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June 16, 2009 9:06 AM   Subscribe

What are some great books about history?

I recently finished reading Rubicon by Tom Holland and its ignited a desire to read more history. I am not necessarily after narrative history but I'm not against it. What I'm after here are books you consider to be exemplary from any period in western history. I have read my fill for now of eastern history and feel like my knowledge of the west isn't what it should be. The scope can be wide or narrow.. the main criteria I'm after are scholarly, considered to be reputable/respected and interesting. Primary or secondary texts are both fine.

I realize this is a pretty broad question but I find that my interests are too and I love to learn about things I didn't know I liked so fire away!
posted by zennoshinjou to Education (43 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should add that I'm not that interested in American history, but if you can make a case for a book I'll look into it.
posted by zennoshinjou at 9:07 AM on June 16, 2009

Europe's Last Summer by David Fromkin
posted by jgirl at 9:09 AM on June 16, 2009

I'd definitely recommend The Healing Hand by Guido Majno. It's about the evolution of medical practices from Ancient Mesopotamia up to the Middle Ages. It focuses mostly on the Western tradition, but does have a chapter each on Chinese and Indian practices from the same time periods. Really a fun read.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:11 AM on June 16, 2009

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present

Yep, American History, but a bit of a different perspective...
posted by HuronBob at 9:11 AM on June 16, 2009

Barbara Tuchman's The Guns Of August.
posted by rtha at 9:14 AM on June 16, 2009

This is sort of a pedestrian suggestion, but I read (most of... skipped around a bit) Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a few years back and found it surprisingly interesting/readable, especially once he got to the later stuff that I hadn't read about elsewhere. It's sort of fun how it gives you a two-layered version of history: you're reading about the Roman Empire, but because of the way he presents the Roman Empire, you sort of get a primer on the history and dominant values of 18th c. England, too.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:16 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A People's History was great! I like stuff that tells history from an alternate perspective as well.
posted by zennoshinjou at 9:23 AM on June 16, 2009

I thoroughly enjoy all of Barbara Tuchman's World War 1 books: The Proud Tower, The Zimmerman Telegram, and The Guns of August. You can round off the period with Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret Macmillan which covers the Paris peace talks and Robert Keegan's The First World War, which describes the major battles in fascinating detail.

If WW1 isn't your bag, Tuchman wrote a book on 14th century France which is one of my all time favorite history books ever: A Distant Mirror.

For a great general overview of history, I really like Wil Durant's The Story of Civilization series. Nicely written, and a great jumping off point to the primary sources. You can generally find these in used bookstores pretty cheaply as well.

Fun stuff: Daniel Boorstin's The Creators, The Seekers and The Discoverers.
posted by jquinby at 9:24 AM on June 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's hard to call it solely historical, but Rebecca West's Black Lamb, Grey Falcon has a ton of Balkan history in it. That is just one facet of it however, as it is part traveloge, part commentary and all awesome.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:24 AM on June 16, 2009

* The Memory of Fire trilogy by Eduardo Galeano. He covers the history of the Americas, starting with pre-Columbian myths and ending in 1984 (the year he wrote this). It tells the whole story in a series of short two- and three-paragraph vignettes, all done in a magic realism style.

* Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, Cartoon History of the Modern World and Cartoon History of the United States. The first two titles are a series - there are 3 books in the Universe series, but then he renamed the series when the 4th book rolled around. It's a surprisingly exhaustive and approachable overview of world history, starting with the Big Bang (seriously!) and the formation of the planets, the rise of life on earth, and the development of Homo sapiens, then touching on the rise of Civilization, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, Chinese history, Japanese history, the Indian peninsula and its history, the Middle East and its history, African history, the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, the Turks, Genghis Kahn, the Huns, the Crusades, the Reformation, battles in Europe, Mayan and Incan history....seriously, he covers everything up until 1776 (and more is to come).

The United States is equally as exhaustive, but focuses solely on the United States, and is a single volume. I think he starts with the Bering land bridge and comes up to the present.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:26 AM on June 16, 2009

For the flip side of HuronBob's suggestion, Charles Mann's 1491 is all of those things, it covers everything pre-Columbus and it's fantastic.
posted by Think_Long at 9:27 AM on June 16, 2009

The Boisterous Sea of Liberty is a great book that frames primary sources with just enough summary and analysis to give you context. It's also really excellent at putting together documents that represent opposing viewpoints such that you get a solid grasp of the ideology behind the arguments and can trace the origins of the historical philosophy. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in American history.
posted by alygator at 9:34 AM on June 16, 2009

The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg is a sweet read.
posted by Pineapplicious at 9:36 AM on June 16, 2009

Whoops, didn't see OP's follow-up comment, but still, you really should check it out. Since it starts out with the discovery of the New World, It also gives a European perspective on what colonialization and new territories meant to them.
posted by alygator at 9:36 AM on June 16, 2009

You might enjoy the work of Kurlansky, particularly Salt, Cod, and 1968.
posted by trip and a half at 9:42 AM on June 16, 2009

James Hunter is one of my favourite historians. He has a focus on the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the economic and political challenges faced by its people.

A good broad introduction to his work is Last of the Free. This is an excellent history of the people of Northern Scotland from prehistoric times to the present day. It does include some information about emigration, voluntary and otherwise, to North America, but it is the context of the Highlands.

Culloden and the Last Clansman has a more narrow focus. It looks at the killing of Colin Campbell, which rocked 18th century Britain in the aftermath of the Jacobite uprising.
posted by IanMorr at 9:49 AM on June 16, 2009

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild is an utterly fantastic, yet grizzly, account of King Leopold's mad conquest for a colony in Africa. It's probably the best-written history book I've ever read.

And it's just a matter of time before somebody says Guns, Germs and Steel, so I'll go ahead and say it first. It's exhaustive, but a good read.
posted by General Malaise at 10:19 AM on June 16, 2009

Keith Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic - social history tour de force on the paradigm shift from supernaturalism to science.
posted by Abiezer at 10:28 AM on June 16, 2009

I highly recommend Postwar by Tony Judt, it is a history of Europe from 1945 to 1999 and is quite a fascinating book.
posted by Vindaloo at 10:40 AM on June 16, 2009

I came to favorite whoever said "Lies my teacher told me" but I see it hasn't been mentioned yet. Short and engaging read focusing on how American history as taught in schools is often wrong. Absolutely stunning amount of citations and references and covers a broad swath of time.
posted by anti social order at 10:49 AM on June 16, 2009

Seconding Vindaloo's recommendation of Tony Judt's Postwar -- I'm reading it right now and it's pretty amazing.
posted by scody at 10:51 AM on June 16, 2009

Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Revolution is the first of a series of 4 books that cover the last 300 years or so.

Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station

Yes I'm aware these suggestions make me look like a communist
posted by minkll at 10:52 AM on June 16, 2009

Since Zinn and Loewen seem to be the standard of the Mefi crowd, let me be truly reactionary and recommend Paul Johnson's History of the American People as a pleasantly fluent piece of writing that is a little more, shall we say, positive than what others one might mention.

For more general western history, try Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, crammed with all manner of oddities.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:09 AM on June 16, 2009

(excise "one". Damn editing....)
posted by IndigoJones at 11:10 AM on June 16, 2009

Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century
. A totally fascinating take on democracy and the interwar era, primarily about central Europe.

Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age A fine companion for Dark Continent. Both are important, readable and relevant works.

and now for something completely different...
Gay New York
It is US history, but this is a great cultural history of gay working class New York. I cannot recommend this book enough! And I'm an Asian historian. I generally refuse to encourage people to read more US history-- US people get enough US history as it is. If you read Gay New York, memail me and tell me what you think. I'm that enthusiastic about this book!

I'm an Asian historian of Japanese prostitution to be precise (1600-Present), so here are requisite prostitution recommendations. I'll start with a great companion to Gay New York.
City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920

OK, on to classics about France and England, respectively.
Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850

Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State

posted by vincele at 11:29 AM on June 16, 2009

I read the first two books of the Liberation Trilogy (history of the U.S.'s involvement in the European Theater during WWII) and found them brilliant:
An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943
The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

Also, all of John Keegan's books are worth reading, particularly The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme.
posted by qldaddy at 11:29 AM on June 16, 2009

Definitely check out King Leopold's Ghost, as General Malaise suggested. I read that book recently and recommend it highly.

If you're interested in African history, you should check out The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. You'll understand how the continent was colonized and how each nation was subsequently founded after the struggle for independence. I picked up this book while traveling in East Africa and found it remarkably insightful.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda is another account that I'd recommend if you're interested in more recent events like the civil war in Rwanda. Note, like King Leopold's Ghost, the things described in this book will likely prove difficult reading.

Finally, I'd recommend a somewhat fictionalized account of one of Sudan's "Lost Boys" - What is the What by Dave Eggers. It is the novelized (auto?)-biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a remarkable man who survived walking across the desert as a small child to escape from the war, and then grew up in refugee camps in Ethiopia before coming to America. I guarantee that you'll be not only impressed with Valentino's strength of character by the time you're done with the book, but that you'll also want to learn more about the situation - and hey, that's more history, right?
posted by jacquilinala at 11:46 AM on June 16, 2009

Ooooh! Just thought of two more (make that THREE more, as one just popped into my head as I was typing this):

anti social order's mention of Lies My Teacher Told Me reminded me of a very cool book I have -- History Lessons, which gives an account of U.S. history by printing excerpts from the high school history textbooks from other countries. You get what British textbooks say about the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Cuban and Russian views of the Bay of Pigs, Norwegian views of Lief Ericson, Iranian views of the hostage's fascinating. One of my favorite sections reprints what North Korean textbooks say about the Korean War -- it is mind-blowingly propagandistic.

One of the authors came back later with History In The Making, which took a similar quoted-from-the-textbooks approach - only it quotes from different U.S. textbooks from throughout history, comparing and contrasting how the 1810 history textbook talked about Washington with how the 1880's one did, the 1912 one did, the 1942 one did, the 1978 one, etc.... It looks at a number of key moments in U.S. history, examining how textbooks throughout our history dealt with them. There's a passage from a 1890's textbook, discussing some minor Mexican/European conflict -- I don't even remember which one -- but the 1890's textbook launches from that off into some whole grand cosmic florid treatise about the ultimate superiority of the victors as if it were ordained by the very gods. And you read that, and then you catch yourself realizing that "crap, this is what people back in this period were learning in school," and it gives other periods in history a whole other nuance.

Finally -- Low Life by Luc Sante is about a comparatively narrow topic (New York City's "underbelly") in a comparatively narrow time frame (roughly 1860-1915), but it's great fun to read and is a fun look at some of the sides of history that you don't always get to see. (Wanna know about the drug scene of 1890? Want to know what the 1912 version of a "hipster" was? Want to read about political insider blackmail from over 100 years ago? It's in here!)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:50 AM on June 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: There are lots of amazing suggestions in here. This is exactly the kind of stuff I am interested in! Definitely continue to recommend things that are oddball or niche.
posted by zennoshinjou at 11:56 AM on June 16, 2009

How about the best book available about one of the most important events of modern history, namely The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain by Stephen Bungay. Without this British victory, could there have been a D-Day? Would Hitler have reached Moscow in '41 fighting only on one front? Before the invasion of the USSR, before the USA was provoked into action, only Britain stood between Nazi Germany and total victory. Who's to say how very different the outcome of the war and indeed modern Europe could have been had Britain not chosen to fight, or having chosen, had failed to win this pivotal engagement. Not forgetting the immense contribution of Poles, Czechs, pilots from all over the Empire etc. This book is the best of its type, enjoy!
posted by stumpyolegmcnoleg at 11:59 AM on June 16, 2009

A few more:

For a single-subject historical treatment of cryptology/-graphy, take a look at The Codebreakers by David Kahn. It's quite thick and very detailed, if that's your thing.

My two favorite historians of antiquity are Herodotus and Thucydides. There are Landmark versions of both, and though I've only read the Thucydides, the Herodotus has a prominent position on my wish-list. Packed full of marginal notes, maps and so on, they may be the only versions you'll ever need.

Lastly, let me throw in a plug for Plutarch's Lives. These detailed studies of (and comparisons between) various Greek and Roman figures were primary source material for the likes of Shakespeare and others.
posted by jquinby at 12:19 PM on June 16, 2009

The Making of the English Working Class, by E.P. Thompson; The Legacy of Conquest, by Patricia Nelson Limerick, and Taylor Branch's history of the Civil Rights movement, beginning with Parting the Waters.
posted by emhutchinson at 12:33 PM on June 16, 2009

I'm an appalachian/ohio river valley nerd. I crazy dig stories about the settlement of the appalachians and lands west.

In that regard, I highly recommend anything by Allan W. Eckert, especially "That Dark and Bloody River" and "The Frontiersmen."

Of course, for me, part of the cool is reading about a place and remembering being there, or going there, or at least knowing exactly where it is and being able to visualize it happening by knowing the topography and geography of the area.
posted by TomMelee at 12:46 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. In 1964, Democrats won pretty much their biggest landslide ever. Just eight years later, Republicans won pretty much their biggest landslide ever. How did the nation move from one extreme to the other, and so quickly? Perlstein attempts to answer that question, and does so in incredibly vivid style, consulting a dizzying array of sources, making you really feel like you're right in the thick of things. As the title of the book might indicate, a man named Richard Milhouse Nixon had more than a little to do with it.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 1:03 PM on June 16, 2009

The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood. Sounds pretty dry, but it's a beautifully written, extremely clear account of an incredibly complex, tragic, and bloody conflict. An all-time favorite of mine; highly recommended.

The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune of 1870-71 by Alistair Horne. Yeah, this sounds pretty obscure too, BUT read the blurb: "In 1870, Paris was the center of Europe, the fount of culture, fashion, and invention. Ten months later Paris had been broken by a long Prussian siege, its starving citizens reduced to eating dogs, cats, and rats, and France had been forced to accept the humiliating surrender terms dictated by the Iron Chancellor Bismarck. To many, the fall of Paris seemed to be the fall of civilization itself. Alistair Horne’s history of the Siege and its aftermath is a tour de force of military and social history, rendered with the sweep and color of a great novel." Another all-time fave; highly recommended.
posted by littlecatfeet at 1:05 PM on June 16, 2009

1066: The Year of the Conquest is a good read. Strange coincidences there.
posted by General Tonic at 1:13 PM on June 16, 2009

I'm surprised this hasn't been mentioned yet.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is about as wide-scoped as you can get for human history. Jared himself said it might as well be called "A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years", and that's pretty fitting as he does begin with the hunter-gatherer period and move forward from there laying the groundwork for something resembling causation. He's widely multi-disciplinary, and there are lots of good stories in there as well.
posted by tybeet at 1:21 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Of course, for me, part of the cool is reading about a place and remembering being there, or going there, or at least knowing exactly where it is and being able to visualize it happening by knowing the topography and geography of the area.

TomMelee, I'm exactly the same way about Ozarks history and geography. Sometimes to the exclusion of almost everything else.
posted by General Tonic at 2:29 PM on June 16, 2009

Seconding A Distant Mirror. Barbara Tuchman is able to paint a fascinating completest picture of an almost alien world, the 14th Century.
posted by rtimmel at 2:41 PM on June 16, 2009

Please allow me to add my books worth.

'Tomb of the eagles' by John Hedges is part story of one effort to investigate a 4000 year old tomb on Orkney, Scotland, part forensic study of the people of the stone age and part a portrait of alien, yet understandable lives. Quite fascinating, and a book which can be dipped into and read how you like, not just from front to back.
posted by BadMiker at 3:59 PM on June 16, 2009

Thirding A Distant Mirror, as well as Guns of August. Tuchman has a natural writing style that is quite enjoyable. You could even check out her book on the Chinese civil war/the war against Japan with Stillwell and the American Experience in China.

Bonus points with A Distant Mirror: Aside from getting a single book covering a papal schism, the hundred years war, and the plague, if you've ever read Sandman, by Neil Gaiman, you'll spot several bits that he got from that book. Kind of fun.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:07 PM on June 16, 2009

Anthony Beevor's gripping "Stalingrad" & "Berlin: The Downfall 1945" are both compelling, insightful and compassionate accounts of major events in WWII.
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 4:39 PM on June 16, 2009

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou, the history of a small village during an inquisition (30 years), and The Peasants of Languedoc, which is what it says on the tin, from roughly the years after the Black Death to the beginning of the XVIIIth century.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:57 PM on June 16, 2009

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