A leading authority on the history of civil rights law, UVA law professor Michael J. Klarman won the 2005 Bancroft Prize for his book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights. His newest book is Unfinished Business: Racial Equality in American History.
What book have you read the most times?
I don’t tend to read books multiple times because I’ve always got an enormous pile that I feel guilty about not having read. But I think I’ve read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom three times (partly because it’s available as a book on tape and thus I can read it while driving or, if I’m feeling very ambitious, while exercising). It’s the best book about the Civil War I know of and one of the best history books of any sort that I have read. I especially admire McPherson’s ability to recapture the many contingencies that influenced the outcome of the war; a Union victory was, in no sense, inevitable.
What neglected or lost classic would you recommend to readers?
Even though I’m a law professor, I tend to read much more history than law; I find it more interesting and, usually, it’s more relevant to my own scholarship and to my way of understanding law. But since most of the other books I’m noting here are history books, let me mention a classic law book that I don’t think has gotten the attention it deserves. R. Kent Newmyer’s biography of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story is a wonderful, wonderful book.
What are you reading now?
I am just about finished with Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. It is a deeply subversive and thoroughly persuasive reinterpretation of the origins of the American Constitution.
Is there a particular book that you can say changed your life?
I wouldn’t say that a single book has changed my life, but there are a few books that have significantly influenced my conception of what it’s possible for a scholar to accomplish, if you’re willing to work hard enough and stay focused on a project long enough. This list would include Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, Stanley Elkins’ and Eric McKitrick’s Age of Federalism, William Freehling’s Road to Disunion and Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic. All are extraordinary accomplishments that have deeply influenced my understanding of American history.
Where is your favorite place to read?
In the spring and fall, sitting in a reclining chair on the porch. In hot or cold weather, usually lying in bed. I almost invariably have a Dictaphone sitting in my lap while I read; that’s how I take notes. I have a terrible memory, so I find that the best way to remember what I have read is to dictate notes, then go back and read through the dictation periodically.