Favorite History Reads of the Year

Lists of top ten this or that are common in December. In the midst of holiday shopping and feting, we feel compelled to sum it all up before launching in to another year filled with all new items (or variations on a theme) to categorize, list, and rate.

I’m certainly not immune to the ranking and collecting. I eagerly click on just about any list of top books of the year put out by anyone on any topic while keeping my local library system website cued up in another window for easy additions to my library request/hold list. And I certainly love those collected works of Best that come out around this time of year – best food writing, nature and science, short stories, essays.

But I’ve noticed a glaring omission – at least to my eyes. Where’s the Best American History Writing? If anyone is reading, I volunteer to be the series editor.

Here, in no particular order and definitely not comprehensive, are some history stories I enjoyed this past year. It’s an eclectic bunch but then, I’m interested in just about anything if told well.

“The Prodigal Daughter: Writing, History, and Mourning” (New Yorker) by Jill Lepore
A fascinating story that brings together Lepore’s own life story (and particularly that of her mother) with the life of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s sister. It’s a stunning blend of memoir and history.

“The Earliest Libraries-on-Wheels Looked Way Cooler than Today’s Bookmobiles” (Smithsonian blog)
A fun pictorial look at book mobiles past.

“A Skillful Horsewoman’: A Brief History of Royal Childhoods” (The Atlantic) Olga Khazan
I’m an Anglophile through and through so I loved reading this short history of royal children (sounds miserable)

A Theology of Wild Apples” (Apple Orchard blog)
Having written a book on apples myself and gone to grad school to study colonial America, I could scarcely resist this look at Puritans and wild apples.

Voice Hero: The Inventor of Karaoke Speaks” (The Appendix)
The charming story of the invention of karaoke from the inventor himself.

“Busker Rhymes” (The Pirate Omnibus)
Buskers have been annoying people on public transportation for a long time.


Don’t even get me started on history books I loved…

Christmas Comes Early: My Advance Copies Have Arrived

My husband lifted two boxes inside the front door when he came from work on Friday. “Something for you,” he said. My mom had warned that she’d sent presents and not to open them so I paid little attention to the boxes and left them sitting by the door. Until the next morning when I happened to glance at the return address, fully expecting to see my mom’s name but instead saw: Beacon.

My books!!

The official publication date isn’t until January 7 but here’s some visual proof that this thing is real. At this time last year, I was tearing my hair out finishing the draft, rewriting, deleting, questioning everything, undoing that previous deletion, writing, deleting, repeat. Repeat.

This year is much better.


Lutefisk, Torsk and other Seafood Traditions Abound

Forget turkey, ham, or even the traditional goose. For many families, the holiday season is not complete without lye-soaked cod drenched in melted butter. Every December diners decked in colorful patterned Nordic sweaters line up at St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church in the Town of Ashippun, one of the oldest Norwegian Lutheran churches in the state, to indulge in the annual lutefisk feast.

Lutefisk is far from the only holiday fish dish. On Christmas Eve, southern Italians celebrate the Feast of Seven Fishes; Poles consume a meatless Wigilia of fish, soup, sauerkraut, pierogi, and noodles; carp and herring often appear on German tables; and many Mexicans and Spaniards eat the salted cod known as bacalao. These holiday fish feasts are products of both faith and geography.

Read the rest of my story in the new issue of Edible Milwaukee.


New Book! Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine

Self promotion is not something at which I excel. When my first book came out in 2007 (Odd Wisconsin), some of my friends only learned I was even writing a book when I invited them to my book launch at Barnes and Noble. Epic writer fail.

I’m much better now.


I have a new book coming out! In January! And even though you have to wait just a little bit longer to get your hands on it, some of the first reviews are starting to come in, including this gem from Publishers Weekly:

Janik (Apple: A Global History), series producer for Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life, offers a particular perspective on 19th-century medicine with this survey of “irregular” treatments that Americans embraced as they turned away from standard medicine. Little changed for two centuries, standard medicine’s “heroic” and often deadly offerings were eschewed for practices like heat and herb therapy, hydrotherapy, phrenology, and homeopathy. Janik reveals the significant role women played in the development of these treatments and spread of do-it-yourself medical books, almanacs, and family recipes for healing salves, prophylactics, and popular herbal remedies. Americans loved anything that “gave them the power to treat themselves,” Janik notes—and 19th-century alternative systems did just that. Bottles of ready-to-use homeopathic remedies came in home kits, and Lydia Pinkham’s medicinal brews not only brought neighbors flocking to her door in the 1870s, but her secret vegetable compound is still on the market in at least two variations. Janik argues that “complementary” and “alternative” therapies are just a 20th-century update of irregular medicine—and recognition by Congress, the Mayo Clinic, and major universities proves “the willingness of regular medicine to consider or at least tolerate the merits of their competitors, an almost unimaginable idea less than a century ago.” She’s delivered a must-read for medical history buffs, whether mainstream or maverick.


A “must read?” How awesome is that?

In the dark depths of researching and writing, it can be hard to stay mindful of the big picture. Your inner critic (mine is really, really mean and just never shuts up) can’t see beyond the clunky sentence that’s far from poetry or the argument that could be so much stronger if only… if only you had made a different choice. Or were smarter. Or had any talent at all. There’s so many of those. But you have to keep going and believing in your project despite what your inner critic says. She does keep you humble but then when the book finally comes out, it’s time for that critic to be quiet and celebrate a bit.


What History Is

The conclusion of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England Volume I: Foundation* includes a sentence I can’t stop thinking about: “The writing of history is often another way of defining chaos.” He goes on to say how convenience, circumstance, misjudgments, and errors play a large part “in what we are pleased to call the ‘development’ of institutions.”

None of this should come as any surprise. History is the story of people and who among us has not had a life of turmoil and coincidence (and if you have, I don’t want to hear from you)? Opinions change, even the most hardened beliefs transform or are discredited, everything is in a constant state of transition even if it sometimes seems just the opposite. It really is chaos with the historian struggling to piece together and interprete a whole mess of personalities into some kind of narrative that makes sense and gives us a sense of continuity and identity and belonging.

Ackroyd’s use of the word ‘pleased’ particularly pleases me because history can all seem so fated, so predetermined in hindsight as though people in the past were any different than people today. It’s easy to forget that, though. I think it’s why many people don’t (or think they don’t) like history (You do! Trust me!). Life was just as confusing and frustrating and overwhelming and wonderful 1000 years ago as today. History is the stories of people just like you and me.

I’m in the midst of deciding what “chaos” I want to take on as my next book project. It all feels so big and daunting right now with so many voices shouting for attention and roads of unknown possibilities. But it’s also exciting, like the throws of a new relationship. I’ll let you know what I find.


* This was a last minute “I have pounds to spare” purchase at the Heathrow airport before a flight home that turned out to be a remarkable page turner. I’ve had great luck with my hasty book buying (another great airport purchase was Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World that kept me from fully enjoying all of the entertainment options on offer in our business class “pods” because I couldn’t stop reading it), which I’d like to attribute to my good taste but is really the acumen of the store’s book buyer.

New Book!

It’s still a ways off – pub date is January 7 – but seeing it in the Beacon catalog makes it more real!Erika Janik Marketplace of the Marvelous

Everything you wanted to know about what we now call alternative but what was known in the 19th century as “irregular” medicine. It’s not quite as irregular as you might think!

Self Perceptions, Past and Future

A few weeks ago, I read John Tierney’s story “You Won’t Be The Person You Expect To Be.” As a historian, I’m often asked to predict the future of [insert contentious issue of the day] during talks. I generally demur, proclaiming my devotion to the PAST and not to the future, though I certainly believe the past has much to teach us about the present and days to come. Even so, the future feels like scary ground to me. I’ll continue to happily cling to my yellowed papers and remark on how some current event “reminds me of the time…” and then launch into some historical story that I’ll hope you’ll find interesting.

But forget about the fate of the world for a second. How much can I predict about myself? I’d certainly like to think, as we all do (wrongly) according to the article, that I haven’t changed and won’t change all that much as I age.

A few days ago, my mom gave me a paper she found while cleaning my old room. It was a time capsule, written as a class assignment on September 24, 1992, when I was 12 years old. In it, I predicted my future life at 32. I’m only a few hours out of 32 and into 33 as I write this, but to put it bluntly: I was so very wrong. Here we go:

Description of myself in 20 years:

Age: 32

Height: 6’2”

Residence: A house with 700,000 square feet and 23 bedrooms and a pool 8 times the size of the Olympic pool in England.

In twenty years, Erika will… I will be playing 1st chair clarinet for the London Philharmonic and be internationally known. Since I will be filthy rich, the first thing I will buy after my house is a red Miata for my dad and another for my mom. I will also buy my own side paddle boat that my big band will play on.

The whole thing made me laugh. I don’t even recognize the person who wrote this. I do remember wanting to be taller than my dad; I was really into playing the clarinet; and I’m an Anglophile from way back. But the rest? I don’t know. This is not the person I’ve become and it’s hard for me to imagine wanting all this. I’m a bit shorter, my house is many magnitudes of square footage smaller, my boat is a kayak, and I have, alas, put aside my clarinet.

It’s strange to think what assumptions my 12-year-old self had about my path, what I knew about myself then and what I thought would still be (or become) important to my adult self. I can laugh at my greed and materialism (though come on, I was going to give each of my parents a sports car) but there’s also something comforting in seeing how much I’ve grown, changed, and learned in the last 20 years. I’m not at all on the path I predicted, at 12 years old or even 30 years old. And I think that’s pretty great.

So next time anyone asks me to predict the future, I may refer them back to my tween prognostication. I’ll stick to the past, thanks, and leave the predicting to someone else.


Ten Years On

Ten years ago yesterday, I packed up my car and moved 2,000 miles away from my home state. I was off to grad school in a new state, knowing no one, and not really quite sure what I was going to do in grad school but it seemed like the right thing to do. I liked to read and to write and to think about the past – what more did I need?

Wisconsin wasn’t a complete unknown. My parents grew up in Illinois, and like all good Illinois residents, they often spent their summers in Wisconsin. Even after they moved far away, to a town just outside Seattle, Wisconsin remained a summertime destination.

As a kid, my Wisconsin was rolling hills, fireflies, farm fields, blaring tornado sirens (though I had no idea what they were – being bookish, I liked to imagine it was an air raid and that we would soon need to darken the windows with our blackout curtains), and lightning that cut across the sky in an angry gash. My Wisconsin was Wisconsin Dells, Taliesin, House on the Rock, Lake Geneva, and the truly bizarre Don Q Inn. It was water towers with town names painted on the sides as though they were staking a claim to a piece of land and proclaiming it to all the surrounding fields and towns. And it was unlike anything I knew back home.

And while I came from a place rich in natural beauty – Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, towering evergreens – it was this more humble Wisconsin landscape that few would call magnificent that grabbed me and never let go.

Perhaps that’s why I now call Wisconsin home.

Home is a funny word, though. What does it mean and how do we know when we’ve found it? Is it the place where we grew up or the place we find ourselves as adults? Is it people or place or something else completely?

A Wisconsinite now for ten years, I still startle slightly to hear people refer to me as a “Wisconsinite” or a “Madisonian.” I’ll still tell people I’m not originally from here but at ten years and a third of my life spent here, what does that even mean and why does it matter?

I’ve heard people say that home is “wherever [insert loved one] is,” which sounds lovely and true. And while I don’t doubt their sincerity, I can’t help but want to shout “but place also matters!” Or at least it does to me, to my definition of home.

Everything I do and can do is a product of this place and its past. Everyone who lives here is a beneficiary of its people, traditions, and landscapes – all the elements that make a dot on a map a real place. Reading and writing Wisconsin’s history has taught me about Wisconsin but also about myself. And it’s helped me to feel at home here even if I’m not yet ready to call this place “home.”

That’s something I’m still working out.

Homeless Book Club

On Tuesday morning, I had the honor of speaking at Madison’s Homeless Book Club.  I give a lot of talks, mostly on Wisconsin history but also on writing, being a writer, apples, and whatever else someone somewhere thinks I know anything about. And while I’ve learned to enjoy giving talks, this one was particularly fun.

The group meets once a week to discuss a book in a local church. It’s a respite, an escape from the hardships of daily life. Everyone in the group had read my book, A Short History of Wisconsin. It’s always a different experience going in to a group already familiar with your work rather than trying to “sell” them on it through the caliber (really, how entertaining you are ) of your talk. They asked great questions about the choices I made as a writer in selecting what to include and exclude, and for more detail about certain topics. One person even suggested that the conclusion should have been the introduction, which was fascinating to me since the introduction and conclusion are the most handwringing parts of any writing project in my mind – it was also the first time in what must be more than 100 talks about this book that anyone has suggested that structural change.

The group has had an impressive roster of guest authors, including Michael Perry (Population 485, Coop, Truck: A Love Story), Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway, Queen of America) and Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain), so it was a pleasure to be asked and included among this group. I had a great time and I hope they did, too!

Read about my visit on the “Streets of Madison” blog.