Most enjoyable books for the world history neophyte
September 26, 2013 7:26 AM   Subscribe

My wife & I share an interest in history, but where I had a succession of quite good history teachers, she did not. We're many years out of college now, but she wants to broaden her knowledge through (relatively) easy reads.

Areas she has demonstrated interest in:
Pre-WWII European
Napoleonic Wars
Pre-colonial sub-saharan African
Wartime espionage

Areas I believe she'd have interest in:
Late Middle Ages/early Renaissance
Colonial Canada
Maurya Empire

The only area she specifically says is uninteresting to her is post-Revolutionary War U.S. history. Most anything else is a possibility.

Other considerations:
The more un-put-downable, the better—whether due to fun, thrills, horror, amazement, profundity, whatever. For instance, she speedily finished Laurence Bergreen's Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu and enjoyed it despite disliking its occasional moments of assumption and fawning.

Books more likely to be found at our local libraries greatly preferred.
posted by Z. Aurelius Fraught to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
Isaac Asimov's Chronology of the World - I still re-read this on the regular in bits and pieces. It's a timeline of world history, broken down into small articles of a few paragraphs. You can flip it open to any page, read for five minutes, and walk away knowing something new. Amazing book.

1491 by Charles C. Mann - wow, what a great book on precolumbian civilization, and it's horrifying destruction by plague, almost overnight.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:40 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

James Burke's books are great historical reads, making connections between disparate bits of history to show lines of influence all across time and space. Especially great for a history neophyte as you end up skipping lightly through many times and places, which for myself led to lots of topics I wanted to learn more about.
My first James Burke was The Pinball Effect, which definitely gave me a taste for more.

For wartime espionage, one of my favorite books of all time is A Man Called Intrepid, about William Stephenson, largely considered to be the real-life inspiration for Bond, and far more amazing than his fictional counterpart.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:43 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

If she might be interested in podcasts I can't recommend the Hardcore History podcasts enough.
posted by COD at 7:46 AM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I just found this great list of history recommended reading on Reddit.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:53 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

For plagues: The Great Mortality by John Kelly, and The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. The former is about the "Black Death" of the 14th century, while the latter is about an outbreak of cholera in 19th century London.

For general medieval history, The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer covers many parts of the world: Europe, Asia, parts of Africa and the Americas. (This may be outside the scope of what you're looking for, but it's a pretty decent read that includes a lot of world civilizations, which I liked.) The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt might be interesting for the "birth of the Renaissance" aspect.

Finally, this book is about one aspect of society during the Napoleonic Wars: The Widow Clicquot by Tilar Mazzeo. Kind of a lightweight topic, but enjoyable to read about. (If you like these kinds of "history of some random item" sorts of books, that is.)
posted by Janta at 7:57 AM on September 26, 2013

Late Middle Ages/early Renaissance
Inheritance of Rome is tremendous (both in execution and in size, I'm afraid)

Colonial Canada
American Colonies covers more ground (ie, the eventual US and Latin America too) but well worth it.

Rats, Lice and History is quite entertaining, though dated. Plagues and Peoples is more up to date but I have not read it yet.
posted by shothotbot at 8:04 AM on September 26, 2013

L'Estrange Fruit's reddit link is a great find!

Not sure if Modern history falls into the areas you mentioned, but Ramachandra Guha's "India after Gandhi" - a magnificent work on Indian history from Independence (1947) till recent times is a great read. Reading it gave me a completely new perspective on how India's leaders worked to shape a fractious country into the world's largest democracy - Link

Another book that was fun to read and equally absorbing is "Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia" by Orlando Figes
posted by theobserver at 8:18 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Gombrich's A Little History of the World was written for children, but I found it interesting, engaging, and fast reading it as an adult.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 8:20 AM on September 26, 2013

She might really enjoy the Cartoon History of the Universe books. (I regret giving mine away.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:34 AM on September 26, 2013

Jack Weatherford's The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire is a great read, IMO.

Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia is about much derring-do in the Central Asian lands sandwiched between Russia, India and China in the XIXth century.

John Keay's book on the history of China is a lighter read than the one about India, as he has the good graces to skip the details about the least interesting dynasties and goes to the colorful points.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen R. Platt is about one of the least known and more horrific conflicts of the XIXth century.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes is about the interplay between scientists and literates in the late XVIIIth/ early XIXth centuries, and an interesting read about colorful people from Caroline Herschel to Humphry Davies and Mary Shelley. There's also a good biography of Mary Shelley, The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo, that retreads some of that same content from the other side, too.
posted by sukeban at 12:19 PM on September 26, 2013

Also, I trust you already know the Crash Course youtube channel, yes? The World History course is *awesome* and has bibliographies of each subject.
posted by sukeban at 12:22 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would recommend having A People's History of the World around the house. It's not necessarily one you would read cover to cover, but it's really helpful to flip to the chapter about the topic you're otherwise exploring in order to put it in context.
posted by leitmotif at 4:46 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Russia: Simon Sebag Montefiore is an engaging writer. I also enjoyed Molotov's Magic Lantern by Rachel Polonsky and Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. Also, from someone in the thick of it, Vasily Grossman's The Road is a good collection of essays and short stories WRT WW2, USSR, the Shoah, and the novel Everything Flows has extensive historical perspective on the life (and fate) of people in the USSR (and of course "Life & Fate" itself is an amazing book, if something more of a commitment).
posted by chill at 12:15 AM on September 27, 2013

Jonathan Spence is famous for writing these types of books about Chinese history. He's a very well respected historian, but has a great ability to write history in an engaging, relatable way. He's written the standard for intro to Chinese history courses (the Search for Modern China), but also several smaller books that are pretty enjoyable on top of being well researched. She might start with the Death of Woman Wang.

I also enjoy reading memoirs and autobiographies as a way to get a personal foothold in historical times. When I TAed an intro to Asian history course, the prof assigned the Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, which was a page-turner for me, and for the class. It is a really insightful look at the early half of 20th century Japan.
posted by Curiosity Delay at 1:05 PM on September 27, 2013

I'm nearly finished with 1066: The Year of the Conquest and I'm really enjoying it. It makes me want to look for everything else the author (David Howarth) has written.

Seconding Founding Brothers and adding 1776 by David McCullough, who writes great history.

Also, Galileo's Daughter is very interesting. I'm a big fan of Dava Sobel, who also wrote Longitude and A More Perfect Heaven (about Copernicus). ... I'm always tempted to read about history through books about Big Important Eras, but the more I read biographies, the more I find things hold my attention, and the more the general facts stick after I've finished the book.
posted by kristi at 1:56 PM on September 28, 2013

You might also find some good leads among the Pulitzer winners in History (for example, The Americans: The Democratic Experience by Daniel J. Boorstin), Biography (at least a couple of McCulloughs on there), and even General Non-Fiction (which includes Guns, Germs, and Steel and a couple of early Barbara Tuchman books). There's also the American History Book Prize, which includes the excellent Team of Rivals.
posted by kristi at 2:08 PM on September 28, 2013

OH! I can't believe I forgot to mention the excellent 11-volume Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant.

Here's an old AskMe answer of mine, quoting one of my favorite passages to illustrate why I find the writing and storytelling so engaging.

You should definitely be able to find that at your library - and if you have local friends-of-the-library sales, you can probably find the set for a few dollars each.
posted by kristi at 2:14 PM on September 28, 2013

I agree with kristi - I really enjoyed 1066: The Year of the Conquest. And even though military history would not normally be my first choice, I went on from that to read David Howarth's other books, about Trafalgar and Waterloo, and really enjoyed them, too. But 1066 is my favorite of the bunch.
posted by jeri at 9:17 PM on September 28, 2013

Oh, and for a recent Pulitzer prize, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is an amazing book, too.
posted by sukeban at 1:15 AM on September 30, 2013

Renaissance books:
The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari (Translated by J.C. Bondanella and P. Bondanella) [written during the Renaissance]
Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda

Napoleonic Europe:
Europe Under Napoleon by Michael Broers [textbooky, but good]

Good, easy, fun reads:
The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis [a very good, thematic primer on the Cold War]
Schnitzler's Century: The Making of Middle Class Europe by Peter Gay [my favorite history, and I've read/studied a lot of history]
Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins [my second favorite history]
A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Phillip Blom

Challenging but super fascinating (at least to me, you can take them or leave them):
The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun (Translated by Franz Rosenthal) [this is more of a historiography, but from the perspective of 14c. Moorish Spaniard statesman schooled in the philosophy of Moorish Aristotelians -- so it is late Middle Ages, but just not white-European late Middle Ages]
Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman Vol. 1 and 2 by Otto von Bismarck [the most talented and successful statesman of 19c Europe, Unifier of Germany... "Politics is the art of the possible."]
posted by Groundhog Week at 12:58 PM on September 30, 2013

Pretty much anything by Barbara Tuchman, but especially The Guns of August which covers Europe before the first World War and the outbreak of the war and A Distant Mirror, about 14th Century Europe.
posted by alms at 8:23 AM on October 2, 2013

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