Increase and Diffuse Knowledge for the Holidays With These Smithsonian Curated Books

Books recommended by Smithsonian Institution scholars

Smithsonian Books Collage
We asked Smithsonian scholars to make book recommendations to our readers for this holiday season of gift giving. Amazon

One of the most cherished of American traits is the quest for knowledge. When Englishman James Smithson endowed the United States with his great fortune, he had never visited America, but he knew that the new Republic was a place where the great engines of industry would generate a growth in ideas and require an ongoing thirst for knowledge among its populace. His funds to “found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” today endows a host of scientists, historians, educators and scholars, many who contribute to in our popular Curators’ Corner. We asked Smithsonian scholars to make book recommendations to our readers for this holiday season of gift giving; and here is what they offered.

Ryan Lintelman, curator, entertainment, National Museum of American History

Born to Run

Springsteen fans like myself couldn't wait to get their hands on The Boss' epic memoir, Born to Run, and it didn't disappoint. In 510 pages of compelling prose that's part confessional, part stage banter, Springsteen lays bare his soul, reflecting on mental illness, family, faith and redemption, as well as the details of his career in Rock.

Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History

A whimsically illustrated, thoroughly entertaining history of early American drinking and its relevance to the development of the nation, including immigration, war, temperance, and the Founding Fathers. Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History by Steven Grass includes recipes so that aspiring mixologists can whip up glasses of history at home.

David Ward, senior historian, National Portrait Gallery

Wonders Will Never Cease

How is it that I am just learning about Robert Irwin? His magical novel Wonders Will Never Cease about England, in the late 15th century, and the dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster (as well as the usual problems with the French) against the backdrop of the mythic past of Arthurian England. The main character is Anthony Woodville who rises—literally—from the dead after being “killed” in battle to become an observer of his own life as a knight, courtier and inadvertent myth maker. Amazingly readable.

Hitler: Ascent

Overall, as an historian, I have been interested in the two great themes of modern times: slavery (and freedom) in the 19th century and the Holocaust in the 20th. The first of this German historian/journalist’s two-volume biography of Adolph Hitler, Volker Ullrich is instructive in showing how a particular historical circumstance combined with a messianic new-style of populist politics led to the destruction of democracy in Germany.

Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War

Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail

On cultural history, I learned much from David Lubin’s Grand Illusions, a sweeping yet incisive survey of the impact of World War I on more than just America’s art and artists (the chapter on plastic surgery is fascinating), Grand Illusions as well as from my friend Jennifer Raab’s more specialist, yet still accessible, study Frederick Church: The Art and Science of Detail and the meaning of 19th-century landscape paintings.

The Swimmer: Poems

The Hatred of Poetry

I didn’t read as much poetry this year as I would have liked but can recommend one of my favorites, John Koethe for his latest book The Swimmer. A former philosophy professor, Koethe surveys the hidden world of appearances in daily life in a style that I envy for having the smoothness of a powerful river. I also enjoyed arguing (on with poet and novelist Ben Lerner’s polemical The Hatred of Poetry.

Chris Wilson, director, program in African American culture, National Museum of American History

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

Nancy Isenberg’s account is a fascinatingly relevant look at American history through the lens of class, arguing that to really understand ourselves we have to work to challenge the myth that anyone can be anything in this country.

March, Book Three

In his final installment of his Civil Rights Movement memoir in which he looks at the tumultuous years 1963- 1965, Congressman John Lewis deftly and artfully illustrates what we attempt to teach the public at the Smithsonian with regard to the Movement—successful activism isn’t just passion and protest, it is also—and sometimes chiefly—strategy, organization, coalition building, logistics and day to day work at the grass roots.

The Underground Railroad

In my work with film and theater as a public historian, I always look to what can be best achieved through artistic exploration of the past. The stirring images and scenes in The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead bring a new understanding to the experience of American slavery beyond what can be discovered from scholarship alone. “Truths” are not always facts and I found so many relevant emotional truths in this novel that are just as important for us to tackle.

Paul Gardullo, curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture

The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (Postmillennial Pop)

I love books that begin with a subject that we think we know but then completely throws me for a loop. Ramzi Fawaz's book does just that. It provides a strikingly new view of looking at the real power and impact of comics, their seriousness and their subversiveness. It provides a pantheon of alternative heroes and heroics, rewarding readers with the multidimensionality of this 2D world. What's incredible is that it does so without sacrificing any of the fun and joy of why we devour comics.  

Citizen: An American Lyric

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

I missed so many books this year in the run up to opening of our museum in September. I really want to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings, but they sit, still unopened and set aside. Most of the life changing books for me that first come to mind are all releases from last year–but tremendous they are. Here is a mighty trio:  Claudia Rakine's Citizen; Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy and Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape by Lauret Savoy (a current Smithsonian Institution Senior Fellow). These three provided me with profound ways to think deeply about our past, present, future, about myself, about others and about the places that shape us as individuals and communities.

Amy Henderson, curator emerita, National Portrait Gallery

Peacock & Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

Prolific critic, author and Booker Prize-winner A.S. Byatt explores the lives and designs of two of her favorite artists, Morris and Fortuny. She argues that “their revolutionary inventions…inspired a new variety of art that is as striking today as when it was first conceived.”

The French Chef in America

The grand-nephew of Julia Child, writer Alex Prud’homme collaborated with her on her best-selling memoir about her life in Paris. In this follow-up, he writes about her life from 1963 to her death in 2004—years when she became an iconic celebrity figure  in American culture.

Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines: The Life and Music of James Taylor

Mark Ribowsky chronicles the life of “America’s Troubador” from his youth, through his major hits in the early 70s to his career today. He also tracks the generational shift in rock artistry and the transformation of the music industry in the post-Beatles decades.

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art

Sebastian Smee explores the rivalry, friendships and connections between eight of the most famous artists of the modern era. His objective is the show that the art of rivalry is “the struggle of intimacy itself: the restless, twitching battle to get closer to someone…balanced with the battle to remain unique.”

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation

A wonderfully written biography by James Stourton of one the great figures of the 20th-century art world. Delicious stories about everyone from the Bloomsbury set to Bernard Berenson to such major artists as Henry Moore. Clark was best known for his British TV series “Civilisation” and his biographer happily wraps him in the cloak of connoisseurship—an interpretation now out of fashion, but one that previously set all the rules about how art itself was to be viewed.

Doug Herman, geographer, National Museum of the American Indian

Hawaiki Rising: Hokule'a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance

For all the armchair voyagers out there wishing they could travel around the globe with the Polynesian sailing vessel Hokule'a, this one I can heartily recommend, it’s a great read!

Bill Pretzer, curator, history, National Museum of African American History and Culture

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation

Executive Director of the Center for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, Jeff Chang provides trenchant essays exploring the idea of “diversity,” the roots of student protest, changing notions of Asian American identity and the impact of a century of segregated housing.

Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers

Published on the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party’s founding, Power to the People is an insider’s chronicle of that iconic revolutionary organization by Bobby Seale and Steven Shames. Seale was co-founder along with Huey Newton of the Black Panthers; Shames was a student at UC Berkeley who became the preeminent photo-documentarian of the party. Shames provides memorable images while Seale offers colorful commentary.

North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South

Mark Speltz, senior historian at the toy and publishing company American Girl, has assembled an eye-opening collection of images of the Civil Rights Movement from the American North and West. The emphasis is on the everyday foot soldiers who protested segregation, police violence and job and housing discrimination in cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, a timely reminder that race has always been a national, not sectional issue.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy

University of Michigan professor Heather Ann Thompson reconstructs the events of the 1971 uprising at New York’s Attica Prison, the subsequent lengthy legal proceedings, both criminal and civil, and the decades of official miscalculations and cover-ups that continue to this day. Thompson explains how she knows what she knows and even explores her own methodological and ethical quandaries…a master historian discussing her craft and illuminating the crisis of prison reform.

Nancy Pope, curator, postal history, National Postal Museum

Wings Across America: A Photographic History of the U.S. Air Mail

Before his death, Jesse Davidson amassed an extensive and wonderful collection of photographs from the early years of the airmail service. This book allowed him to share the photographs with the world

R.F.D. Country! Mailboxes and Post Offices of Rural America

Everyone has a mailbox, but some rural Americans have taken those plain looking boxes and surrounded them with the most interesting objects and creatures.

Letters From the Sand: The Letters of Desert Storm and Other Wars

The American military has long recognized the crucial importance of mail to their personnel’s morale. Letters maintain essential connections between men and women overseas and family and friends back home.

An American Postal Portrait: A Photographic Legacy

Photographs from the U.S Postal Service and the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum are used to tell an engaging story of America’s postal service.

Every Stamp Tells a Story: The National Philatelic Collection (Smithsonian Contribution to Knowledge)

Cheryl Ganz, a former chief curator of philately for the National Postal Museum, edited this collection of stories about stamps and stamp collecting, a companion guide to the museum’s William H. Gross Stamp Gallery.

Scott Wing, research geologist, National Museum of Natural History

Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator, political history, National Museum of American History

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of our Nation’s Leaders

Both thoughtful and laugh out loud funny, Dead Presidents by Brady Carlson takes readers on a tour of the tombs, monuments, and museum of the nation’s deceased leaders with commentary on how they died, what we remember about them, and how their memory is being used by the rest of us.

When Women Win: Emily’s List and the Rise of Women in American Politics

A lively "backstage” political story about Ellen Malcolm’s creation of Emily’s List and some of the key campaigns it fought to put women in the United States Congress. A great read for political junkies.

Peter Liebhold, chair, division of work and industry, National Museum of American History

Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, And the Future of Food

GMOs are a complicated and largely misunderstood topic. This is a great book that the activists and big ag dislike.

Born in the Country

This book, written two decades years ago, still resonates with a fresh, accurate and surprisingly eye-opening look at the real rural history of the United States. Not a romantic journey.

Bad Land: An American Romance

A friend told me I had to read this book; she was right. Turns out that many pioneer farmers were not very good at their job. Good book if you want color and no footnotes.

Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore

Brilliant look at slavery and the antebellum working class in the United States.

Empire of Cotton: A Global History

A classic story retold with nuance and thought.

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