Help me time travel
January 23, 2010 10:09 AM   Subscribe

New Year's resolution: pick a different historical period each year and spend the year immersing myself in that time as much as possible. Help me decide the "when" and give me your suggestions of what to read and watch to learn as much as possible.

I love historical fiction and alternate histories, but have come to realize that I could enjoy the books so much more if I had a much more solid grasp of the time period incorporated in the books. Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is a great example-I spent much of that book not really understanding all the complicated politics, and feel that I would have been able to relax and enjoy the story that much more if I knew the backstory better. Other examples are Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt, Mary Renault's The Persian Boy, and Herman Wouk's classic War & Remembrance. I also find that I wish I knew more about the story that came before; to understand what is going on in Stephenson's Britain in the 17th century, I need to understand what happened in the previous centuries.

So, if you could immerse yourself in reading everything you could find about one historical period a year, where would you start? What would you read? I love nonfiction and fiction both, but am interested in books that will draw me in and aren't reminiscent of college textbooks.
posted by purenitrous to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The Tudors? Phillipa Gregory's fiction on various Tudor women are really quite good. Allison Weir has written several volumes of non-fiction on Tudor and early Steward figures. David Starkey and Antoinia Fraser have also written on the period (where fact was indeed as good as any fiction!) Lastly, I haven't read, but have heard wonderful things about a novel on Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
posted by motsque at 10:18 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

PS. If you start with the Tudors (or even earlier), you can work your way forward through the various periods of English history as it branches out into American, then imperial history; from there you can hop over to the places it intersects European history and the various parts of the world affected by its expansion.
posted by motsque at 10:20 AM on January 23, 2010

Last year I went SCUBA diving in Roatan, Honduras. I wanted to read a little about the island's history before arriving, and stumbled upon the fact that Roatan was Captain Morgan's hideout. The pirate... (errr, privateer) - not the rum.

That turned into an entire year of reading stories, fiction and non, about the 'golden age' of privateering and pirating during a time period of around 1690 - 1720. Fascinating stuff to me.

If you're interested I can come up with a reading list.
posted by matty at 10:42 AM on January 23, 2010

You should pick a geographic area as well as a time period: very different things were going on at the same time in different parts of the world. The further back you go in time, the less interaction people in different parts of the world had with each other.
posted by k. at 10:48 AM on January 23, 2010

Not a book and maybe not exactly what you are looking for, but Amadeus was an Academy Award winning film about the life and times of Mozart as told through his colleague and "killer," Salieri. It had great costuming and architecture of the 18th century...the special features version of the DVD discusses the back story behind going on location in Czechoslovakia in the early 80s while they were under Soviet rule. It was not a biopic, but historical fiction.
posted by bach at 10:57 AM on January 23, 2010

liketitanic,, you're right, but part of my question is what period should I pick? I'm not sure where to even begin. If I do this every year, and I'm forty, I figure I can cover 45 different times/places in my life :). So, for now, perhaps I need guidance in where to start re the history of Western Europe, though I find other parts of the world very interesting as well.
posted by purenitrous at 12:52 PM on January 23, 2010

Rome. So much of western civilization, language, and philosophy was built on the foundation laid by the Romans. There are earlier civilizations that are just as interesting, but it's astounding how much literature and history from that era survives today.

I'm fond of the latter days of the Republic, but if you're keen on starting from the beginning the History of Rome podcast will get you going and suggest supplementary, original source material.
posted by Alison at 2:04 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

  • The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson is about the social, economic & political changes that swept through continental Europe in the years directly following Napoleon's loss at the Battle of Waterloo (1815-1830). Nearly every aspect of our modern society has its roots in this fifteen year period. Technology, music, social attitudes, political structures, writing, art, states, religion… everything. Johnson makes his case so well that, after reading it for the first time, I decided that this would be the concentration for my own history degree. Very few periods in history encapsulate such fundamental changes in the evolution of human civilization.
  • Sadly there aren't too many books that cover the fascinating Carolingian dynasty and renaissance (~800 AD) except The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe by Pierre Riché.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:22 PM on January 23, 2010

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