I require awesome history books plz
June 18, 2011 5:35 PM   Subscribe

It is a sad thing to realize that your primary history source of late is trashy romance novels. Help me fix this.

I am going to read the shit out of western world history this summer, people. Specifically, I'd like recommendations for the following times/places:

- Rome, both republic and empire
- English history from Roman Britain up to the Edwardian era
- the Age of Sail from the founding of the Hanseatic League through the late 19th century
- history of Al-Andalus from conquest to expulsion

I'm not looking for one huge book that covers all of English/Roman/boaty history (unless such books exist and are very awesome indeed and do not weigh 20kg). I'd like individual books instead, for example on the Norman Conquest, or the English Civil War, or the Punic Wars, or piratey stuffs, or the Anglo-Dutch wars, or famous Islamic polymaths, &c, plzkthx. (nonfiction only, podcasts need not apply.)
posted by elizardbits to Education (22 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I found Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, about the plague in medieval Europe, to be a very riveting read, full of tiny details as well as overarching themes. She follows the life of an individual knight and along the way covers wars, romance, intrigue, politics, religion; mundane quotidian life and royal statesmanship.
posted by tractorfeed at 5:40 PM on June 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

For the woman who gave Metafilter the Greasy Honky Pie, I give you the best site recommending books: http://thebrowser.com/fivebooks

You can look at a historical period or topic and an expert who has been interviewed gives their five picks. It is wonderfully curated. I have found gems and the interviews are pretty fun.

BTW I told a roomful of faculty about the pie and they were enthralled. A few commented that this was a recipe that their children would enjoy. I live in the midwest so people were VERY receptive to it. To say the least, I look forward to many potlucks with your pie.
posted by jadepearl at 5:56 PM on June 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: OK, so these aren't books. Which is sort of funny since I'm also a huge reader of history books. But it just so happens that my favorites for your first two periods are from other media.

Rome: I am really digging the History Of Rome podcast. It's a very comprehensive series of fifteen minute podcasts dedicated to, you guessed it, ancient Rome. Starting with the founding myths and what we know of the origins of Rome around 500 BCE, and I believe it's now gone up to at least the death of Constantine in the 4th century CE.

English History: I cannot recommend Simon Schama's A History Of Britain enough. It's a fifteen episode documentary series which goes from the furthest archaeological records up to 1965.

The Age Of Sail: here I do have a book to recommend. This has a slightly odd focus, but considering trade and specifically trade in spices was the original inspiration behind all these voyages of "discovery", I think it's an apt one. The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade. It deals more with Asia and the Pacific than with the Americas, of course.
posted by Sara C. at 5:59 PM on June 18, 2011

Larry Gonick's superb Cartoon History series will give you a solid overview of world history in a totally fun, integrated, and memorable way. Lots of previews in that post to give you an idea of the style and tone.
posted by Rhaomi at 6:02 PM on June 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

(And it's split into volumes and even individual chapters you can buy separately, depending on where you're shopping, so you could just pick up the parts covering the times and eras you're most interested in.)
posted by Rhaomi at 6:03 PM on June 18, 2011

Response by poster: I meant to mention that I've already read most of Larry Gonick's histories, ack!

Also, while in theory I love the idea of podcasts, in practice they are suboptimal due to my fluctuating Meniere's-related hearing issues. Stupid ears.

A Distant Mirror has been sitting in my amazon "save for later" cart for ages now! Clearly it is time to move it back to the go-cart.
posted by elizardbits at 6:07 PM on June 18, 2011

Best answer: If you want some great books about transatlantic shipping (and pirates!) check out Marcus Rediker. I LOVED his book with Peter Linebaugh The Many-Headed Hydra. He also wrote Villains of All Nations, on Atlantic piracy. They're both great reads: hugely informative, but a pleasure to read. He's written some more, too, if you decide you like him.
posted by synecdoche at 7:04 PM on June 18, 2011

Best answer: Don't feel so bad. Some of us trashy romance novelists take great care in our research, so you may have learned more than you reckon. ;)

Here are some books on English history that I've been enjoying recently:

The English Civil War, by Diane Purkiss.
A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714, by Mark Kishlansky.
The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser (social history - women in the 17th century)
English Society in the Eighteen Century, by Roy Porter
Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, by Amanda Vickery (social history)
1700: Scenes from London Life, by Maureen Waller (social history - London life)
Dr. Johnson's London, by Liza Picard (social history - London life)
posted by artemisia at 7:10 PM on June 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

*Eighteenth. Damn it.
posted by artemisia at 7:11 PM on June 18, 2011

Best answer: I really enjoyed Allison Weir's non-fiction series about Henry VIII. I read three or four, I think: Henry VIII, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and The Children of Henry VIII, and the one about Elizabeth. (I learned enough such that several years later, when I watched the annoying HBO series The Tudors, I annoyed the crap out my husband with my comments correcting all the historical wrongs of the series. So, you've been warned.)

Your comment about the Age of Sail reminded me of the excellent Nathaniel Philbrick book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. The Essex was the Pacific whaling ship from Nantucket that was "stove by a whale." When Herman Melville worked on a whaling ship, he read a first-hand account of the Essex, which inspired him to write Moby Dick. Philbrick's book is about the Essex, and also about the 19th century Pacific whaling industry more generally. It's fascinating.

Also, I recommend reading about Ernest Shackleton's Endurance voyage if you haven't already. I think the one I read, which I really enjoyed, was Alfred Lansing's Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage. Caroline Alexander's book about the Endurance includes a lot of the incredible photos taken on the voyage.

And David Sobel's Longitude is a great book about sailing and navigation.

As for English history: I don't know if this is too narrow, but I really enjoyed Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:18 PM on June 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's been a while since I've read it, but Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates was surprising, first because I didn't realize before how businesslike piracy was, and because Captain Kidd seems to have been something like a middle manager. Things went all wrong, and he became a famously evil pirate. I don't think he was likable, exactly, but he was manipulated by more powerful people, and his story is a sad one.

Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd, is vivid and packed with people from Charles Dickens's social circle and family. Charles Dickens was not the nicest man ever, but the book makes sense of him. It was great to read. It looks to be out of print now, though.
posted by Francolin at 8:19 PM on June 18, 2011

Best answer: I haven't read "Lost to the West" by Lars Brownworth but I enjoyed his podcast so much that I have to at least mention it here. It's about the Byzantine Empire but I previously had no appreciation for how much the histories of Rome and Constantinople are intertwined. I loved the podcast and expect the book to be at least as good.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:38 PM on June 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Rome from the other side: Harold Lamb's account of Hannibal: One Man Against Rome.
posted by coffeefilter at 9:17 PM on June 18, 2011

Best answer: Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles (about 9 or 10 books) taught me more about the Roman occupation of Britain that I ever thought possible that I would want to know. He takes the Arthur/Merlin legends and weaves them into Roman, British and European history. Great reading!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:27 PM on June 18, 2011

Best answer: Seconding Lost to the West -- admittedly it's not technically about the Western Roman Empire, it's still the first book about the Byzantine Empire I've read where I didn't get totally lost in the names of people and places. Very readable stuff.

Al-Andalus: I really enjoyed The Ornament of the World.
Pirate-y stuff: Empire of Blue Water
Age of Sail/Exploration: Farther than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook, and also Evolution's Captain, about Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle.
posted by Janta at 10:07 PM on June 18, 2011

Best answer: A World Lit Only By Fire is a fantastically engaging read about medieval Europe.

Billy Bryson's new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life is great- it is more vignettes of history, but gets into great detail on some social history of England/Europe.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 4:03 AM on June 19, 2011

Bill Bryson's latest, At Home, is a breezy walk through English history through how the private home settled into the modern shape. Light and name checks a lot of books here as sources.
posted by The Whelk at 6:39 AM on June 19, 2011

Best answer: For Rome, Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic is a great, informative read about the period before and after Caesar and Pompey duked it out. I also enjoyed his book about the Greek/Persian conflict, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West.

I loved 1215: The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham; it's short, lively and filled with neat info about daily life and politics in that year.

It's been on my to-read shelf for months, so I can't vouch personally, but Arthur Herman's To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World looks like it'll fit your Age of Sail requirement nicely.

I know you don't want huge overviews, but I've found that getting a quick handle on a period with a brief overview book helped me figure out what episodes/times I wanted to learn about with more focused books. This one really helped wrap my mind around "ANCIENT GREECE," and I've found Oxford's Very Short Introduction series to be excellent for getting an initial handle on things like the French Revolution, etc.
posted by mediareport at 6:42 AM on June 19, 2011

Response by poster: Don't feel so bad. Some of us trashy romance novelists take great care in our research, so you may have learned more than you reckon.

HA, no, nothing against trashy romance novels and their historical research - they pique my interest on various time periods and then I am determined to learn more, except without the abundance of heaving bosoms and mistaken-identity-kidnapping and spanking.

GUYS MY AMAZON CART IS FULLER THAN A HOBO'S CAN TROLLEY. I am excite! (Especially as I can charge everything to my business visa, yays!)
posted by elizardbits at 6:49 AM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

When you feel like reading novels again, Herman Wouk's War & Remembrance is a good look at WWII, and Pat Barker's WWI trilogy is excellent.
posted by theora55 at 9:26 AM on June 19, 2011

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