Amazon's recommendations just don't cut it these days
October 17, 2005 10:51 AM   Subscribe

For no particular reason, I am looking to compile a list of what people consider to be the best history books available. I'm looking for non-fiction, but I'll take anything. I am particularly interested in the opinion of people who've studied history at a graduate level, but if you're just an armchair historian, like myself, I still want to hear what you have to say.

I am specifically interested in Age of Sail and later histories covering North America and Europe.
posted by feloniousmonk to Education (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I liked Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. It won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Long read, though. It's index is longer than most books.
posted by driveler at 10:56 AM on October 17, 2005

For a history of the French Revolution:

Simon Schama

Arm Chair but loved the book
posted by leafwoman at 10:56 AM on October 17, 2005

The Measure of Reality was a frequently mentioned work by one of my history profs (then again, he knew the author). Regardless, when I picked it up, I found it to be a pretty good read.

Also, anything by Keegan is good if you like military history.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:05 AM on October 17, 2005

Low Life by Luc Sante
posted by jonmc at 11:06 AM on October 17, 2005

I'm a classicist and political scientist, not an historian. But Thucydides and Herodotus are the two first 'historians' in our sense-- the english word comes from the title of Herodotus' book, "Historia," or "Inquiries"-- and are often regarded as some of the best. I don't know what you mean by "the Age of Sail," but both historians consider the era when Greek states began to be in close contact with each other and a civilization began to rise. They're outstanding, I think, because they try to record the past in order to teach people in the future something about the world and about human nature; they aren't simply chronologers, but thinkers about what the past meant. Herodotus, who came first, struggles with what the mythic past of each nation means for them, and how that causes them to act in the world; Thucydides speaks of the Peloponnesian war, a great war that happened in his lifetime between the newer democracies and the older states in Greece.
posted by koeselitz at 11:19 AM on October 17, 2005

If you're interested in understanding or learning more about the causes and results of America’s major wars (pre-colonial to post-cold war), as well as the positive and adverse effects the American military has had on politics, society and economic advancement, I'd recommend Maslowki's "For the Common Defense"
posted by forforf at 11:20 AM on October 17, 2005

For Age of Sail buffs, this is essential.

Any particular aspect of the sail era you're interested in? Depending on what you'd like to learn about, I can recommend other titles. My areas of knowledge include whaling, North Atlantic fishing schooners and early draggers, and sail training.
posted by Miko at 11:35 AM on October 17, 2005

I really enjoyed Ronald Takaki's Strangers From A Different Shore.

One doesn't hear as much about the history of Asians in America (at least, not if one grows up in a place where Asians don't tend to settle), and I found it to be deeply fascinating.
posted by padraigin at 11:37 AM on October 17, 2005

not to be boring, but - Gibbons/ Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire.
Also Shirer/ Rise & Fall of the Third Reich.
posted by mdn at 11:45 AM on October 17, 2005

Best answer: I'm purely the armchair-level buff, but after becoming utterly hooked on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, I have found N.A.M. Rodger's historical accounts of the British Navy, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy and The Command of the Ocean to be fascinating.

I haven't yet gotten around to The Safeguard of the Sea but it's on my list.
posted by ambrosia at 11:46 AM on October 17, 2005

Response by poster: I'm particulary interested in British imperial naval history, sort of the Aubrey and Maturin stuff, but, you know, true.

forforf, that is definitely something I am interested in, but it's the less "popular" conflicts that have been fascinating to me lately. In North America, King Philip's War and the French and Indian Wars are good examples. The Crimean War in Europe is another example, along with the essentially incessant conflicts in the Balkans.

Thanks to everyone else for the recommendations, I am going to be doing some digging tonight!
posted by feloniousmonk at 11:49 AM on October 17, 2005

"The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstein, and you can learn a lot that is factual from Neal Stephenson's Barouque Cycle...
posted by vito90 at 11:51 AM on October 17, 2005

On the William Shirer tip, the various volumes of his memoirs are incredible--he was more or less present for the entire Twentieth Century as it unfolded: the "less popular conflicts" as well as the big ones.

I was particularly interested in his telling of his friendship with a prince of Afghanistan, and his visit there in the first half of the century, having only knowledge of the country as ravaged by one superpower or another.
posted by padraigin at 12:23 PM on October 17, 2005

I'm rather shocked that no-one has yet mentioned Ferdinand Braudel's masterwork: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century .
His trilogy is (in my opinion) the most important work of popular history to be written since Gibbon. It has an absolutely essential place on any serious student of history's bookshelf.
posted by Chrischris at 1:27 PM on October 17, 2005

The island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto.
A history of Dutch Manhattan and makes the case that the easygoing, mercantile, freewheeling Dutch left their legacy long after New Amsterdam became New York and that legacy made New York what it is today.

Fascinating read.
posted by xetere at 3:14 PM on October 17, 2005

David Glantz's Magnetic Mountain is awesome. I want to be able to research and write like that. Henry Glassie's Art and Life in Bangledesh, though not strictly a history, is one of the most beautifully written books ever.
posted by jmgorman at 3:18 PM on October 17, 2005

I am going to second Lies My Teacher Told Me
posted by maelanchai at 3:24 PM on October 17, 2005

Bernad DeVoto's trilogy of the settling of the American West:

The Course of Empire
Across The Wide Missouri
Year of Decision: 1846

posted by pgoes at 4:35 PM on October 17, 2005

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a good natural history/science historical survey.

James Burke has always had a take on history that I've enjoyed: it's threads that twist and intertwine as one thing leads to another. One of his more recent books The Pinball Effect has low-tech hyperlinks in the margins (basically references that take you from one thing to another, encouraging you to read the book in a non-linear manner.
posted by plinth at 5:01 PM on October 17, 2005

Check out Born Losers, one of the easiest and most enjoyable academic history reads I've seen in a long time
posted by allen.spaulding at 5:28 PM on October 17, 2005

I'll throw in another recco not for specific books, but for the compact Good Reading: A Guide for Serious Readers, a periodically updated, subject-categorized road map to some of the best material out there.
posted by dhartung at 5:53 PM on October 17, 2005

Paul Johnson's Modern Times. A remarkable hx of the 20th century.
posted by madstop1 at 6:32 PM on October 17, 2005

i personally like historical biographies. both Truman and John Adams by david mccollough are excellent.
posted by brandz at 7:29 PM on October 17, 2005

The problem with being a graduate student in history is that I could recommend many good history books, but never anything I would call "best". Even books I really like I would not call best, because good academic history books tend to be fairly narrow, and might be best for a certain topic, but couldn't possibly be considered a "best" history. The best survey of the Reformation or the best introduction to English economic history really isn't the same as "best history book available". It would be like asking "what is the best physics theory available" or "what's your favorite psychology article", complicated even further by the fact that there simply isn't such a thing as a united field of history. My husband is a historian - we never read the same thing. There is no canon, and it would be silly to insist on one.

Also, most academic history books that non academics read are either very accessible (like Natalie Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre) or fit into something topical or exciting, most often recent or military history. It does make the rest of the historians somewhat bitter to see that military history (which is a small, though of course still significant, academic field) completely drowns out the rest of history in the bookstore. But would you really want to read what an academic historian in social or economic history reads? I'd say one of the best history books I've read would be D.C. Cameron on the English economy in the early modern period, but it's not exactly bedtime reading.

But if you are serious and want to read history - here are some of the better books I have come across lately. I don't promise that they are easy to read or exciting. Okay, the Eire book is easy to read (especially considering the heavy theology content), but he is a remarkably good writer.

The economy of England, 1450-1750 / D. C. Coleman.

War against the idols : the reformation of worship from Erasmus to Calvin / Carlos M.N. Eire.

Beneath the cross : Catholics and Huguenots in sixteenth-century Paris / Barbara B. Diefendorf. Hatred and prejudice examined.

Times of feast, times of famine: a history of climate since the year 1000. / Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. No actual feasts or famines, but an excellent discussion of the methodological challenge of reconstructing historic climate.

The European Reformation. /Euan Cameron. Best introduction to the theological issues of the Reformation, though overly focussed on Germany for a general textbook.

Okay - I have thought of a "best history book".

1066 and All That, by W.C. Seller and R.J. Yeatman. My husband and I both have copies. So does our flatmate, and he's a mathematician.
posted by jb at 7:47 PM on October 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The difficulty with answering this question is that there are so many different ways of writing good history. There are pioneering works of history (like Alice Clark's Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century) that have opened up entirely new fields of study, but have now been superseded by the scholarship they helped to create. There are highly individual books (like Maurice Cowling's Religion and Public Doctrine) that contain a lot of brilliant insights, but are also deeply flawed. There are works of superb technical craftsmanship (like Betty Behrens' Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War) that are widely admired by other historians, but are never going to attract a wide readership. None of these would find a place on a list of 'best history books'. But all of them, in their different ways, have been highly influential.

Also -- and this can't be stressed too strongly -- the best history books don't stand alone. They build on the work of others -- often citing hundreds of other books and articles -- and they are part of an ongoing process of discussion and debate. This means that they come with a kind of built-in obsolescence -- i.e. they help to propel the discussion forwards, and within a few years they have (quite rightly) been left behind as the discussion moves on in new directions.

But you asked for recommendations .. so here are some of the books that would be on my own personal 'top twenty'. It is an unashamedly personal list, and the books I've chosen don't have much in common, except that they have all helped to change the way I think about history, and have all become part of my permanent mental furniture.

Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World
Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs
Richard Cobb, Death in Paris
Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo
David Newsome, The Parting of Friends
Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother
Don McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts
Anthony Grafton, Commerce with the Classics
Vic Gatrell, The Hanging Tree
David Kynaston, The City of London

If you like British imperial naval history, then you might enjoy Arthur Marder's From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, perfect reading for a winter's night when you're tucked up comfortably in bed with the wind howling outside. But don't just follow my recommendations -- go out and choose your own favourites, which will probably be completely different.

plinth: one of his more recent books has low-tech hyperlinks in the margins -- heh, I can remember when we used to call those 'footnotes'.

*waves to jb*
posted by verstegan at 4:28 AM on October 20, 2005 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hi verstegan! You said sort of what I was trying to, only were much less cranky and gave better suggestions :) I really should read Man and the Natural world.

Further imperial British navy suggestions from my husband (who wrote a 190 page thesis on the Dreadnought:
"Marder's From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow is a brilliant book: rich, authoritative and the foundation of our understanding of an entire era. It's also five voumes. If you want good bedtime reading read Massie's Dreadnought. It's way less authoritative, and he makes some mistakes, but it's just so darned fun to read. A real page turner. For the most up-to-date information in the field, read the work of Jon Tetsuro Sumida who's work on early 20th century range finders lead him into a series of discoveries which dramatically changed our understanding of the entire era. I'm a big Sumida fan. He's so cool.

"Going back to the Age of Sail, mentioned by the poster, I'm forever reccomending Femaile Tars by Susan Stark. It's a brilliant book which not only radically changes what we thought we knew about Nelson's Navy (Happy Trafalgar Day everybody! (a day late)), but also serves to prove to today's very anti-military-history historical community that military history still has fascinating, important new insights to give, and symiltaniously proves to 'old fashioned' historians that gender history doesn't have to be flakey, boring or agenda driven."
(I don't know if the original poster is still reading, but might as well keep the history discussion going)

Going back to the original question: regarding recent histories of Europe and North America - how recent? 1500-2000 ad (which includes early modern and modern)? or circa 1800-2000 (industrial revolution forward)?

If I think of this question less crankily than I originally did (sorry!), I can think of books which have very much changed my understanding of recent history or the way I think about major historical issues:
Class in Britain by David Cannadine - a remarkably clear discussion of an often very frought and complex issue, focussing on how people in Britain have thought about social structure c1750 to present (including a fascinating analysis of the class attitudes of Thatcher, Major and Blair).

Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis - a very passionate book, about globalisation, inequality and famine, but definitely worth reading, if only to have something question much of our modern self-congratulation.

Changes in the land by William Cronon - a short and well-written book on environmental change in New England in the first century of European settlement - and also how the realities of North America changed the ways that those European settlers thought about land and resources (with strong implications for the contemporary world).

God Speed the Plough by Andrew McRae - a book about elite attitudes in England towards farming - and by extension, economic development in general (including property, social policy, trade) - from the 16th to the 18th cen.
(you can tell I'm interested in economic and social history, right?) Oh, and
The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 by William McNeill. (That's only partly social history :) McNeill's world history is all very interesting, but I think his Human Web isn't as good as Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel for looking at general human development.
Following the world development line -
Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence (comparing development in Europe and China in the early modern and industrial revolution eras) is ground-breaking, and goes a long way to filling in many of the holes in Diamond's argument (which really doesn't hold past about 1500Ad).
And then there are the books which are just so fascinating and well-written everyone should read for fun:
Carlo Ginzberg, one of the best writers in Italian history, has Night Battles (about popular belief in magic and witches) and The Cheese and the Worms: the cosmology of a sixteenth century miller.

Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath - the reformation in England through the experience of a small Devon village.

The above-mentionedMartin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis.

The Holy Greyhound by Jean-Claude Schmitt - about the medieval veneration of the dog-saint Guinefort.
I would also definitely second Female Tars - excellent book.

These are pre-1800 (I like early modern and medieval history best) - but for the more modern I can think of the following books I remember really enjoying:
Round about a pound a week by Maude Reeves (?) - a contemporary book about life for working class families in early twentieth century London.

Chen Village under Mao and Deng by Anita Chan, Richard Madsen, and Jonathan Unger - about a village in south China c. 1950-1980).
(Both of these are really works of ethnography or oral history, rather than the more typical documentary history. That's definitely as adavantage of studying something more recent than the seventeenth century - there just aren't enough people alive from the Civil Wars to tell you what Cromwell was like.)
posted by jb at 5:05 AM on October 22, 2005 [2 favorites]

Oh - there were two others I thought of.

E.H. Carr and G.R. Elton both have an interesting discussions on the nature of academic history in (respectively) What is history (1961) and The practice of history (1967). Elton was responding directly to Carr (and disagrees strongly with him) - I've only read parts of each, but would guess that they would be best in tandem. Certainly books to get you thinking about what this history thing is all about, though of course there have been many subsequent and more modern theory books since.
posted by jb at 5:26 AM on October 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

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