Sunday, July 26, 2015

Peter A. Shulman

Peter A. Shulman is an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University. His new book is Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Shulman's reply:
As a historian, I'm fortunate that I get to read a lot of books for my research and teaching. Having just finished my first book, I'm starting a new project about the history of ideas about intelligence in America. For that, I'm reading Jamie Cohen-Cole's recent The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature, a fascinating look at the intersection of cognitive science and American culture and politics after World War II. In the academy, in school curricula, and among public intellectuals, the idea of the open mind played a key role in how Americans thought about themselves, the practice of science, and human nature. It's a terrific read.

Before bed, I try to avoid works I'd feel compelled to take notes on. Instead, I tend to pick up other works of history that have nothing to do with what I work on myself, like Vikings or early Islam and stuff. Right now, I'm making my way through Empires and Encounters, a collection of essays on world history between 1350 and 1750 edited by Wolfgang Reinhard. This is the third volume in Harvard University Press's A History of the World, edited by Akira Iriye and J├╝rgen Osterhammel. These volumes are so huge that each contributor's essay is really a small book (and at least one of these essays from another volume, Charles S. Maier's Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood, has in fact appeared as a stand-alone work). I'm currently reading the essay on "Empires and Frontiers in Continental Eurasia" by Peter Perdue, who was a professor of mine in graduate school and a leading expert on early modern China.

I'm alternating that work with Andrew Hartman's terrific A War for the Soul of America, a history of the culture wars. Hartman situates the culture wars -- fought most aggressively in the 1980s and 1990s -- as an inevitable consequence of the social and cultural transformations of the 1960s. While these conflicts have often been represented as a kind of atheistic liberalism against a fundamentalist conservative Christianity, Hartman locates the earliest intellectual opposition to the social changes of the 60s in the group of writers and intellectuals who came to be called neoconservatives. His chapters on race, gender, and school curricula are fascinating.

I have two kids and this list wouldn't be complete without mentioning what I'm reading with them. The older one is about to turn eight, and he's a voracious reader on his own, but we still like to read some special books together a couple of times a week. He and I just finished Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and we're now making our way through a series of Sherlock Holmes short stories. He's also into math and we keep coming back to Raymond Smullyan's Alice in Puzzle-Land, a fantastic work of logic for kids (and grownups). We'd already read Lewis Carroll's original Alice in Wonderland, and while you don't need it to enjoy this book, it adds to the fun to remember where the ridiculous characters posing ridiculous puzzles came from.

With my five year old, who's just starting to read himself, I'm reading Isaac Bashevis Singer's marvelous Stories for Children. Singer has always been one of my favorite writers, and these stories are just magical. There are several about the lovable fools from Chelm (the one about Shlemiel and his boots is my favorite), and many more set in both Eastern Europe and America.
Learn more about Coal and Empire at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue