Refresher History Books for Dummies?
August 22, 2012 10:58 AM   Subscribe

What are your favorite US/World/European history books to re-educate a woefully forgetful 23-year-old mind?

I had pretty mediocre history classes throughout middle school/high school and didn't absorb a lot of specifics. I know generally what order Big Events happened in, but I don't remember which U.S. presidents did what, or why the Vietnam War happened, or who was on which side during World War I.

(I know. Awful.)

I'm currently reading through Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the World and really enjoying it. (I'm in the middle of Asian History right now, Volume II.) I'll tackle Cartoon History of the U.S. next.

I like funny/memorable tellings of history/historical events, like Hark! A Vagrant-style. It's hard for me to sit down with, say, a Wikipedia page of presidents and absorb their years in office and major accomplishments just by reading a list. I enjoy reading stories. Even better if it's a novel that is historically accurate, because it seems to stick better in my brain than straight-up lecture-style nonfiction prose. I've been learning a lot about the Cold War recently by reading Le Carre-ish stuff, and that's a lot of fun.

What other books/novels/resources do you recommend?

(Oh, and I work in a bookstore, so I have tons of material available to me. I just want to know which are your favorites before I just pluck blindly from the History shelves.)
posted by wintersonata9 to Education (25 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
E.H. Gombrich: A Little History of the World.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:04 AM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Daniel Boorstin's books: The Creators, The Discoverers and The Seekers are my go-to recommendations for people who want to jump into world history with both feet. I wouldn't call them knee-slapping funny, but if you like seeing the connections between one invention or innovation and the next, he's tough to beat.
posted by jquinby at 11:06 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn is a staple. Sometimes a bit dry, but the information you will get from reading this book will be far superior than you will get from any history textbook in any classroom. I say this as someone who is in school to be a teacher.
posted by ruhroh at 11:10 AM on August 22, 2012

A People's History of the United States

From the notes: Known for its lively, clear prose as well as its scholarly research, A People's History of the United States is the only volume to tell America's story from the point of view of -- and in the words of -- America's women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers.
posted by arnicae at 11:11 AM on August 22, 2012

whoops! Great minds and all that, ruhroh.
posted by arnicae at 11:12 AM on August 22, 2012

Timothy Brook, Vermeer's Hat, is an engaging work on globalization from the point of view of the 17th century.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:15 AM on August 22, 2012

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer is one of the most engaging history books I've ever read.
posted by something something at 11:17 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thaddeus Russell is the perfect antidote to worthy, history as spinach books:
A Renegade History of the United States.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:18 AM on August 22, 2012

You might like Sarah Vowell, too. I found one of her more recent ones (I think it was The Wordy Shipmates) kind of dry but the early ones are good.
posted by something something at 11:25 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more: Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis on the main figures of the American Revolution. The stories - many of which you would never get in a class - are fascinating stuff.
posted by jquinby at 11:26 AM on August 22, 2012

I am also looking for history books to help rectify my girlfriend's lackadaisical study habits. I had seen A People's History of the United States posted elsewhere and was intrigued, but a post from earlier today has steered me away from it and am still searching for recommendations.
posted by 6ATR at 11:48 AM on August 22, 2012

For novels about WWII, and events leading up to it, I recommend The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance. Anything by Alan Furst is good for the inter-war period; if you want to understand the Spanish Civil War, try his Night Soldiers.

PS I still don't know why the Vietnam War happened (and I lived through it)

posted by Rash at 11:49 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cultural Literacy is good for little blurbs of information you should be familiar with. One of my high school math teachers used to pick random things from this book, put them on the board, do a survey of raised hands to see who knew what they were, and invariably be disappointed in the results.
posted by Fig at 12:11 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

The Burma Chronicles, Pyongyang, Shenzen: A Travelogue from China, and Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy DeLisle - while not history, still fascinating looks at cultures I was not familiar with.

Seconding Manhunt!
posted by stampsgal at 12:30 PM on August 22, 2012

An Incomplete Education, for lots and lots of things, including history.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:41 PM on August 22, 2012

If you want good old fashioned big picture narrative history Will and Ariel Durant's impressively broad The Story of Civilization will get you up through Napoleon.

Also have you considered using a timeline to help you contextualize everything? The British Library has a good one.

See this old AskMe for more good ideas.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:29 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the world history front, a great survey of African history is Christopher Ehret's The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800.
posted by anansi at 4:42 PM on August 22, 2012

I expect that this won't go down well with this crowd, but for a clearly written history of the world in the twentieth century, you might try Paul Johnson's Modern Times. Look at it this way - if his conservatism irritates you, that can only serve to push you to other sources to refute what you don't like.
posted by BWA at 6:04 PM on August 22, 2012

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is a three volume picaresque novel that may stir some excitement and has a lot of great detail. It's set in the 17th and 18th century, all over the dang world. Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon is set against two surveying expeditions undertaken by the titular characters, and enjoys the additional virtue of being the best novel there is. Both ought to scratch the Hark! A V. itch.

The Killer Angels is an easy novel centered on the Battle of Gettysburg. Shara's son wrote some other novels, trying to capitalize on his dad's name recognition -- I haven't read those, however.
posted by samofidelis at 7:52 PM on August 22, 2012

It isn't a book, but I've been really enjoying Crash Course World History on YouTube.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 9:26 PM on August 22, 2012

Europe: A History by Norman Davies

It's massive, fair enough, but the writing style is incredibly engaging, it looks at the historical flow of events rather than listing a series of dates where something of import happened and has a series of vignettes concerning individuals who, although not necessarily famous or important, experienced the effect of what is being written about.

Can't recommend it enough. Even though it's massive.
posted by fatfrank at 6:44 AM on August 23, 2012

Seconding The Story of Civilization and linking to an earlier comment of mine on why I find it thoroughly delightful.

Also, David McCullough's books, especially 1776 and his biographies of Roosevelt and Truman.
posted by kristi at 1:16 PM on August 23, 2012

Making of the English Working Class; Religion and the Decline of Magic - two shelf-bending classics of English social history that should keep you occupied for months. Well written, plenty of quotes from contemporary sources and touching on issues that are of course relevant to human society on the course to the modern anywhere, despite being rooted in a specific locale.
For novels, you could have fun with the (free to download) historical novels of Italian anarcho-literati collective Wu Ming.
posted by Abiezer at 3:28 PM on August 23, 2012

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