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Fireside Chats: How to Read Nonfiction

As a history major, one of my required courses was historiography, or the study of historical writing. I didn’t retain very much from the course, mainly because it was taught through the lens of colonial American history, which at the time did not interest me in the slightest (and still doesn’t, unless it’s filtered through Hamilton), but one thing my professor taught us left an indelible mark, and that thing was: how to read a historical monograph.

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Book Review: A Border Passage by Leila Ahmed

A Border Passage: From Cairo to America — A Woman’s Journey
Leila Ahmed

Penguin, 1999
★★★★☆

It was as if there were to life itself a quality of music in that time, the era of my childhood, and in that place, the remote edge of Cairo. There the city petered out into a scattering of villas leading into tranquil country fields. On the other side of our house was the profound, unsurpassed quiet of the desert.

With these vivid, lyrical words, Leila Ahmed begins her memoir. With this almost languid imagery she establishes what will be the tone of her life story. At times incredibly personal, at others broad and historical, Ahmed interweaves her own personal history of growing up in Egypt with the more general history of the country itself, which was going through turbulent times as Ahmed was growing up.

It is, above all, a gorgeously told story, rich with colorful imagery and evocative prose. Ahmed’s writing skill is unparalleled. True, sometimes you can tell that she is an academic and not a novelist, in that at times the writing comes across a bit too formal, a bit too stilted, and perhaps a bit too detached, but it never stops being beautiful.

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A #Hamilton Reading List

I majored in history. At my university, all history majors were required to take a class in historiography, and the sources you studied were based on the professor assigned to teach. Whatever he specialized in was what you were going to be neck-deep in for a semester. I got a professor who specialized in early American history which, at the time, I absolutely despised. I spent the entire semester stubbornly refusing to retain any information about anything at all, convinced that this was one of the most dull historical settings in the history of the world.

Enter Hamilton the Musical. Like many, many people, the musical ignited for me an interest in the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, topics of which I previously knew little, and cared to know even less. But with the beloved musical in mind, these events took on a new sheen. Suddenly I was absolutely fascinated with the American Revolution! With the Founding Fathers, especially Hamilton and Burr! It was an exciting time! A revolutionary time!

And so here I am, a nerd with a list of books and articles to read about Alexander Hamilton. Though I am unlikely to get to these this November, I still wanted to share them out for Nonfiction November in honor of Hamilton being released for streaming (may all musicals follow suit!).

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