My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song by Emily Bingham

Most folks know “My Old Kentucky Home” today as the crowd-sung anthem that kicks off the Kentucky Derby every May, but Emily Bingham does a superb job of historical evacuation as she shows how a plaintive song about a slave sold downriver, composed by Stephen Foster in the 1850s, grew distorted into a nostalgic ode to life on the plantation. Kentucky, naturally enough, played the central role in reshaping the song’s meaning (it remains to this day the state’s official song), and tourists still flock to My Old Kentucky Home State Park, in Bardstown, which features a spacious plantation house rather than a cabin mentioned in the song. For Bingham, the song is beyond redemption, despite its catchy melody and the scrubbing of the offensive word “darkies,” and by book’s end the reader is very much inclined to agree.

The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville by Olivier Zunz

Show me an American-history major who has not read a word of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and I will show you a student who must have slept in class. The two-volume work, written by Tocqueville after he and a friend had spent months traveling much of America in the early 1830s, remains a much admired political tract, with a little bit of something for anyone of any political persuasion to embrace. Tocqueville died in 1859 pessimistic about the democratic experiment’s ability to survive the growing divide between the North and the South, never able to hear how Abraham Lincoln “reaffirmed what Tocqueville saw as the purpose of democracy” in his Gettysburg Address: a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Olivier Zunz’s fine biography of the French aristocrat who showed America how to think about itself only deepens one’s appreciation, history major or not, of Democracy in America.

The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece: Between Icon and Narrative by David Ekserdjian

This is an utterly captivating book, focusing on one of the most remarkable art forms of the Italian Renaissance but also one of the least studied in breadth or depth. David Ekserdjian, an art-history professor at the University of Leicester, reads the altarpieces brilliantly, dissecting the subject matter in ways that shed fascinating light on society at the time. In these days of grim news, it is a joy to immerse oneself in such stunning works of art in this beautifully written (and illustrated) volume.

My Old Kentucky Home, The Man Who Understood Democracy, and The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece are available at your local independent bookstore, on Bookshop, and on Amazon