Since January, I have been making a concerted effort to read books about Austria–history books, travel books, and the nebulous “general interest” books, all together in a somewhat indiscriminate jumble of Austrian-ness. Now, because my inner scholar/librarian is pushing at me, I’m organizing that jumble into a casual annotated bibliography.
If you are interested in Austrian history and culture, or if you’re thinking about making a trip–here are some books you might want to look at (and a couple you might want to skip).
The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Brigitte Hamann, trans. Ruth Hein (1986)
Yes, I’ll admit it: I have Sisi fever. If Austria was a novel, Sisi would be my favorite character. She is provoking, even infuriating, but her intelligence and independence make her a fascinating figure. This biography does an excellent job of presenting a balanced portrait of the empress, neither excusing nor condemning her capriciousness. It is a long book, almost 600 pages, but I read it in three enthralling days. In particular, I appreciated Hamann’s thoughtful diagnosis of anorexia, and discussion of how the mental and physical disease pervaded Sisi’s life.
Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends, Lonnie R. Johnson (1996)
This is, hands-down, the best history book I have ever read. Johnson has perfected a straightforward and understandable style, which does not over-simplify or talk down to his readers. Primarily, he achieves this by defining all his terms, beginning with the concept of “Central Europe” itself, with all its historical and political implications. I think anyone could appreciate this book, whether they come to it with almost no knowledge or with a mastery of the subject material–it’s just brilliant.
A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, Frederic Morton (1979)
I am currently reading this book, but I had to include it, because I like it so much! It is not structured like a traditional history, but uses a more literary model to connect historical events and people in a tightly compressed period of time and place. Maybe I wouldn’t use it to teach a history class, but it provides a unique and artful evocation of fin de siècle Vienna, focusing on the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolph.
Fin De Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Carl E. Schorske (1961)
So, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m most drawn to the end of the 19th century in Austrian history (actually in all history–my main academic focus is late Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature). This book is a series of essays about this era in Vienna, focusing on cultural production. Schorske is much more academic than the rest of this list, and his prose is quite dense. I would not recommend as an introduction to the period, but definitely a fabulous piece of scholarship for deeper reading.
The Austrians: A Thousand-Year Odyssey, Gordon Brook-Shepherd (1997)
Did not enjoy. Although there is a wealth of information, including many interviews with 20th century figures, by the end I was frustrated and angry with Brook-Shepherd’s Anglo-centric perspective. He is an unwavering monarchist and seems incapable of imagining a functional multi-ethnic society. I think most of the people who recommend this book didn’t slog through all 483 pages of it.
The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire, Andrew Wheatcroft (1995)
I have already reviewed this book here. It is an interesting art-historical approach to the Habsburgs.
Culture Shock! Austria: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette, Julie Krejci and Susan Roraff (2011)
This book has some scathing reviews on Amazon, and I’m not totally sure why. There are plenty of sweeping generalizations about how “Austrians” behave and interact, but, really, how else do you address such a nebulous topic as “customs”? These problems are totally outweighed, in my opinion, by really useful information–the kind of knowledge that will make your life infinitely easier: How and where do you pay for your bus ticket? What are the names of major supermarkets? When is the post office open, and which line should I get in?
The focus is on people who are moving to Austria, so there is a lot of helpful information about immigration forms and offices, signage common to apartment buildings, etc. If you are an informed reader, who can assume that Austrians are, like any other nationality, individuals with individual preferences and behaviors, then I think this guide can be really useful.
Lonely Planet: Austria
Eyewitness Travel: Austria, and
Fodor’s Vienna and the Best of Austria
So these are four of the most popular travel guides to Austria on the market, and luckily for you, I’ve read all of them, so I can tell you that they are basically interchangeable. Eyewitness Travel: Austria is the prettiest one, full of pictures and fun facts, but low on practical information. Frommer’s and Lonely Planet’s guides are full of information, but pretty dull to read, with very little history/context.
My recommendation is Fodor’s Vienna and the Best of Austria, which I bought in e-reader form to bring with me. It has the best balance between clear and intelligent historical/cultural context and practical travel information (turn left out of the train station, etc). It’s not as good as the books in Fodor’s “Exploring” series, but probably the best overall guidebook to Austria out there.
Time Out: Vienna
This travel guide gets a separate mention, because the Time Out series is amazing. Pocket sized, packed with information, pictures, and maps, written in an interesting way, by locals. If you are spending any amount of time in a world city, read the Time Out guide. I only wish they did whole country guides!