A Last Minute Holiday Gift Guide for Historians and the People Who Love Them

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, historians were worrying about all the things they didn’t read or write that year.

Fortunately, you can help; if by ‘helping,’ we mean ‘pile on more wonderful things to equally inspire and instill tremendous anticipatory guilt for the New Year.’ Backlist has come up with six last minute gifts for the amateur or professional historian on your holiday gift list that will be sure to make them at least smile, with furrowed brow, as the year’s publishing catalogues flip over.

Please note, though, we’ve avoided putting books on this list for two reasons: that’s what the rest of our site is for, and, if you’re a historian’s gifting relative, chances are that they’ve already checked the book you were thinking about gifting them out from the library, and they have a very, very strong opinion about it. So instead we’re helping you to help them to smile. Because even if history feels pretty unrelentingly dark at times, those of us who read and write about it mostly aren’t. And we love a good joke. Like, ‘Did you hear the one about the hopeful solstice holiday that was commodified by the Industrial Revolution and English bourgeoisie?’

Hilarious. And here are some things to commodify and gift.

  1. Book-Scented Candles: Did you know that you can light your winter with the smell of history? That is, candles that smell of new books, old books, and ancient scrolls, or even particular settings, like mid-nineteenth century American gothic dissolution (Edgar Allen Poe = Cardamom, Absinthe, and Sandalwood). There doesn’t seem to be a candle for Medieval Europe, though, which is probably for the better. Plague, body odor, onions, and incense is a fun candle to imagine; less so to recreate.

  2. Reading Glasses: It’s time to face the inevitable. Your loved one’s love of history? It’s killing their eyes. Right about now is the time of year when lovers of good books and eight-point font footnotes start taking their glasses off, rubbing their eyes with forefinger and thumbs, and worrying about their next trip to the optometrist. Anticipate this (even if that’s something a good historian never does) and give them the gift that keeps them reading.

  3. A Premium Information Management Tool: The appropriately big ticket item on this list, a premium information management program like Evernote Premium or DEVONthink Pro Office is the thing your favorite historian has perhaps been hearing about all year, but has been wary of trying, because their price tags are often steep. For Evernote, in December of 2015, it’s $49.99 per year; for DEVONthink Pro Office, it’s $149.99. But what they can get, if you gift it to them, is tremendous: programs that let them paperlessly organize their reading and notes on books and in archives, and the photos of documents and journals they want to collate and put in dialogue with other texts. They can sync online between devices and, in the case of Mac-only DEVONthink, offer an OCR function that scans photographed documents and makes their printed text searchable. Over time, these programs pay for themselves, making connections between unconnected research trips, and facilitating further writing. As the price-tag suggests, this is not something to buy without consulting with your historian. Each program has serious pros and cons, and there are cheaper and less complex options out there (including versions of these products with less features). But if you want to put a spring in your historian’s step, start the conversation. Because if you don’t explain the Cloud to them, someone else will.

  4. The StandStand: Santa Claus brought one of our editors this lightweight, portable, beautifully-made standing desk last year, and it’s how she knows she was on his “nice” list. Designed by an academic who understands the toll that endless sitting has on the scholar’s body (insert “discipline and punish” joke here), this portable desk will allow your favorite historian to take her reading and writing work to the porch or the dining room table or even the coffee shop — and to stand while she writes for a change of pace.

  5. Bathtub Book Stand: Chances are that your favorite historian already has a book stand. (If not, this blessedly simple wire one makes a great stocking stuffer.) But do you know what they don’t have and will give them a funny panic attack when they rip open its wrapping paper? A bathtub book stand. Give this one with a smile, and a hand squeeze to show you know their pain. Tell them, ‘I know how much you like to multitask, even when relaxing. No one’s expecting you to bring your library books into the bathroom and cause water damage. Just the latest edition of the American Historical Review so that you can get inspired by your historical nemesis’s latest victory.’ Or, to read the next item on the list, if you want their heart rate to go contemplatively down, not up.

  6. Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925).: ‘Avoided’ adding books to this list is not the same as ‘not putting books on this list.’ We make the rules, and we bend ‘em for exceptions as on-point as The Professor’s House, Willa Cather’s 1925 novel about an aging American historian who has spent the last many years of his life laboring on a multi-volume history of the Southwest; who has grown distant from his family; who is haunted by the journal of his one-time protege, who found an abandoned Native American plateau city akin to Mesa Verde, and then saw it lost to looting. That journal’s placement in the novel’s structure is fascinating—Cather described it as turquoise set in silver—and its effects on the life of the professor and his family are hauntingly beautiful. It’s up to you whether Cather’s rendering of the professor’s perception of one son-in-law through the veil of anti-Semitic stereotypes reinforces those stereotypes, or is about anti-Semitism itself. (There’s evidence for both, which hopefully suggests the latter.) But in the biggest, most moving sense, The Professor’s House is a sensitive exploration of aging through work, of families being unmade and remade by unspoken tragedies, and of the possibility of a lost past that breaks your heart, but whose memory maybe saves it.

And if they’re looking a little haggard, and need something a little lighter – ok, a lot lighter – Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian works in a pinch. Dracula + Plot Points Hinging on Shockingly Lax Archival Rules = An Apt Holiday Diversion.

Yes, that Dracula. Happy Holidays, and Don’t Forget to Footnote!

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