Make history interesting!
March 27, 2012 6:49 AM   Subscribe

What are the Sarah Vowell/Mary Roach/John Ronson books of world history?

I like pop nonfiction books, especially in the vein of Sarah Vowell's US history books, Mary Roach on science and John Ronson. I'm looking for more books that I would enjoy reading, while also learning something, and a big hole in my general knowledge is world history. Who are the authors writing readable, sometimes funny, somewhat personally involved books on world history? Ancient through 20th century, Europe, Asia, Africa, etc, all work for me. I do want the nonfiction to be accurate and interesting, but I like the aspect of the author's personal quest to understand it that is common in the authors here, which keeps me engaged.
posted by whodatninja to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
I have heard fantastic things about "A Distant Mirror" by Barbara Tuchman. People I know who loathe history have raved about it.
posted by indognito at 6:57 AM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I like the aspect of the author's personal quest to understand it that is common in the authors here, which keeps me engaged.

William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East sounds like what you're looking for.
posted by deanc at 7:10 AM on March 27, 2012

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home: A Short History of Private Life might fit the bill.
posted by amarynth at 7:18 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about "The Cartoon History of the Modern World"? (I'm serious; Gonick is outstanding.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:37 AM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Though A Short History is more the history of science, kind of "how do we know what we know?"
posted by amarynth at 7:39 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend Neal Ascherson's Black Sea for a quirky, personal, and brilliant history of that part of the world. I expect, from what I know about it, to be able to recommend Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia in similar terms, but unfortunately I haven't started it yet.

Do not read Bill Bryson unless you don't care about accuracy.
posted by languagehat at 7:43 AM on March 27, 2012

Seconding Larry Gonick! Cartoon History of the Universe parts 1 and 2 are fantastic; I didn't even know he had other books, now I'll have to read them.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:50 AM on March 27, 2012

Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore is excellent on Australia, and his Rome is also great.
posted by CheeseLouise at 8:52 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Simon Winchester's The Man who Loved China tells about China in the 1940s through the biography of Joseph Needham, a professor from Cambridge. For more of an "author's personal quest", his Outposts would probably be very good -- I haven't read it yet.

You might also like The Man Who Would Be King, by Ben Macintyre, about the first American to go to Afghanistan in the late 1830s.
posted by mgar at 8:56 AM on March 27, 2012

For ancient history, Adrienne Mayor's books are both fun and interesting. Her titles include Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates the Great, Rome's Deadliest Enemy and The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. I don't know if these qualify as "personal quest," as they're written by an expert in the field already, although I found them really engaging.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:31 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

E.H. Gombrich's a Short History of the World, although written for kids, is amazing.
posted by blue_bicycle at 9:34 AM on March 27, 2012

For this sort of thing I like Tony Horwitz. He's done early colonial American history in A Voyage Long and Strange, Reenactors and the Civil War in Confederates in the Attic, and Captain Cook's Voyages in Blue Latitudes.
posted by clockbound at 9:34 AM on March 27, 2012

Oh, I totally forgot about Tony Hotwitz, and eagerly second the recommendation for Blue Latitudes. (I'll have to check the others out soon!)
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:51 AM on March 27, 2012

This is a little different than what you are requesting, but I can't help recommending Rubicon by Tom Holland. It covers the Roman Empire with a focus on Roman politics and lifestyle. While it does not have the "personal quest" aspect that is so great in Sarah Vowell's work, Holland does a great job making a distant period of history seem immediate and familiar. For example, you learn that Julius Caesar was a total fashion-forward dandy. Highly recommend it, especially in conjunction with the TV show Rome, which covers roughly the same period and the same subject matter, giving a whole separate perspective.
posted by dredge at 11:15 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've only read a couple books by Stephen Ambrose, but I think it's fair to say he belongs in this category; I couldn't put down "Band of Brothers," (basis for the HBO miniseries, about a Company of the 101st Airborne division in WWII) and "Undaunted Courage" (re: the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and also relating to Thomas Jefferson) was a fascinating and eye-opening read. I look forward to his other books.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:21 PM on March 27, 2012

Just want to say that you should avoid Robert Hughes "Rome" - when he gets off art history it has some of the most egregious errors I've every seen in a book. Nthing Mayor and Horwitz. Not funny, but beautifully written is Dava Sobel's books, Longitude and Galileo's Daughter. I personally found them very entertaining and pleasurable.
posted by smoke at 2:52 PM on March 27, 2012

I did a post on Gonick if you want to know more about his work. I can personally vouch for his Cartoon History of the United States, which helped me get through AP US History.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:11 PM on March 27, 2012

Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen, per Amazon blurb: "Prohibition. Al Capone. The President Harding scandals. The revolution of manners and morals. Black Tuesday. These are only an inkling of the events and figures characterizing the wild, tumultuous era that was the Roaring Twenties. Originally published in 1931, Only Yesterday traces the rise if post-World War I prosperity up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 against the colorful backdrop of flappers, speakeasies, the first radio, and the scandalous rise of skirt hemlines. Hailed as an instant classic, this is Frederick Lewis Allen's vivid and definitive account of one of the twentieth century's most fascinating decades, chronicling a time of both joy and terror--when dizzying highs were quickly succeeded by heartbreaking lows."

What about oral histories? Who knows how accurate the ramblings of the interviewees are, but they can be fun and interesting.
posted by scratch at 4:05 PM on March 27, 2012

Thanks everyone! Tony Horwitz fits the bill of what I'm looking for pretty well- I've read and loved Confederates in the Attic and will look up his other books. I'll check out some of the others as well. Any others? I would be especially interested in European and Asian history through the narrative lens.
posted by whodatninja at 7:35 AM on March 28, 2012

« Older Looking for a French singer from the 90s (long...   |   Help a noob out. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.