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Rick Perlstein on reading, rereading, and writing history

Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980,” is the fourth and final volume in the writer’s history of the rise of conservatism in AmericaMeg Handler

Rick Perlstein’s latest, “Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980,” is the fourth and final volume in the writer’s acclaimed history of the rise of conservatism in America, an endeavor he worked on for 23 years. Perlstein has written for The Nation, The Village Voice, and Slate, among other publications. The Milwaukee native lives in Chicago.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

PERLSTEIN: Almost all the stuff I read is for work, but my work is wide-ranging so my reading is, too. Currently I’m reading Randy Shilts’s “And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic” because I’m working on an essay on former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. I’ve been listening to it, which is new for me.


BOOKS: What was the first book you listened to?

PERLSTEIN: Richard Powers’s novel “The Overstory.” I was so enraptured by the book and by the reader that I added listening to my arsenal of reading habits.

BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in fiction?

PERLSTEIN: I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. That may be because, being a historian, I understand how little of the cultural production of any given moment stands the test of the time. I discovered Richard Powers in college, and what excites me about him is what excites me about the novels I consider touchstones. They are highly intellectual but are also a wonderful reckoning with the human heart.

BOOKS: What are some of those touchstones for you?

PERLSTEIN: I don’t have a ton but I have good old “Moby-Dick.” Another is Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty,” which is a historical novel about the USSR’s attempt to create a functioning Socialist economy. It has love stories in it too. It’s a good yarn, which is the price of admission for any piece of fiction for me. I love good prose, but a lot of what I read is quite scholarly.


BOOKS: When did you become a history reader?

PERLSTEIN: Once I got my driver’s license I spent all my time at this used book warehouse in Milwaukee and would pick up these strange books from the 1960s about The Black Panthers or the John Birch Society. I still have some of that stuff I bought back then, such as Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” books by Phyllis Schlafly and “The Warren Report.” I also have a big collection of ’70s sex manuals.

BOOKS: Have you read most of those books?

PERLSTEIN: A lot of them sit there but I can imagine a bored day when I pick up John Stormer’s “The Death of a Nation” for fun. “I Lived Inside the Campus Revolution,” by William Tulio Divale, was a surprisingly good book.

BOOKS: What are your book buying habits like today?

PERLSTEIN: I’m actually picking up a lot more cookbooks, art books, and, because we have a cabin, architecture books about cabins. My favorite is “Rock the Shack.”

BOOKS: What can you recommend from your scholarly reading for a general reader?

PERLSTEIN: I recently read Edmund Burke’s 1790 book “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” It’s not academic but it’s mostly read only by academics. I discovered that a lot of the tropes of conservatism, say on Fox News, were already present in the 18th century. I recommend going back to that book because it’s so widely misunderstood.


BOOKS: Do you also read history that isn’t scholarly?

PERLSTEIN: I’ve been reading a lot of popularly oriented books on socialism for an essay I’m writing. So I read Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto,” Micah Uetricht and Meagan Day’s “Bigger Than Bernie,” and Erik Olin Wright’s “How to Be an Anticapitalist in the 21st Century.” I also finally just got “The Sinking Middle Class,” by David Roediger, a historian I’ve always admired.

BOOKS: Can you recommend any books that would make people feel better about America?

PERLSTEIN: I’m reaching here. I really liked Alexandra Horowitz’s “Inside of a Dog.” I don’t think we should be feeling better about America. I think we should look at the dark parts so we can transcend them. The happy talk reflex is what got us into this in the first place. So I don’t read books like that.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.