Holiday Reading

Christmas book tree, via

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You’ve spent all fall, all year reading. It’s time for a break, to spend some time at home … reading. Or maybe you’re looking for books as gifts. Or maybe you just want to know what books you should have read. Or, worse, what books you can pretend to have read. Whatever. We’re not here to judge. This is your time. So here goes, some of our editors’ recommendations for holiday reading, 2017 edition.

Daniel Macfarlane, Western Michigan University

It is probably no surprise that I’m looking forward to a number of books on rivers and water. I’m excited to read Michele Dagenais’ Montreal, City of Water: An Environmental History, a revised edition of her 2011 French book. A little further up the St. Lawrence, at Akwesasne, is another book piquing my interest: The River is In Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community by Elizabeth Hoover. And if you want a gift idea that keeps on giving, Nancy Langston has pledged to donate proceeds from her fabulous and hopeful Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World to local environmental groups. I’ve already started dipping into chapters from the edited collection Rivers of the Anthropocene, which is available as a free ebook. Then there are two books on the Peace River: Katharine Cox’s Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand against Big Hydro and Michael Church’s The Regulation of Peace River: A Case Study for River Management. I love everything Harold Platt produces, so I’ll definitely pick up his Sinking Chicago: Climate Change and the Remaking of a Flood-Prone Environment when it arrives in early 2018. Sandra Postel’s Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity is my current read for those times when other (good?) parents would be watching their kids at swimming or gymnastics lessons.

I recently completed Andreas Malm’s provocative Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, which pairs well with Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore’s The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. Both have me wanting to read Jon Wlasiuk’s just-published Refining Nature: Standard Oil and the Limits of Efficiency. Sticking with energy, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Julie Cohn’s The Grid: Biography of an American Technology.

Since I’m still a fan of reading paper editions of books whenever possible, I plan to replenish my supply of Lee Valley’s book darts to save my page — kudos to Sean Kheraj for introducing these out to me a few years back. And they make a great stocking stuffer. Finally, no environmental historian’s mantle would be complete without a 3-D wooden bathymetric map of the Great Lakes or whatever water body or natural feature tickles your fancy. Or for a different type of visual representation of the lakes, Alexis Rockman’s “The Great Lakes Cycle“.

Alan MacEachern, Western University

If 2017 didn’t make you question what you were doing, whether your work mattered, how you could do more and do better, you weren’t paying attention. And yet we are all path-dependent; at this stage, I’m unlikely to become a doctor without a border, and, as much as you would like me to be, I can’t be U.S. President. So I appreciated the writing that helped me imagine ways I might contribute to the world through historical writing. These were not how-to books, or even necessarily histories. They taught by example. George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo made me consider the conventions of history as a genre, and how we might break them. Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life was a model for how to make history contemporary while retaining the strangeness of the past. John Williams’ Stoner is the greatest academic novel I had somehow never heard of.

Two books stand out, though, for offering advice or example on how to write environmental history these days. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz’ The Shock of the Anthropocene (2013, but new to me) argues against the totalizing elements of the Anthropocene concept, the way it too easily suggests a world governed by numbers rather than people and politics, and a world that only scientists can understand and solve. Most invaluably for historians, the book offers “seven historical workshops, seven possible narratives” (289) for conceiving of the Anthropocene without falling into the trap of imagining all people of all places of all recent times equally responsible for the Earth’s present condition. The second book is Sam White’s A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America, which tells the history of Spanish, English, and French exploration and settlement around the turn of the 17th century, with climate and weather put back in. This is not the last word in North American climate history, thank goodness – nor the first word, as the generous endnotes make clear – but rather a fine example of a developing and exciting field.

Tina Adcock, Simon Fraser University

Over the December break, I’ll continue prepping a new course I’m offering this spring, on science, technology, and the environment in the modern world. This gives me the excuse to read (or at least skim) widely and greedily in non-Canadian and more-than-human literatures; I’m eyeing 2015’s Cattle Colonialism, by John Ryan Fischer, and 2016’s Fascist Pigs, by Tiego Saraiva, with especial interest. Both have received widespread praise as models of how to meld environmental and animal histories with other literatures, whether Indigenous, political, or technoscientific in bent.

Either for this course and/or a future course on “extreme environments,” I’m also exploring (an apt verb) the interdisciplinary literature on the environments of outer space. Lisa Messeri’s Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds (2016) and Janet Vertesi’s Seeing Like a Rover: How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars (2015) come highly recommended by Lisa Ruth Rand, a leading scholar of “space junk” (a.k.a. discard studies goes galactic). As Lisa notes, much of the best work on extraterrestrial environments is currently being written by anthropologists and other social scientists. I’m hoping environmental historians will soon turn their gaze not only to the stars, but to other landscapes of verticality, too; that they’ll delve into the challenges of human life, work, and play in very high and very deep spaces.

Of course I’m also keeping up (well, doing my best to keep up) with the efflorescence of research about the Arctic, the extreme environment of greatest interest to my own research. A copy of Edward Jones-Imhotep’s The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (2017) is literally on my desk, dust jacket off, waiting to be read. I’m also looking forward to Hester Blum’s The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Ecomedia of Polar Exploration, soon out from Duke University Press. While we wait for what Adrian Howkins has termed an “environmental history of [polar] exploration” to emerge, scholars in the environmental humanities have, happily, been breaking a trail for us through the snow.

Sean Kheraj, York University

My reading list this year has been focused on energy history. As I continue work on the history of oil pipeline development and regulation in Canada, scholarship on the history of energy is an obvious sub-field to consider. As such, I put together a reading list to help me get a better understanding of energy history and where Canada’s pipeline development fits into bigger themes, transformations, and transitions. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (2011) was at the top of my list. Several colleagues had recommended it and the book continues to emerge in energy history debates since it was first published in 2011. Mitchell’s arguments are provocative and they probe areas of global history, situating energy at the centre of his analysis. Canada, however, is conspicuously absent from Mitchell’s analysis and I’m still figuring out how his arguments might apply to this country.

Powering Up Canada: A History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600 (2016), edited by Ruth Sandwell, directly addresses my questions about Canada. This is an important book and a substantial contribution to energy history scholarship. It is one of the first books to integrate Canadian history into the burgeoning literature in energy history in a deliberate manner. It not only helps to better explain Canada’s energy history, but it begins to provide a foundation for sorting out what role Canada played in shaping global energy histories.

I dipped into a couple of older books on my energy history binge, including Alfred Crosby’s Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy (2006). It offers a lesson in the hazards of prediction and the limitations of contemporary context for historical scholarship. Crosby’s book is a concise overview of humanity’s history of energy consumption that highlights significant junctures that granted people access to greater and greater power from the deep past to the near present. His chapter on fire and cooking is especially good. It is in the near present, however, that Crosby stumbles. He is surprisingly optimistic about nuclear power and too readily dismisses the long-term consequences of the disaster at Chernobyl. I suspect this may be a result of writing too many years after the Chernobyl disaster (1986) and just shy of the Fukushima disaster (2011). Many of Crosby’s points about the prospects of nuclear power crumble under the weight of the earthquake and tsunami that resulted in three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Crosby simply has no answers to questions about a power source that produces absurdly hazardous environmental conditions (exclusion zones, waste disposal, etc…) with lifetimes that exceed the scale of modern human history. I’ll happily concede to Crosby’s optimism about the potential of fusion reactors should commercially viable technology ever become available, but even by 2017, his speculation seems almost preposterous and in the realm of science fiction.

The key problem with Crosby’s predictions and conclusions is that they are based on an assumption about a world of continued growth and energy consumption. His book adeptly shows the path of human energy history as one moving to greater and greater energy consumption. In speculating on the future, Crosby abruptly dismisses the possibility of low energy alternatives. Although he readily admits that “we have to accept that the way we live now is new, abnormal, and unsustainable” (164), the solutions he envisions are technological fixes that continue to attempt to satisfy our appetite for energy. If energy is finite and our appetite is unappeasable, then Crosby’s vision of the future is bleak. It suggests that we should, perhaps, pay some attention to our appetite for energy and question the premise of its insatiable character.

Finally, I’ll make a reading hardware recommendation. Since Dan has already recommended my beloved Book Darts from Lee Valley, I’ll give a shout out to this fantastic document holder from 3M that I’ve been using for reading print books and eBooks on an iPad. I had been looking for a good way to read while taking notes on a computer. Voila! Happy holidays, NiCHE readers!


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I am a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at

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