Learn me about the past.
December 17, 2013 8:25 AM   Subscribe

History Buffs of MeFi: Please share your most favorite, most compelling sources. Movies, books, graphic novels, fiction - everything is fair game.

My interest in learning about world and U.S. history is growing and I would like to feed it. I studied Anthropology in college, so I tend to prefer sources that give real depth to the people and the culture, rather than a dry 3rd-person overview.

Things I have enjoyed: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Band of Brothers. Full Metal Jacket. Maus. Persepolis. Anything by Joe Sacco. Kon-Tiki.

Any topic is fine, but my interests skew a bit toward pre-1900s and ancient cultures, away from contemporary wars.
posted by gnutron to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I thought that Bruce Catton's trilogy about the Civil War was excellent.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:44 AM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm reading Charles Mann's 1493 now, after reading 1491, and love them both. 1491 is a lively history of what the Americas were like before, and immediately after, their encounters with Europeans, while 1493 examines the effect of that encounter on the world at large. I'm reading a section now on how the Spanish mining of silver completely wrecked the Chinese economy, and it is fascinating, especially for someone like me who is not really familiar with Asian history.
posted by mittens at 8:49 AM on December 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

An acquaintance of mine loved the Cartoon History of the Universe books.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:50 AM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

You noted Band of Brothers above. I take it you mean the mini-series.
You should read the book. The book is so much better.
Also, D-Day, by the same author is great. Both these of these books are important historical non-fiction books. They are both VERY readable. They also focus on the average foot soldier, not on generals.

I would also highly recommend With the Old Breed. This is a primary source, written by US Marine from his notes that he made during combat. This book gives a shocking and powerful description of World War II combat. There is no glory in this book. It is raw and very compelling.
posted by Flood at 9:03 AM on December 17, 2013

Jeff Shaara's series set roughly during the Civil War, starting with Gods and Generals. His novels are very dense and tend to focus on military history -- which is usually not my thing *at all* -- but they are extremely well-written, seem extremely well-researched, and will stick with you.

David Liss's series set in the 1600s Europe/England, starting with A Conspiracy of Paper. It's about a Jewish boxer in 1650s London, who becomes interested in the new kinds of financial markets that are starting up at the time, and gets involved in a mystery. Really fun, and I think Liss was actually an academic before becoming a writer; for what it's worth, his books seemed to me to be very well researched, too.

And, if you like historical fiction, there's always Cold Mountain.
posted by rue72 at 9:04 AM on December 17, 2013

I recently read Ian Mortimer's The Fears of Henry IV (English history), and enjoyed it tremendously : meticulously researched and written in an engaging voice. I especially liked that he explained his reasoning step by step: for example, when he says that Henry and his first wife, Mary de Bohun, loved each other, he details all the primary sources that led him to that conclusion. He's also very careful not to apply 21st century sensibilities onto medieval people.
posted by snakeling at 9:05 AM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I read The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser as a teenager and loved it - for me, it is the definitive account of their lives. More recently, I have really enjoyed Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the first two books in her fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell.

I also very much recommend Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and The Albigensian Crusade by Jonathan Sumption. They each take the subject of the Cathar heresy in the Occitan in southern France and complement each other nicely. Where Montaillou details the live of an Occitan village in tremendous detail, thanks to meticulous Inquisition records, The Albigensian Crusade deals more with the politics and martial history of the crusade itself.
posted by daisyk at 9:12 AM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Heroic Mexico is really, really, really good.
posted by steinsaltz at 10:03 AM on December 17, 2013

First-hand accounts FTW. The Conquest of New Spain and With the Old Breed are favorites that leap to mind.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:03 AM on December 17, 2013

I enjoyed Warren Ellis' graphic novel Crécy a great deal. Seconding the Mantel books, too.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 10:26 AM on December 17, 2013

Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is an all encompassing look at world history. You'll have to contend with Bryson's folksy writing style, which I know grates on some people's nerves, but I don't mind it. It's not a terribly intellectual read, but it is interesting and fun. "The Emperor of All Maladies", by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a "biography of cancer" that delves into the history of all aspects of the disease. Utterly absorbing and well written.
posted by but no cigar at 10:26 AM on December 17, 2013

David McCullough's The Path Between The Seas recounts the construction of the Panama Canal. He takes an event where we all know how it ends (hey, they built a canal!) and turns it into a page-turner. I was up waaaay to late reading it, because I couldn't put it down.

Seconding 1491 and 1493.
posted by ambrosia at 11:09 AM on December 17, 2013

Robert K. Massie's two volumes, "Dreadnought" and "Castles of Steel" cover the naval affairs of Britain and Germany through the 19th century. Dreadnought covers a great deal of ground from the 19 century, without too much depth, concentrating on the foreign relations with a Naval Focus, leading up to WWI. On the British side, it covers the conversion of the Navy from coal to fuel, the last of the wooden ships being replaced with new, advanced steel ships (including the titular battleship). The German side included the unification of Prussia, Bismarck's German Empire. Both sides have their African and other colonial

Castles covers the length and aftermath of WWI, naval conflicts only; Dreadnought is a captivating buildup to WWI as if it's a massive row of dominoes, and Castles watches them fall.

On another topic, I really really loved Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage," about Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and to a lesser degree Thomas Jefferson, covering the events leading up to the L&C Expedition as well as the length of the Expedition itself.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:21 AM on December 17, 2013

If you're into British history, anything by Edward Rutherford (London; Sarum etc) you will love. The stories are of course fact based for the big events and fiction for the family- level stuff. The story lines run through families, from antiquity to nearly the present day.
posted by Gabrielosca at 11:26 AM on December 17, 2013

Gore Vidal wrote several novels that take place between the American Revolution and World War II. I enjoyed "1876" very much - it follows the presidential campaign of that year.

I would also recommend H.W. Brand's biographies of American notables like Benjamin Franklin and Aaron Burr.
posted by icemill at 11:34 AM on December 17, 2013

My partner really enjoyed reading Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher recently. The movie Jeremiah Johnson was based partly on this book. You have to read other books for the Crow, Blackfoot and Mormon perspective on this time period. (not sure what to suggest for that) But my partner really enjoyed the story from the mountain man perspective. If you like Fisher's writing style he also wrote a book on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
posted by cda at 11:44 AM on December 17, 2013

Dan Carlin has a podcast called "Hardcore History", which he does a great job of explaining historical events and eras. The episodes on the Khan empire (Wrath of the Khans) are particularly well done and very engrossing. The podcast can be found in the iTunes store.
posted by cwarmy at 12:15 PM on December 17, 2013

I was coming in to mention Dan Carlin. I can't recommend the Hardcore History podcasts enough. He is brilliant at making history engaging and interesting. They are also available on his website if you aren't an iTunes person.
posted by COD at 12:23 PM on December 17, 2013

The mention of podcasts reminded me of Back Story with the American History Guys, the radio program and podcast.
posted by apartment dweller at 12:38 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy the novels of Patrick O'Brian, about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, coupled with the works of N.A.M. Rodger on the history of the British Navy.
posted by ambrosia at 12:47 PM on December 17, 2013

For Historical fiction set in ancient times, Robert Graves' I Claudius and Gore Vidal's Creation are both really fascinating.

The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon is a classic that may seem a bit old-fashioned by modern standards, but is still pretty engaging.

If you have plenty of time to spare, Will & Ariel Durant's compilation The Story of Civilization has lots of pages about mostly Western European society and politics up to the time of Napoleon, described in detail with an elegant style and a progressive view.
posted by ovvl at 2:17 PM on December 17, 2013

Christopher Hibbert does an amazing job of connecting political and art/architectural history. I was going to recommend Cities and Civilizations but it looks like it's out of print; any of his "biographies" of cities are also stupendous.
posted by jaguar at 5:15 PM on December 17, 2013

"The Perfect War : Technowar in Vietnam" By James William Gibson. An engrossing account of America's disastrous defeat in Vietnam. It raises difficult questions about the motives of war managers and about the effectiveness of any military conflict in the modern era.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 3:51 AM on January 18, 2014

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