NPR’s Favorite History Books of 2021: NPR



The end of the year is a time of reflection, of looking back. If you want to look back, Books We Love – NPR’s list of the best reads from 2021 – has hundreds of recommendations, including books on history. These are four that our colleagues recommend.


TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: I’m Tom Huizenga, producer at NPR Music. And, you know, sometimes a book comes along that completely breaks new ground – a total eye-opener. And this is the book called “Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians In The Land Of Bach, Beethoven And Brahms”. And it’s written by Kira Thurman, professor of history and Germanic languages ​​and literatures at the University of Michigan. And the book offers the story of the many black musicians who, because they were denied opportunities in the United States, fled to German-speaking Europe as early as the 1870s. They were in search of artistic freedom. And they found it, but they also discovered new forms of racism. Some Germans applauded them, you know, wholeheartedly. Many others rejected them, fearing that German sacred art would be infringed upon. I love the book because it is meticulously researched, but the writing style is not at all academic. It goes down like water. Most importantly, it unveils a history of people and a practice of performance and reconstructs an unknown period in the history of music.

EMIKO TAMAGAWA, BYLINE: I’m Emiko Tamagawa and I’m a senior producer for Here And Now.


TAMAGAWA: I recommend Danielle Dreilinger’s “The Secret History of Home Economics” because before reading it, I viewed home economics as a course I took in college with the aptly named Mrs. Housekeeper. But then I read it and found out that in the early part of the 20th century, home economics provided jobs for women in science, business, and government. It was also an area where black women could and did make important contributions. And Dreilinger convincingly argues that because home economics teaches real-world skills like cooking and managing a budget, it should always be part of the school curriculum. So thank you, Mrs. Housekeeper.


ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: I’m Eric Deggans, NPR TV reviewer. The book I’m talking about is “On Juneteenth” by Annette Gordon-Reed.


DEGGANS: Gordon-Reed mixes up her own personal story – she was the first black student to desegregate schools in her hometown of Conroe, Texas – and used it as a window on a way to talk about how to look Texas mythology and to examine some of the things in Texas history that were rooted in slavery, rooted in lynching, rooted in black oppression so that we have a more accurate understanding of the history of the state and, by extension, of the history of the nation. This book shows in many ways how history has been altered to serve the sensitivity of the white-dominated mainstream. And this book is a really elegant argument for expanding that objective and a very elegant argument for facing the truth of what America is.


HOLLY MORRIS, BYLINE: Hi. My name is Holly Morris and I am part of the NPR training team. My book is “A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” by historian Emma Southon. These are all the ways the ancient Romans killed each other.


MORRIS: For much of Roman history, murder was not really a crime in the eyes of the law. Even after the killing of people became more regulated, there were, for example, no Roman detectives tasked with investigating suspicious deaths. There were a lot of crucifixions and gladiatorial fights, and some people got very creative. A guy wanted to feed someone some lamprey, which are kind of like giant eels, but he was dissuaded. My favorite part was the curse tablets. People scraped nasty things off lead sheets, rolled them up and nailed them. There’s one that summons demons to kill and crush a hated sports team, that sport being chariot racing. I read this book because I’m a fan of ancient Rome – well, maybe not a fan. They were pretty bloodthirsty. Not a fan of the murder. But it’s really a lot of fun for a death book.


PERALTA: Holly Morris recommended “Something Fatal Happened on the Way to the Forum”, Eric Deggans with “On Juneteenth”, Emiko Tamagawa, who suggested “The Secret History of Home Economics” and Tom Huizenga, who recommended “Sing Like the Germans.” For more ideas on what to read, you can find the full list of books we like at


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