Does anyone have a suggestion for a good book on history?
May 20, 2005 6:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to buy a book on history to read for pleasure. My interest is mainly in American history and especially Lincoln, but I'm open to suggestions on other areas too. Does anyone have a good suggestion or two?
posted by flexxer to Society & Culture (23 answers total)
I haven't read much actual history (though I read all sorts of historical fiction), but I did read American Brothers by Ellis. Although it was dry, it contained some key ideas that I was glad to have been exposed to. It's short and worth a read.
posted by jdroth at 6:10 PM on May 20, 2005

There are, of course, many books on Lincoln and a plethora of books on the Founders. Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln is a classic, although some aspects are dated.

One very thoughtful recent work that stands out among the others is Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller, a book that focuses on the man rather than the myth.
posted by yclipse at 6:14 PM on May 20, 2005

For sheer readability:

Paul Johnson, Stephen Runciman, W.H. Lewis. Johnson writes on America and anything else that comes to his busy if conservative mind; Runciman is Byzantium obsessed; Lewis (brother of C.S. Lewis, by the way) takes to 17th century France. All write crystaline prose. Titles are superfluous. Check Amazon and or your library and start anywhere.

(By the way, what books/authors have impressed you?)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:17 PM on May 20, 2005

I haven't read it, but people seem to really like "Lies my teacher told me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" as a good read on US history that is interesting rather than boring.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:21 PM on May 20, 2005

"Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz.

"Personal Memoirs" by U.S. Grant.

"A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn.

"Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution by James Mcpherson.
posted by naomi at 6:21 PM on May 20, 2005

Oh, and in the historical fiction category... Allen Eckert.
posted by naomi at 6:26 PM on May 20, 2005

I really enjoyed A People's History of the American Revolution
posted by cmonkey at 6:27 PM on May 20, 2005

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, by Fred Anderson. It may sound dry, but trust me, it's not, and it's got great illustrations (I stared at the picture of Geo. Washington as a twentysomething for a long, long time).
posted by languagehat at 6:33 PM on May 20, 2005

I'll second the Zinn. very eyeopening.
posted by amberglow at 6:46 PM on May 20, 2005

Sarah Vowell's new book Assassination Vacation would be right up your alley.
posted by smackfu at 6:50 PM on May 20, 2005

One of the first that springs to mind for me is Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg -- a fascinating look at the Gettysburg Address in terms of the history of rhetoric/spoken oratory as well as Lincoln's evolving thoughts on the Declaration of Independence and, more specifically, what the Civil War was really for

My hands-down favorite "readable" social-cultural history book (with lurid, mysterious murder-suicide plot thrown in for good measure!) is Frederic Norton's A Nervous Splendor, which almost reads like a novel set among the artists and aristocrats of Vienna during the winter of 1888-89.
posted by scody at 6:59 PM on May 20, 2005

Ditto Nervous Splendour

Also, anything by David Hackett Fischer.

And since somebody has to trash 16, you might want to take a look at this.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:05 PM on May 20, 2005

As a natural skeptic, I will second harlequin's recommendation for Lies my teacher told me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong - which I have read, unlike harlequin - and then recommend the antidote: Vindicating the Founders, by Thomas G. West. Both have some good points to make.
posted by yclipse at 7:14 PM on May 20, 2005

David McCullough takes the story of building the Panama Canal (you already know how it ends; they build the canal) and turns it into the kind of book you stay up into the wee hours reading: The Path Between The Seas is my recommendation.
posted by ambrosia at 7:35 PM on May 20, 2005

If you're reading sheerly for pleasure -- and secondarily for information and accuracy -- go the Gore Vidal route. His 'Lincoln' is pretty hilarious, in fact.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:01 PM on May 20, 2005

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson was incredibly interesting to me. It's about the Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago and manages to capture the era very well.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:07 PM on May 20, 2005

I'd recommend anything by Daniel J. Boorstin. I love the Discoverers, Seekers, and Creators books, though his "The Americans" series, particularly The Colonial Experience might be more what you're looking for.
posted by Jeff Howard at 9:22 PM on May 20, 2005

The Joseph Ellis book jdroth mentions is actually Founding Brothers, and yes, it is compulsively readable. The chapter on the Burr-Hamilton duel is top-notch entertainment.
posted by mediareport at 10:06 PM on May 20, 2005

A favorite tale of Lincoln's has been retold, Skeletons on the Zahara : A True Story of Survival by Dean King. It is an amazing true story.

As a boy, Abraham Lincoln read the memoir of Captain James Riley, and never forgot its story of slavery in the Sahara (or Zahara, as Riley would have known it). Thoreau knew the book. It was an international bestseller, and it might have been one of the few books besides the Bible in some American homes. Riley was a legend in his own time, but no longer is in ours. He is back, brought to us by Dean King, who read Riley's memoir of his adventure in the Sahara, and then read a narrative of the same adventure from a fellow crewman of Riley's, and then himself traveled in the still inhospitable and dangerous regions described in the two books. King has produced _Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival_ (Little, Brown), a wonderful account of fortitude under the most extreme conditions at sea and on the desert. This is one of the great adventure stories, full of the tortures by man and nature, and of course of the success of an indomitable spirit.
posted by geekyguy at 10:25 PM on May 20, 2005

John Demos' Unredeemed Captive is written very well.

But my favorite well written history is by Carlo Ginzberg - it's not American History, but about 16th century Italy, but his Night Battles is amazing, and one of the strangest true stories I have ever heard.

The Voices of Morebath is very good too - a simple history of one village in the English Reformation, and how the poor vicar never got his new vestments.

If you particularly enjoy biographies of interesting political figures, I read one of Wellington several years ago that was very engaging. Unfortunately, I can't remember the author.
posted by jb at 12:02 AM on May 21, 2005

Mancini, Matthew J.

One dies, get another : convict leasing in the American South, 1866-1928 / Matthew J. Mancini.

Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press, c1996.

Table of Contents

Pt. 1 Making Sense of Convict Leasing

1 Categories 13
2 Labor 39
3 Camps 59

Pt. 2 Convict Leasing in the States

4 Georgia: That Sundown Job 81
5 Alabama: Her Most Indefensible Shame 99
6 Hell in Arkansas 117
7 Mississippi: An Epidemic Death Rate without the Epidemic 131
8 Louisiana: The Road to Angola 144
9 Tennessee: The Economics of Coercion 153
10 Texas: Here Come Bud Russel 167
11 Florida: Leasing on the Frontier 183
12 Carolinas: Paradigms for Abolition 198

Pt. 3 Abolition

13 Abandonment of Convict Leasing 215
Notes 233
Selected Bibliography 266
Index 275
xi, 283 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 266-274) and index.

Subjects Convict labor -- Southern States -- History.
Prisoners -- Southern States -- History.

ISBN 1570030839


Woodward, C. Vann (Comer Vann), 1908-

The battle for Leyte gulf.

New York, The Macmillan company, 1947.

Subjects World War, 1939-1945 -- Philippines.
World War, 1939-1945 -- Naval operations, American.
posted by drakepool at 1:40 AM on May 21, 2005

go the Gore Vidal route

Completely agreed. His American Chronicle Series is a kind of non-fiction fiction that's hard to put down once started. They follow a few major character's (and their descendents) during the most critical parts of US History. You should probably read them in order, but it's not required.

Washington, D.C.
The Golden Age

Also, I recommend any book by Paul Johnson. Personal faves:

The Birth of the Modern
The History of the Jews
Modern Times
History of Christianity
A History of the American People
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:04 AM on May 21, 2005

A Diary of Rome Hanks.
posted by rleamon at 12:42 PM on May 21, 2005

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