Some good, interesting historical nonfiction?
November 28, 2008 6:57 PM   Subscribe

Some good, interesting historical nonfiction?

I've been sticking to my goal of reading a book a week, and I've run through my current book list. I have stuck to mostly fiction, and would like to find some good historical nonfiction. My problem is, I'm usually doing my reading at the end of a long day and I don't have the patience for plodding, dense books - I want something that will keep my attention. I recently tried to read David McCullough's "Truman" because I liked "George Washington" several years ago, but I ended up quitting after about 30 pages because nothing was happening. So I am looking for books that are a bit more "gripping" than some of the nonfiction that's out there. I'm interested in any period of history and country. I know this is a pretty vague request, so I'm open to anything. If it helps at all, the most recent books that I really liked (and prompted this question) are "The Pillars of the Earth" and "World Without End", which are set in medieval Europe, a period that I don't know much about.

posted by btkuhn to Education (55 answers total) 106 users marked this as a favorite

Devil in the White City
posted by kimdog at 7:08 PM on November 28, 2008

Devil in a White City About Chicago in the Gilded Age

Seabiscuit You may have heard of the movie.

The Right Stuff Great Tom Wolfe read regarding the first Mercury astronauts.

These are more recent eras, but give you a feel of life during the time of their stories.
posted by sandmanwv at 7:10 PM on November 28, 2008

which are set in medieval Europe, a period that I don't know much about.

Frances and Joseph Gies have written a bunch of books on the period. They're pretty short, but may be 'dense' depending on your personal tastes.

Try one, see what you think, then you can track down the rest if you like it.
posted by CKmtl at 7:18 PM on November 28, 2008

Anything by Pierre Berton if you like Canadian History but "Flames Across the Border 1812-1815" and "Vimy" are very important books which probably have more international appeal. Berton's "The Great Depression" is very timely and an excellent book as well (again Canadian history but exceptionally good).

"Caesar Against the Celts" is an easy read and changed the way I look at European history. "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" is very long and thick but its a page turner - especially suprising since you know how it ends.
posted by Deep Dish at 7:22 PM on November 28, 2008

I enjoyed Collapse. It's a good balance of entertainment and scholarship. Salt: A World History is worth reading, too.
posted by kprincehouse at 7:25 PM on November 28, 2008

Three random history books I like:

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of the SOE, regarding several female SOE agents sent into occupied France during WW2

Ordeal by Hunger, regarding the Donner Party's attempted passage over the Sierra Nevada

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser
posted by peggynature at 7:27 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Two of my all-time favorites: Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 and Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914.
posted by scody at 7:31 PM on November 28, 2008

The Heart of the Sea - Nathaniel Philbrick. The story of the whaleship Essex; the true story behind Moby Dick. Adventure on the high sea, cannibalism, maps, stories of old time whaling. Exciting stuff.
posted by eirelander at 7:34 PM on November 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Also, this is more biography, but The Life of Charlotte Brontë is just...great.
posted by peggynature at 7:35 PM on November 28, 2008

I just had a great time a few months ago with The Discovery And Conquest Of Mexico by Bernal Diaz Del Castillo (first-hand account of a conquistador who accompanied Cortes to Mexico). Whatever the merits of colonialism, it is a blockbuster of historical non-fiction. Follow it up with Cortes and Montezuma by Maurice Collis for a really entertaining analysis that contextualizes a lot of what happens in the Del Castillo book.
posted by lovejones at 7:38 PM on November 28, 2008

Europe's Last Summer

posted by jgirl at 7:42 PM on November 28, 2008

McCullough's "Path Between the Seas," on the making of the Panama Canal, was intensely readable although it's been years since I've read it. Antony Beevor's "Stalingrad" is another gripping read-- Beevor used both German and Soviet/Russian sources to compile an almost novelistic look at the battle of Stalingrad and the events surrounding it. (Beevor has a lot of good books written.) I also enjoyed Adam Zamoyski's "Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March," which is about what it sounds like; Zamoyski also has a recent book out about the Congress of Vienna but after what felt like the twentieth description of who got drunk at a party and stole whose mistress I put it down.
posted by posadnitsa at 7:46 PM on November 28, 2008

I second Salt. I'd say pick one of the Kurlansky histories and stick to it, because I've read a bunch and they get kind of repetitive.

I've enjoyed several histories by Giles Milton: Big Chief Elizabeth, Samurai William, Nathaniel's Nutmeg, and The Riddle and the Knight. I've also really liked a lot of incident-based social histories (where a single historical incident is used to show a bunch of trends) and a lot of single-substance based histories, like a history of cocaine or of the potato. I'm not sure either of these latter types is your bag, exactly, but if they sound intriguing, I can recommend specifics.
posted by immlass at 7:47 PM on November 28, 2008

Randy Shilts' And The Band Played On. About the early days of the AIDS crisis.

Definitely a page turner.

And seconding The Right Stuff.
posted by marsha56 at 7:57 PM on November 28, 2008

Ronald Reagan's Bio was pretty good, it kept my interest as I could relate to the events unfolding in his stories. The back ground info that I didn't know was a learning experience and shows you another side of this guy that wasn't exactly focused on in the media.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:01 PM on November 28, 2008

Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889

Wow, I was just going to recommend the same title. Excellent, excellent book.
posted by gimonca at 8:02 PM on November 28, 2008

A few I recently enjoyed:

The Island at the Center of the World, about the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (which we now know as Manhattan), and to a lesser extent the rest of New Netherlands (now other parts of NYC, up the Hudson River to Albany, New Jersey, and so forth).

The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and, specifically, the professor and the, um, madman at the heart of it.

The Bad Popes, about, you guessed it, bad Popes. The kind of Popes that make Catholics say things like "he proves the Catholic Church is the true church of God, because no institution that was not divinely inspired could have survived such a man".
posted by Flunkie at 8:02 PM on November 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail

""Alternates seamlessly between vivid accounts of the nineteenth-century journey and lucid explanations of the geological events that shaped the landscape traveled.... The reader comes away with both an appreciation for the arduous cross-continental wagon journey and an understanding of the events that created such a vast and difficult landscape." - Library Journal"

One of my favorite nonfiction books of the last five years, and I read a fair amount of nonfiction. Really, an exemplary book - the author's a geologist, and he writes very clearly about geological processes, but without getting overly simplistic. He uses a lot of primary source materials - journals, letters - from the gold rush travelers describing the landscape.
posted by rtha at 8:07 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

If your looking to revel in famous British victories at land and sea, then I recommend The Battle: A New History of Waterloo as well as Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar. Both are fun, with a good mix of narrative and action without becoming over dry (the way military history can be).
posted by boubelium at 8:08 PM on November 28, 2008

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro.

It's 1400 pages, but it's grippy, especially if you're fascinated by politics or urban development. In addition to Moses himself, the main characters include Al Smith, FDR, LaGuardia, and Nelson Rockefeller. I couldn't put it down.
posted by hal incandenza at 8:09 PM on November 28, 2008

I'm reading Invisible Allies right now. It's Solzhenitsyn talking about all the folks who helped him hide/smuggle his manuscripts throughout his life, so you get some really interesting slants on Soviet Russia through a good chunk of its history.
posted by nosila at 8:13 PM on November 28, 2008

Nthing Devil in the White City. It was one of my first forays into historical nonficiton, and I loved every minute of it. His latest, Thunderstruck, may be worth checking out, though I can't vouch for it.

3rding Salt. While yes, it's a book about salt, and not much else, it's still an engrossing, albeit sometimes slow and dry, read.

Just about anything by Jon Krakauer. While his books aren't necessarily historical nonfiction in the truest sense of the word, they still often delve into the history behind the subject matter. My first taste was Under the Banner of Heaven, which tells the tale of fundamentalist Mormons, and two men who went on a killing spree because God told them to.
posted by mrhaydel at 8:40 PM on November 28, 2008

Thirding the recommendation of Devil In the White City.


The Man Who Knew Too Much (a great biography of Alan Turing)

History Begins At Sumer (my favorite first - the first use of the word "freedom" - and did you know that Sumerian mythology had a quasi-democratic assemblage of gods?)

Samantha Power's A Problem From Hell - recounts the genocides of the 20th century and America's responses to them (or lack thereof). Engaging, enlightening, and depressing as hell. Powers is a good friend of Barack Obama so I think it's also a good read in terms of knowing who has the President Elect's ear.
posted by shaun uh at 9:23 PM on November 28, 2008

A couple medieval history books I enjoyed:

The Ornament of the World, which is about medieval Spain;
The Perfect Heresy, a book about the Cathars in 13th century France

Also, I thought Food in History was an interesting read.
posted by Janta at 9:54 PM on November 28, 2008

Low Life by Luc Sante is a pretty interesting look at the underworld of New York society during the Gilded Age. Sante's writing gets a little precious once in a while, but it's still great fun.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:02 PM on November 28, 2008

His latest, Thunderstruck, may be worth checking out, though I can't vouch for it.

Yes, Thunderstruck is quite good as well -- not necessarily quite as dazzling and lurid as The Devil in the White City, but I still found it quite enjoyable. (I think having an interest in science/technology definitely helps, though, otherwise the Marconi sections may drag a bit.)
posted by scody at 10:23 PM on November 28, 2008

Treason by the Book by Jonathan Spence, or indeed his earlier The Death of Woman Wang
posted by Abiezer at 10:24 PM on November 28, 2008

The Reckoning - about the murder of Christopher Marlowe.
Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair - really nice bit of historical detective work.
posted by crocomancer at 2:23 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've heard nothing but good things about The Code Book, by Simon Singh, and Havana Nocturne, by T. J. English.
posted by bhatman at 3:13 AM on November 29, 2008

Second _A Life in Secrets_, _And the Band Played On_ and _The Professor and the Madman_. I'd add John Julius Norwich's Byzantine Empire trilogy. He also did a one volume condensed version, which I started with. After about 50 pages, I logged on and ILL'd the rest from my library. Gripping. No one does political scandal like the Byzantines.

Alexandra Ritchie's _Faust's Metropolis_ about Berlin's history was also excellent.
posted by QIbHom at 3:28 AM on November 29, 2008

The Ghost Map - about a 19th century cholera epidemic in London and the discovery that led to the beginnings of modern epidemiology.

The Assassin's Cloak and The Secret Annexe are both absolutely fascinating anthologies of assorted diary entries. The former is general diaries, the latter war diaries, all eras and genders and societies mixed together. They're great if you want something you can just dip into.
posted by andraste at 4:01 AM on November 29, 2008

A Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden was one of the first books I read when I started actively reading historical nonfiction. It's not too long and covers a long period of time, so it tends to move pretty fast and not get into gritty details. But it's an easy read and not boring, so it's worth checking out.
posted by yellowlightman at 4:02 AM on November 29, 2008

The Power Broker, as recommended above, is excellent. Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America, by Jason Goodwin, is excellent; it's a history of the dollar, and it's fascinating. I'm surprised that Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad and Berlin haven't been mentioned (maybe they have, I've only skimmed the thread).
posted by WPW at 5:18 AM on November 29, 2008

The late (Sir) Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades is considered the seminal book on the subject. It's big, but an easy read and historically accurate.
posted by ersatz at 5:38 AM on November 29, 2008

The Cruelest Miles. It's about the Alaskan Diphtheria epidemic that lead to the creation of the Iditarod.
posted by crios at 5:44 AM on November 29, 2008

Harpo Speaks is Harpo Marx's autobiography. It's a really pleasant and fun read. I had no idea Harpo hung out with the Algonquin folks.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:21 AM on November 29, 2008

Oh boy oh boy... my absolute favourite topic. Good history books.

Where do I start?

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes is a Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece. Far more interesting and gripping that the rather bland title implies, this opus covers history & science in equal measure. Whilst obviously focusing on the US program (they were the ones who actually made an atomic bomb after all), it also covers the German, nascent Japanese and Russian programs. It includes the history of physics, the war, the politics... this book cannot be recommended highly enough. It is rather large, but very readable. Rhodes wrote a sequel (Dark Sun) covering the subsequent development of the hydrogen bomb and the Cold War. But start with the first. Probably one of the best history books you'll ever read (and I know how annoying it is when someone says that!).

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt is historical biography at its best (notwithstanding Massie, see below). Cicero was a great Roman politician, lawyer, Senator, Consul and self-promoting egoist. Famous for his letters and speeches (not least for their genius and insight into Roman life, but also for the surprising fact that they survived antiquity), he truly did play a pivotal part in the last days of the Roman Republic. Everitt has recently published another (dare I say companion?) volume on Augustus, Cicero's great rival. Both these books taken together give a great overview of one of the most pivotal times in Western civilization's history. Highly recommended.

Speaking of biography, Peter the Great by Robert K Massie is another wonderful book. Quite long, it never gets boring as it covers the life and times of Russia's greatest leader, his place in the world (and especially Europe), and how he dragged Russia ("kicking & screaming") into modernity. Learn with wonder how he disguised himself as a commoner and spent months traveling through Europe, working as a common labourer. Wonder at his martial skills and how he took on the ancient Orthodox church. Feel his pain as he destroys his own family. Quite simply, a fascinating man and a wonderful book.

Massie has a great gift with words, another (oft reread) favourite is his Dreadnought, a history of the naval arms-race between Germany and Great Britian; a rivalry that many say contributed, if not indirectly caused, World War One. The opening passage alone, describing the great naval regatta just before Queen Victoria's death, is worth the price of purchase itself.

Speaking opening passages, perhaps popular history's most famous is the first two pages of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. A history of the first month of World War One, it exhibits all that made Tuchman one of America's favourite and most valuable popular historians. Wonderful stuff.

Back to the fall of the Roman Republic, there are many books that cover this important event but few are as accessible, readable and down-right as enjoyable as Tom Holland's Rubicon. Whilst I wouldn't go as far as describing this as revisionist, it's certainly refreshing in its take. Very well written, with plenty of insight and gripping narrative, Holland has proven himself quite an excellent historian. He followed this up with Persian Fire, describing how Persia nearly conquered the West (that's Iran to most people), and how close our "Western civilization" came to being nipped in the bud. His most recent, available here in Australia now but not for publication in the US for a while, is The Forge of Christendom, a history of the first millenium (that is, the years directly proceeding 1,000 BCE).

Another fascinating, and in many ways timely, book is The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk. It describes the attempts of the West in the 18th and 19th centuries to take control of Afghanistan. The main players (Great Britian, and the Russian Empire) were often described as being engaged in probably the first "cold war" with spies, daring explorers, roaming officers, tragic battles and retreats, nefarious deeds and double-crossings all part of the game. Indeed, it was called the Great Game by Kipling (who based his famous novel Kim on this same background), but also a Tournament of Shadows by Russia's foreign minister; which is also the name of a similiar book by Meyer & Brysac.

Finally, before I go on and on and on with any more recommendations, I should stop with perhaps my favourite. The Civil War - A Narrative by Shelby Foote is a trilogy on the American Civil War, with a slight Southern perspective, but certainly not bias (if you want a similar, but dryer, take from a Northern perspective, try Catton's Civil War, also in three volumes). Foote's magisterial trilogy is justly famous as one of the most important, and definitely most readable and enjoyable histories of this seminal event in American history. Foote became famous after his appearances in Ken Burn's eponymous PBS documentary, but his skills as a "teller of tales" and a "weaver of words" (if you'll pardon me my indulgences) long predated his media fame. These books are each long and weighty, but one flies through them so well are they written. This is wonderful history. Touching, gripping, exciting, poignant, descriptive and evocative. All that is best about the written word, and how it engaged the imagination, the heart and the head...

I apologise for the length of this post. Unfortunately, I have but scratched the surface. I could wax lyrical here for many hundreds more lines on the joys (the indescribable joy, the excitement, the happiness... the pain and sadness...) of good history, of written history at its best. It's a wonderful feeling. It's a nice place to be.

Here... pull up an arm-chair... sit a while with me by the fire... take this book in your hands and gently break its spine and come with me an a journey... it may be some time before you wish to return...
posted by Mephisto at 6:21 AM on November 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'd recommend The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks. It's about how John Snow was able to prove that cholera is a waterborne disease by some very determined detective work, but in the process touches on medical history, the miasma theory, the birth of urban planning and public health, and the birth of the modern city and scientific method. A lot to cover in a relatively short book, but it gets you thinking (and reading).

I'd also recommend London in the Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God. Much in the same vein as the first, but equally well written.
posted by Grrlscout at 6:43 AM on November 29, 2008

Seconding A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich. I'm a sucker for history (and I think I've even recommended it on the green before), but how can one resist an empire that starts with Centurions and only ends 1200 years later with cannons? The sweep is just amazing, and you'll probably want to read the whole three volumes, but start with the shorter version to see if you like it.
posted by hwickline at 7:20 AM on November 29, 2008

I would like to second The Making of the Atomic Bomb and The Guns of August. Wholeheartedly seconded. I actually came in here to recommend the first one, though Mephisto beat me to it.

Also: Hope Against Hope; Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoir. She was Osip Mandelstam's wife, and this book chronicles their travails in the last few years of his life, after his first arrest for an anti-Stalin poem. Very engaging—who can resist a book that begins "After slapping Alexei Tolstoi in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow"? Off with a bang and it never slows down.

I also really enjoyed Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy (The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast), though not everyone I've recommended it to has found it nearly as gripping as I did. Maybe I have a soft spot for Trotsky, or failed idealists/ideologues.
posted by felix grundy at 8:07 AM on November 29, 2008

If you liked David McCoullough's George Washington, have you tried 1776? More recommendations for this time period here.

Lately I've been interested in the very early settlement period in the US, and I've enjoyed Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates. Next on my reading list is Roanoke, which deals with the mysterious disappearance of this early settlement.
posted by motherly corn at 9:31 AM on November 29, 2008

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Young Stalin both by Simon Sebag Montefiore are gripping and fascinating and incredibly well researched. Young Stalin was holiday reading for me this year, which kind of shows how easy it is to read despite being so dense (I'm no reader by any stretch). In fact, Young Stalin is probably the best history book I've ever read.
posted by chill at 10:32 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I strongly recommend The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. It is the most engaging and exciting piece of historical non-fiction I have ever read.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 11:56 AM on November 29, 2008

GREAT question and great answers!

I'll chime in with A Great Improvisation, about Benjamin Franklin in France, and all the scientific activity (balloon flights! Mesmerism! Debunking Mesmerism!) happening while he was there, among all the politics.

Julius Norwich also did The Middle Sea: A History of the Meditteranean. I only got a third of the way through it before I had to return it to the library, but I enjoyed what I read.

Thanks for the question. I'm adding a good dozen of the answers to my reading list.
posted by kristi at 12:07 PM on November 29, 2008

A Woman in Berlin, by anonymous. It's the diary of a journalist who lived through the Russian occupation of Berlin after the second world war. I can't recommend this highly enough, it is amazing.
posted by arcticwoman at 1:32 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why no one has mentioned Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror is beyond me. I, for one, though the book was fabulous.
posted by terceiro at 1:46 PM on November 29, 2008

Pox Americana by Elizabeth Anne Fenn on the smallpox epidemic in America 1775-1782. Fenn does a very good job in reconstructing the spread of the disease across North America and its effects on the politics and culture of the time.
posted by Bearded Dave at 4:29 PM on November 29, 2008

Cocaine by Dominic Streatfield. Skip the ancient chapters, skim the Freud chapters, get to the good stuff on the trade in recent history. It's fantastic.

Secondly, Triangle: The Fire That Changed the World by David Von Drehle.

In general, if you want something to be interesting historical non-fiction, pick journalist's works over historians. We historians are too into detail and footnoting to make everything we write interesting, unfortunately.
posted by aliceinreality at 4:39 PM on November 29, 2008

I'm always recommending We Die Alone, by David Howarth.
posted by RedEmma at 9:35 PM on November 29, 2008

Hello btkuhn and others,

I'm a bit late to the thread, but I hope this helps. A couple of people have already nominated Barbara Tuchman, but I (respectfully!) disagree with their specific recommendations in answer to your question, great reads though they are.

To minimise "plodding, dense" text, and maximise the grippingness which you seek, I'd strongly recommend The Proud Tower. It's about the Great Powers just before the outbreak of WW1.

Why recommend Barbara Tuchman, and this book in particular?

1) Tuchman's style is narrative, rather than academic - so she takes a ton of primary sources and arranges them into a story to maximise dramatic interest. For example, this book is rammed with character sketches of major players which take the best anecdotes about them and string them together in an impactful paragraph (e.g. the paragraph describing Thomas Reed, speaker in US Congress, which includes a description by one of his contemporaries: "he would rather make an epigram than a friend"). Maximum grip, minimum time.

2) The book is structured as several completely indepdendent chapters, rather than an overarching narrative. Each chapter is only about 50 pages long, and each describes an extremely interesting historical situation - for example, the Dreyfus affair in France, or the wave of anarchist terrorism. You can browse back and forth as you like.

3) Tuchman doesn't give a full econo-politico-ethno-philosophico-cultural survey of the world - she just concentrates on a few interesting situations from that time. This contrasts with many other narrative history books which examine the same issue in great depth for 300+ pages. Again, this would serve to answer your need for a non-dense book.
posted by laumry at 6:50 AM on December 3, 2008

I really enjoyed Robert Service's biography 'Stalin', but I'm specifically interested in the personalities of important historical figures.
posted by ataylor at 5:45 PM on December 3, 2008

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes is an absolutely fascinating (and horrifying) account of the early years of Australia as a penal colony.

Seconding or thirding Heart of the Sea. Just about the best non-fiction book, like, ever.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:11 PM on December 3, 2008

The Mapmaker's wife. "The Mapmaker's Wife tells the extraordinary story of Isabel Godin, the first woman to travel down the length of the Amazon. Her journey brought an end to the first scientific expedition to the New World, which was led by Charles Marie de La Condamine. The French Academy of Sciences called the mission, which began in 1735, the “greatest expedition the world has ever known.”"
posted by dhruva at 7:38 AM on December 5, 2008

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