisurely chat about books – and the weather is going to get nice sometime isn’t it?)



I am really looking forward to hearing what titles you have to suggest since non-fiction isn’t my first reading choice and I am sure there is much out there that I shouldn’t be missing.  But I do have a few that I have really enjoyed.



First two:   House by Tracy Kidder and Walden by Jeffrey Cramer.  Kidder is an excellent writer and his titles span a wide range of topics.  This one is about the building of a house in Amherst.  One of his best known is Mountains Beyond Mountains which is about  Paul Farmer’s work – much of it in Haiti.  Walden is a lovely annotated edition by a local author.



David is very well known for his biographies but this title is a little different – it is the story of the building of the Panama Canal – not, as most of his are not, a short read.



Dava Sobel is the author of one of my favorite non-fiction titles – Longitude – an absolute gem of a book.  In this one she looks at Galileo’s daughter who was sent to a nunnery – a look at the options open to brilliant women in that time period



If you are a birder and you are obsessed and willing to spend a year of your time and lots of money, you can attempt to see more bird species than anyone else in a single year.  I don’t think the winner gets anything except bragging rights but this is a fairly light read – made into an amusing movie with Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, Jack Black and John Cleese.



My final suggestion is an unusual biography by Peter Ackroyd – instead of writing about a person he is giving you the biography of an entire city.  It’s a slightly different = and interesting – take on history.

and now.. for something old

We often pay attention to the most recent – or most recently reviewed – books when we look for suggestions but latest isn’t always best.  Here is the history portion of The Guardian’s list of 100 best non-fiction books.


The Histories by Herodotus (c400 BC)
History begins with Herodotus’s account of the Greco-Persian war

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776)
The first modern historian of the Roman Empire went back to ancient sources to argue that moral decay made downfall inevitable

The History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1848)
A landmark study from the pre-eminent Whig historian

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt (1963)
Arendt’s reports on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and explores the psychological and sociological mechanisms of the Holocaust

The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson (1963)
Thompson turned history on its head by focusing on the political agency of the people, whom most historians had treated as anonymous masses

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (1970)
A moving account of the treatment of Native Americans by the US government

Hard Times: an Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel (1970)
Terkel weaves oral accounts of the Great Depression into a powerful tapestry

Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński (1982)
The great Polish reporter tells the story of the last Shah of Iran

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm (1994)
Hobsbawm charts the failure of capitalists and communists alike in this account of the 20th century

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Familes by Philip Gourevitch (1999)
Gourevitch captures the terror of the Rwandan massacre, and the failures of the international community

Postwar by Tony Judt (2005)
A magisterial account of the grand sweep of European history since 1945

OK – when it’s cold outside you find things to do that you might not in warmer times


Bagels and Books started a year ago in October and it just happens in the months when we aren’t all outside getting our vitamin D fix but it occurred to me to wonder how many books our discussions have touched on during this series.  So I did a rough count – not eliminating the ones that get mentioned multiple times because we really like them – and it was something over 700 titles.  So it’s hard to believe that we haven’t found something you would enjoy (you can check for yourself in the archives).  Want to swell the number?  Tell us what you are reading.  

What Can You Learn About History From a Single Author?

History can be approached from a number of angles.  Mark Kurlansky is an author who looks at it through very focused lenses.  A prolific writer for both children and adults, his best known titles are SALT and COD.  In a similar vein, he has written The Basque History of the World and his latest title is Ready for a Brand New Beat.

Image SALT: A World History – Homer called salt a divine substance. Plato described it as especially dear to the gods. Today we take it for granted; however, as Mark Kurlansky so brilliantly relates in this world-encompassing book, salt-the only rock we eat-has shaped civilization from the very beginning. Its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of mankind.

Image The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation – Straddling a small corner of Spain and France in a land that is marked on no maps except their own, the Basques are a puzzling contradiction—they are Europe’s oldest nation without ever having been a country. No one has ever been able to determine their origins, and even the Basques’ language, Euskera—the most ancient in Europe—is related to none other on earth. For centuries, their influence has been felt in nearly every realm, from religion to sports to commerce. Even today, the Basques are enjoying what may be the most important cultural renaissance in their long existence.

 ImageCOD: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the WorldCod,Mark Kurlansky’s third work of nonfiction and winner of the 1999 James Beard Award, is the biography of a single species of fish, but it may as well be a world history with this humble fish as its recurring main character. Cod, it turns out, is the reason Europeans set sail across the Atlantic, and it is the only reason they could. What did the Vikings eat in icy Greenland and on the five expeditions to America recorded in the Icelandic sagas? Cod, frozen and dried in the frosty air, then broken into pieces and eaten like hardtack. What was the staple of the medieval diet? Cod again, sold salted by the Basques, an enigmatic people with a mysterious, unlimited supply of cod. As we make our way through the centuries of cod history, we also find a delicious legacy of recipes, and the tragic story of environmental failure, of depleted fishing stocks where once their numbers were legendary. In this lovely, thoughtful history, Mark Kurlansky ponders the question: Is the fish that changed the world forever changed by the world’s folly?

 ImageReady for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America – Told by the writer who is legendary for finding the big story in unlikely places, Ready for a Brand New Beat chronicles that extraordinary summer of 1964 and showcases the momentous role that a simple song about dancing played in history.