Books on history that are a delight to read.
April 14, 2012 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend your favorite books on history that are a delight to read.

I just read Robert K. Massie's "Catherine the Great" and enjoyed it so much that I'm now reading "Nicholas and Alexandra". In general, I like reading books on history, but have found them to be hit or miss- some are quite dry and almost a chore to read, at least for me.

Can you recommend great history books that are written with warmth and genuine interest for the human players within them, while also being well-researched and including many interesting facts and details?

I am, right now, particularly interested in reading about women in history and Japanese and Russian history, but open to pretty much anything.
posted by grayber to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (43 answers total) 239 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you have any interest in American history you should check out Sarah Vowell.

Assassination Vacation - the story of her researching (and the research) on the first three presidential assassinations. It is hard to explain to people why you are laughing out loud while reading about Lincoln being assassinated but you'll have to figure it out.

The Wordy Shipmates - about the Puritans

She has two more that I haven't read yet, but I will.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:26 AM on April 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I really enjoyed Simon Winchester's companion books, The Meaning of Everything, and The Professor and the Madman, both about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

And, of course, I must give the obligatory recommendation of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is likely the most delightful history book there is to read.
posted by just_ducky at 10:37 AM on April 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Bill Bryson gets mentioned a lot here but his history books are very entertaining-if-light reads. A Brief History Of Nearly Everything concerns the history of Science and is full of colorful stories and At Home is even more meandering, concerning itself with the history of household objects. Not deep, but very readable.
posted by The Whelk at 10:37 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just read Women's Work by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and found it fascinating and engrossing! It's about the history of textiles in the ancient world.
posted by pupstocks at 10:38 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also seconding Sarah Vowell and Bill Bryson.
posted by pupstocks at 10:39 AM on April 14, 2012

Seconding Women's Work!

I also like the historical biographies and general historical works by Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser. They specialize in medieval and Tudor-era English history, especially biographies of women (Fraser - Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Weaker Vessel) (Weir - Katherine Swynford, Isabella of France).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:58 AM on April 14, 2012

I really enjoy Alison Wier.
posted by neushoorn at 10:58 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

American Rose, about the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, contains lots of info about the history of NYC politics and the 20th century showbiz industry. However, it seems to be mainly written with the intent of getting you inside the people's minds and lives.
posted by hermitosis at 11:04 AM on April 14, 2012

You might enjoy some of these previous questions: Gripping, page-turning history books, best history books available, great books about history, 20th century history, gift-worthy history books, good interesting historical nonfiction.

There's probably more good stuff tagged history + books, too.
posted by box at 11:05 AM on April 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

(My own favorite book about history is Paul Slansky's The Clothes Have No Emperor.)
posted by box at 11:08 AM on April 14, 2012

Don Cook's Charles De Gaulle: A Biography made me understand and sympathize with the subject, and particularly about why he consciously became such a stubborn, obsessive, brilliantly manipulative brave bastard for whom saving France came before any other kind of human consideration or value.
posted by Iosephus at 11:11 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I expected Equal: Women Reshape American Law to be a slog, but found myself zipping through it like a novel.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:14 AM on April 14, 2012

For a college class last semester, I read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. The subject is America's "Great Migration," referring to the movement of blacks from the Jim Crow South to the North. It tells the life stories (literally) of three people who made the trek.

I loved this book and so did all the other students in my class. By this, I mean that in a classroom with many students who didn't finish most of the readings, everybody finished this 500-something page book ahead of the deadline. It's just that good.
posted by hypotheticole at 11:18 AM on April 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

My favorite fun historical read is A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 (I also enjoyed its sequel, Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914).
posted by scody at 11:24 AM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals is a most amazing read. Actually it's like reading 5 bios in my top 10 favorite books. Hard to put down.
posted by PaulBGoode at 12:05 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not in one of your preferred subject areas (though it does include coverage of women's everyday lives), but I really enjoyed The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer. "The past is a foreign country. This is your guidebook."

The follow-up, still in hardback in the UK, is The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England.

In both volumes, he writes very engagingly, and presents richly detailed, evocative descriptions of the way people lived and how society worked. They're fascinating and tremendously readable, and I've been recommending them to everyone who shows the slightest interest.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 12:15 PM on April 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I love, love, love Besty Israel's Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Women in the Twentieth Century. She really gets into the essentials of being a single woman in the years before and just following suffrage. After reading I wanted to call every single women over 60 and thank her, because I really saw what feminism was truly about.

A little more complex, but equally interesting was Catherine Fosl's biography of Anne Braden, Subversive Southerner. Fosl worked with Braden on the project and told a very intriguing story of a privileged white woman in the segregation South who was incredibly involved in the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement. She helped an African American couple purchase a house in a redlined neighborhood and was fire-bombed for her work. She and her husband remained very active in the movement until HUAC questioned them. Fosl obviously admires the woman a great deal and her writing shows it.

It got a lot of press recently but the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is also a blindingly good read. Skloot manages to be sympathetic to the doctors and Henrietta's family while still exploring a really complex element of medical history.

I'd also second the Professor and the Madman and Warmth of Other Suns. Awesome books all the way around.
posted by teleri025 at 12:28 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband described Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer to me as "a rip-roaring yarn" and I made fun of him, but then I read it and it turns out he was correct. It's great.
posted by something something at 1:23 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'll also want to read Karen Abbott's other book, Sin In The Second City.

I'll also say you should check out Devil In The White City by Erik Larson, The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum, Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraiser or Queen Of Fashion - What Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber.
posted by bibliogrrl at 1:31 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Massie's Peter the Great is a, er, great biography combined with a history of late 17th/early 18th cent. Russia.

Mansel's Constantinople: City of the World's Desire is a fascinating picture of Ottoman Istanbul.
posted by pdq at 1:58 PM on April 14, 2012

Only Yesterday, by Frederick Lewis Allen
posted by scratch at 2:02 PM on April 14, 2012

Before the Trumpet by Geoffrey Ward is the story of FDR's boyhood and youth -- the story of a vanished way of life, really. Anything by Ward on FDR is great, but Before the Trumpet is really special.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord is really good, and timely, of course. There are many heartwarming aspects to it as well as the sadness.

And my perennial recommendation: Europe's Last Summer by David Fromkin. He had access to sources on World War I that Barbara Tuchman did not.

The novel "And Ladies of the Club" has tons and tons of political and economic history. It is a brilliant work.

Anything by David McCullough is great, especially Mornings on Horseback, about TR's youth.
posted by jgirl at 3:26 PM on April 14, 2012

Here are some books on women in medieval history!

A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock is a very quick read, primarily used as a textbook but written as a narrative, about peasant women's lives in late-medieval England. It is completely fascinating. The info on obscure peasant land deals alone is way more engrossing than that description warrants.

The Letters of Heloise and Abelard are just the collected letters, but the story of those two crazy kids is unbelievable. (Short version: Abelard is hired to tutor Heloise in Latin and Greek; decides he needs to "tutor" her in a more profane way; sneaks her out of her house and country disguised as a nun; marries her in secret; gets castrated by her father; leaves her at a convent where she becomes the mother superior in like a week because she is THAT AWESOME and gives birth to their son Astrolabe, like naming your child "Laptop." Of all that craziness, it's Astrolabe that sticks with me.) I didn't find the letters hard to comprehend or boring, as long as you skip over the more detailed stuff about rules of monastery life.

The Return of Martin Guerre. Medieval identity theft, made the author's career, inspired a movie with Gerard Depardieu. Readable in an afternoon. My favorite of this bunch because it's about medieval identity theft.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:12 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another vote for both Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser especially if you're an anglophile.
posted by deborah at 5:09 PM on April 14, 2012

I really enjoyed Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, a totally absorbing history of astronomy, with a novelist's attention to the fascinating details of the lived of his subjects, chiefly: Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo. Highly recommended, and still (barely) in print.
posted by Philemon at 5:17 PM on April 14, 2012

Here's a link to a previous comment of mine illustrating why I find the 11-volume History of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant thoroughly delightful.

I am also a fan of practically anything published under the Pelican imprint (the ones I'm thinking of are thinnish paperbacks with blue covers or borders), but your mileage may vary.

Thanks for asking this - I'm saving the thread for my own reference.
posted by kristi at 6:14 PM on April 14, 2012

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb is totally fascinating.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:26 PM on April 14, 2012

I read The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt recently, in which the author attributes the birth of the Renaissance to the unearthing of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things in the early 1400s by a curious papal scribe.

Among other things, I learned with fascination about how ancient Rome bled into the Middle Ages, ancient book-making techniques (which is way more interesting than it sounds), and dirty jokes told in the papal court. Greenblatt took his merry time getting to his point, and in the end I don't know that I was even convinced of his argument -- but it was such a detailed and affectionate journey that I enjoyed it nonetheless.

For what it's worth, it instilled in me an obsession for European history from 410-1400, so there's that.
posted by aintthattheway at 8:58 PM on April 14, 2012

I can't recommend Rick Perlstein's Nixonland highly enough. It's just cracklingly good, and I say that as someone who almost never has the patience for books of this length and depth. Perlstein's research is just unbelievably thorough, and you can practically smell Richard Nixon through the pages.

To frame the book, Perlstein starts out with a simple observation: In 1964, the country experienced one of the biggest Democratic landslides of all time. Just two elections later, in 1972, the country experienced one of the biggest Republican landslides of all time. How did things change so quickly and so extensively? Perlstein posits that Nixon was both an exemplar of the fearful, angry reaction to the social upheaval of the 60s—and also a master manipulator of those fearful, angry reactionaries (in large part because he was himself one).

And he makes his case quite convincingly. When he talks about university protests, you feel like you're right there on campus. When he talks about the machinations at the party conventions, it's as though you're on the convention floor—or better yet, backstage in the smoke-filled rooms. It's really quite amazing stuff.

And also, one area of his focus (which is often left out of or elided in the conventional narrative) is on the conservative counter-movements of the decade, which were important in helping Nixon rise to power. For all our focus on the Vietnam protest movement, Nixon won—twice—and didn't end US involvement in the war until his second term. There was a strong political and social movement on Nixon's side, and Perlstein explores it thoroughly.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:25 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I stumbled across a book called The Armada at a used book store, which I purchased because the jacket proclaimed it was Pulitzer-nominated, I think. This was years ago, but I remember thoroughly enjoying it.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:49 AM on April 15, 2012

It's not a book but I am really enjoying the NY Times blog's Disunion series about the American Civil War.
posted by srboisvert at 12:14 PM on April 15, 2012

Roger Crowley's "1453" and "Empires of the Sea" are both fascinating and thrilling. The first is a tale about the Conquest/Fall o Constantinople and the second is a similar Ottoman vs Christian tale about the Seige of Malta. He has a new one out about the Venetian sea empire I'm excited to read.
posted by yeti at 12:41 PM on April 15, 2012

The Cold War by John Gaddis is a very well-written and digestible history of the Cold War. Highly recommended as an introduction to the topic.
posted by Cpt. The Mango at 1:41 PM on April 15, 2012

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago by Mike Royko is fantastic.
posted by SisterHavana at 2:49 PM on April 15, 2012

nthing Antonia Fraser (especially her biography of Marie Antoinette) and Alison Weir.

Also, I read Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen by Nancy Rubin a few years ago and was amazed at how much I loved it. She lead a fascinating life, and Rubin did a great job of making her come alive.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 8:27 PM on April 15, 2012

A different vein then most of the books mentioned but interesting still, one of my favorite reads of last few years is Boozehound:On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits by Jason Wilson. It is very approachable and entertaining, anyone who enjoys a good cocktail now and then will enjoy it.
posted by OoOoNoZombies at 1:26 PM on April 17, 2012

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage is a gripping history of the telegraph.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:06 AM on April 18, 2012

I don't exactly remember it being written with 'warmth', but I found Guns, Germs, and Steel to be very informative, incredibly in-depth and fascinating, while still keeping an easy to follow narrative style that explains semi-complex scientific terms in understandable lay-language.
posted by Evilspork at 11:21 AM on April 19, 2012

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa is a very humanly written book set as an interesting and engaging narrative that is still pretty profoundly relevant today.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:23 AM on April 20, 2012

I've always been fascinated by late 17th century England in general (interesting times!), and the early days of the Royal Society in particular.

Lisa Jardine's "Ingenious Pursuits", and John Gribbin's "The Fellowship" give good, readable accounts of those days. I also found Jardine's biography of Hooke a fascinating read: he does tend to get overlooked sometimes. Peyps was also writing his famous diary at the time, and Claire Tomalin's "The Unequaled Self" is worth a read for a flavour of the time.

But if you'd prefer a semi (science) fictional account of those days, you can't really go wrong with Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. [I] [II] [III]. Ian Pears' "An Instance of the Fingerpost" covers similar ground, but not quite so extensively.
posted by nailest at 5:53 PM on April 21, 2012

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage is really fascinating. Also, dude, they had a lot of sex. I found the accounts of their courtship particularly interesting, but the whole book is fascinating and gives a glimpse of a marriage that was first private, and then of national interest; that was blessed by children and tortured by their deaths; that was between two sensitive people who loved each other deeply but were both deeply flawed. I mean it's really -- it's just so good.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:03 PM on April 24, 2012

Coming back to this thread with a suggestion for a book I am in the midst of reading: Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August. I think it has almost exactly what you want, as long as you are interested in military history. "Warmth and genuine interest for the human players within them?" Oh, you bet. Tuchman spends a lot of time trying to get inside the minds of the various players responsible for leading us into World War I—what they were thinking, and what motivated them.

"Well-researched and includ[es] many interesting facts and details?" And then some. Tuchman's scholarship is extraordinary and contains tons of fascinating facts and details, plus some truly remarkable quotes—some which will make you laugh and others (many, many others) which will make you shake your head in disbelief at the extraordinary extent of human folly.

Also, since you are currently interested in Russian and Japanese history, obviously as you'd imagine, Russia plays a key role in any book on the leadup to and first month of WWI. Japan also shows up now and again, partly in the context of some of the backstory involving the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 (right in your sweet spot!), and also because of its role in WWI itself. About halfway through the book so far & really loving it (even if it makes me want to sob for humanity).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:32 AM on April 28, 2012

Ditto Sarah Vowell and Bill Bryson. Great thread!
posted by shelle at 2:34 PM on May 19, 2012

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