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I just finished Alice Munro's "Selected Stories."...


I just finished Alice Munro's "Selected Stories." She is one of the best short-story writers around today. She has a keen eye and down-to-earth manner. For me, as a historian, I love her, because the way she tells a story shows me how memories really work.

Now I'm reading a collection of historical essays, "Implicit Understanding," edited by Stuart Schwartz. The stories are all inverted perspectives on cultural encounters. ... Like when the Japanese first saw Europeans and what they thought, what sort of assumptions they made to understand these new people. The book is full of those kind of encounters.

For my book, two books were indispensible: Ira Berlin's great book "Slaves Without Masters," which, I would say, is still the basic book on what life was like for blacks in the early 19th century. And Barbara Jane Fields' "Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground," which is specifically about what life was like for blacks in Maryland just after they were freed. Both books encouraged me to think about what blacks of that time did to change their status. They weren't just a passive people.

T. Stephen Whitman, a professor of history at Mount St. Mary's College and the author of "The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland," to be published by the University of Kentucky in March.

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