Opinionated history books?
May 22, 2014 5:53 PM   Subscribe

I love conversing with people who know history and are sparkling, highly opinionated storytellers. Often these are foreigners or emigrants speaking about their country. They're unafraid to draw sharp, outspoken conclusions that frame major situations (e.g. that some leader was an incompetent fool or that an accident of geography is what will ensure conflict between two groups continues). What are some book equivalents of that conversational experience? They can be on any period or region. I do not want a magisterial treatise. I want a keen-eyed, slicing talk with someone really well-informed and cynical over several drinks who's gonna say what's what.
posted by shivohum to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
My Promised Land by Ari Shavitt
posted by brookeb at 5:58 PM on May 22, 2014

This Stalin book meets your description. It's supposed to be really good but I could not handle how cynical and slicing it was.
posted by johngoren at 6:08 PM on May 22, 2014

I really like The Clash of Fundamentalisms, by Tariq Ali. It gives some perspective on Muslim countries and their interactions with the west, in particular with the US, mainly in the 20th century.
posted by number9dream at 6:15 PM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cadillac Dessert, about the history of water development in the American West.
posted by carolr at 6:20 PM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

If a history of a language counts, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.
posted by wintersweet at 6:35 PM on May 22, 2014

I find James Dunnigan to be like that, and I get immense enjoyment out of reading his books because of his matter-of-fact writing style. Books where he co-authors with Albert Nofi are even better.

His book "Dirty Little Secrets" is a whole bunch of independent 1-2 page articles about various subjects, mostly military. The book, and the format, were so successful that he wrote several more like it:

Dirty Little Secrets of WWII
Dirty Little Secrets of the VietNam War
Dirty Little Secrets of the Twentieth Century

He's a very good writer but not at all pretentious. And he really does know his stuff. If you want to get a feel for his writing style, try his website.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:37 PM on May 22, 2014

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality by John Boswell is a powerful examination of social norms from the Roman Empire to the High Middle Ages. It forcefully and pointedly explodes the myth that Jesus was anti-homosexual. This is worth reading whatever your sexual preferences may be, partly because it is so well researched and well written, but also because homosexuality being a Christian sin is a powerful, though poorly informed, position in our world today.
posted by Flood at 7:15 PM on May 22, 2014

Robert D Kaplan's The ends of the Earth was like that for me, and enough people really dislike him to make it fun. I still remember a paragraph describing cities in Africa and how they swell and yes everyone is poor, but richer by far than they were back in the village.
posted by mearls at 8:54 PM on May 22, 2014

Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is like this. It's very long, so you probably won't read the whole thing, but it moves quickly (it covers a lot of ground), it's easy to skip around, and I love the writing style. It is from the 18th century though, so you have to embrace that.

Here is how it starts to give you a feel:

"In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth."

I imagine that's a bit more upbeat than what you're looking for: for something juicier: I particularly like the story of the emperor Commodus. You can read it online here
posted by rollin at 7:43 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe/Modern World series and The Cartoon History of the United States.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:25 PM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Strongly seconding Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Gibbon has a point of view and he is not afraid of speaking it.

In the same vein, you might like The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome.

"Most historians, both ancient and modern, have viewed the Late Republic of Rome through the eyes of its rich nobility. They regard Roman commoners as a parasitic mob, a rabble interested only in bread and circuses. They cast Caesar, who took up the popular cause, as a despot and demagogue, and treat his murder as the outcome of a personal feud or constitutional struggle, devoid of social content. In The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the author Michael Parenti subjects these assertions of "gentlemen historians" to a bracing critique, and presents us with a compelling story of popular resistance against entrenched power and wealth. Parenti shows that Caesar was only the last in a line of reformers, dating back across the better part of a century, who were murdered by opulent conservatives."
posted by General Tonic at 8:57 AM on May 24, 2014

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