Critical Mass

What Are You Looking Forward to Reading, Martha A. Sandweiss?

By David Haglund

This summer, we’re asking past winners of and finalists for NBCC awards what books they’re excited to read. Below, Martha A. Sandweiss, a recent NBCC finalist in biography, weighs in.  Click here for the rest of the series.

Writing history can be a solitary venture. On top of all that time spent alone in front of computers, there are the countless hours spent alone in archives and libraries and rooms of creaky microfilm readers. But historians build communities of colleagues, too, and we feed off one another’s ideas and insights just as other writers do. Who besides another historian could understand the thrill of uncovering a new bit of evidence or making a new connection between two disparate events?

This summer I am looking forward to reading the bound galleys of two books forthcoming in fall 2010. For years, I have heard these authors talk about their struggles with the evidence, and now I get to see what they’ve done with it. Virginia Scharff’s The Women Jefferson Loved takes a fresh look at the facts hidden in plain sight to reimagine the Founding Father as a man caught up by the demands of love and the pull of family tragedy. Ann Fabian’s The Skull Collectors: Race, Science and America’s Unburied Dead unravels the improbable story of how and why American scientists collected human heads for the nation’s museums. But even as I read new history, I am reading other sorts of nonfiction and novels at breakneck summer speed, trying to get the sounds of other sorts of storytelling in my head. Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains and Joan Didion’s Where I Was From top my to-read nonfiction list and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn are next up for fiction.


Martha A. Sandweiss was a finalist for the 2009 NBCC Award for Biography for Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. Her other books include Print the Legend: Photography and the American West and Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace, winner of the George Wittenborn Award for outstanding art book of 1987. She co-edited The Oxford History of the American West. Sandweiss is professor of history at Princeton University. (Photo: Sage Sohier)