As I am faced with my second Christmas as a PhD candidate, I began to be haunted by the realization that my holiday reading list will be forever filled with histories that I do not have time to read during the rest of the year. Gone are the almost-trashy science fiction and fantasy books, now it’s history that I keep wanting to read but never do. My list is almost entirely about my area of focus, the First World War.
I have recently reread Adrian Gregory’s The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War, which is an extremely comprehensive examination of Great Britain’s wartime experience. Using a wide variety of local sources, Gregory paints us a very compelling picture of Britain at war. The book is impressive not simply for the story which it tells, but also for the seamless way evidence from so many disparate sources is woven together. As a historian, it is a daunting read as every page reminds me that I am very far away from accomplishing such a feat.
Another new book which I recommend this holiday season, if you are looking for a lighter load, is Jonathan Vance’s new Maple Leaf Empire: Canada, Britain, and Two World Wars. He examines the experience of Canadians who lived in Britain and the mark it made on them as well as the mark they made there. My grandfather served in the Provost Corps met my grandmother in England during the war, so for me this book was not only academically engaging but personally fascinating. While Vance does not come close to telling my grandfather’s story, it was interesting to better understand the circumstances under which it occurred.
One new book which I would like to read over the holidays is Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, which is described as a sort of “collective diary” of the First World War. Using over 20 accounts from sources such as an English nurse in the Russian army, a South American fighting for the Turks, or a 12-year old German girl, Englund creates a very personal story of the war. Most interesting to me is that he examines perspectives from across the war’s fronts, at home and on the battlefield, not just the ones we have traditionally been exposed to here in Canada.
Also important during the holidays is topically appropriate literature. So I hope to read the collected works of Marc Ferro, Malcolm Brown, Remy Cazals and Olaf Mueller, which examine Christmas, and truces, in the trenches in Meeting in No Man’s Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternisation in the Great War. The authors examine French, British, German and Russian examples of truces on the frontlines, again providing a valuable amalgamation of histories from the different belligerent countries that fought in the Great War.
My final recommendation is a classic history that I have read many times. Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas is a historical work that all ages can enjoy. In the version I read, Santa does not bring any ipods, or cellphones, or video games, but gifts that have since passed out of fashion. This story has, unfortunately, become part of history, making it sadly appropriate for this list.