History of the USA ..but in an interesting way
August 28, 2014 2:15 PM   Subscribe

I am looking to read up on the history of USA and need book recommendations

I am looking to read up on the history of the USA with focus on key events/milestones. What I want is a book that is well written and engaging; basically by an author who has his facts right but also knows how to write a story (in this case non fiction :)). History books bore me because they are sometimes sooo dry so it would be good to get recommendations around books that were really interestingly written by authors whose writings you respect.

On the same note, autobiographies of presidents/political figures and suggestions around those that coincide with historical events would be great too.

Many thanks!
posted by jellyjam to Law & Government (21 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a great place to start. It's a little dry, but not by much--I found it tons more engaging than other general US history texts I'd read in the past. There's some shocking, true stuff in there that challenges a lot of the standard narratives. IMHO every voting American should read it.
posted by magdalemon at 2:23 PM on August 28, 2014 [16 favorites]

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is a great look at the Civil War.
posted by Etrigan at 2:23 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

2nding Zinn; there's no better counterpoint to traditional narratives in American history. It is however, best read with other viewpoints. His book is meant to be the counterpoint to the sort of prevailing history, so it gets a little heavy handed sometimes.
posted by furnace.heart at 2:25 PM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

American Nations takes on American history from an interesting perspective and it's a very interesting read.
posted by nanhey at 2:32 PM on August 28, 2014

I thought "Angel in the Whirlwind" was very interesting and well written.

It's a history of the American Revolutionary War, and it mainly concentrates on George Washington. It doesn't deify Washington; he's definitely portrayed as a flawed human.

But coming out of it, I was truly astounded by what a remarkable man he was, even with his many flaws. Few great men are acknowledged as such during their lifetimes, but Washington was indeed acknowledged by his peers. He was the essential man; without him the revolution would have failed. And everyone knew it.

He could have become king. A lot of people floated that idea, but he said no.

He could have been president as long as he wanted, but after two terms he decided it was someone else's turn.

How many "great men" turn away from power like that? And place the good of the country over their own good?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:39 PM on August 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Not a book, but podcasts -- Hardcore History. He doesn't focus on America, but the man can tell a story -- American Peril is a recent episode about America's involvement in the philliphines, for example.

The Revolutions podcast is currently on the French Revolution, but he covered the American revolution in more detail that is typically done, and I'd recommend starting with the English Civil war episodes for some needed context.
posted by empath at 2:44 PM on August 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong is not a textbook or survey, but touches on a few bits of US history and how what we take for granted about it can be very wrong. It might be a little too dry for your tastes but it's worth the mention I think.
posted by ditto75 at 3:12 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation goes into details about the first three Presidents who were assassinated.

How the States Got Their Shapes and the sequel were adapted into a tv series. I have not read the books, but the series was good enough. It does not focus solely on the borders; it includes a lot of background about related events.
posted by soelo at 3:33 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

A Renegade History of the United States--much more fun than Zinn.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:33 PM on August 28, 2014

I'm a big fan of Sarah Vowell, especially Assassination Vacation. Also Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic, a biography of James Garfield, is awesome.
posted by sandwiches at 3:34 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some of these books might cross the "too dry" filter. I found these books to be informative, thought-provoking and engaging.

A good generalist book on American history through the early 20th century is Herbert Agar's The Price of Union. (review archive.org download)

Nice narrative on the Revolution: Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause.

On the Constitution: Any and/or all of Forrest McDonald's trilogy: We the People, E Pluribus Unum, and Novus Ordo Seclorum.

Gabor Boritt's Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream.

James McPherson's masterful Battle Cry of Freedom on the Civil War.

Nancy Weiss' Farewell to the Party of Lincoln

And, on the border between history and fiction, but great fun to read: Allan Eckert's Winning of America series
posted by CincyBlues at 3:53 PM on August 28, 2014

I enjoyed Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick. It's about the Pilgrims and the Plymouth Colony, from their arrival to the aftermath of King Phillip's War. It deflates a lot of the myths while still being honest about what the various peoples in the area did to make relations better or worse across roughly two generations. I'm told Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates, which is about some of the same people and issues, is also good, but I haven't read it.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:23 PM on August 28, 2014

Although they're more about travel, any Bill Bryson book about America has, in my experience, some good history in it, told in an interesting way.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:17 PM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed both Founding Brothers and 1776. The latter is by David McCullough, who is a terrific writer; if you're up for some nice long books, his presidential biographies are great.

I haven't yet finished The Warmth of Other Suns, but WOW is it an amazing book. It's beautifully written, and for me, it's been eye-opening and moving.

Once you've tried a few of the recommendations you get in this thread, you might find some more good options by looking at the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the Pulitzer Prize for History. For example, the History prize went to What Hath God Wrought in 2008; I haven't read that yet, but it looks really good.
posted by kristi at 6:08 PM on August 28, 2014

History was one of my majors in college, and David Halberstam's book on America in the 1950s was the most engaging history book I read.
posted by alphanerd at 6:14 PM on August 28, 2014

Robert Caro's ongoing biography (currently four volumes) of Lyndon Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson is some good reading. There are criticisms to be made of Caro but not being able to tell a good story isn't one of them. Three volumes in, sure, I've learned a lot about LBJ, but also about the New Deal, Texas politics, southern politics, the United States Senate, election fraud, the roots of modern political campaigning, civil rights, McCarthyism and more.

To quote the above wiki link:
In an interview with Kurt Vonnegut and Daniel Stern, [Caro] once said: "I was never interested in writing biography just to show the life of a great man," saying he wanted instead "to use biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times—particularly political power."
posted by Lorin at 6:18 PM on August 28, 2014

Alan Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began is a fantastic book that contains a wonderful narrative of African American experience in the deep South. Lomax and his father John toured the U.S. during the Depression making recordings of music and interview aimed at preserving American folk culture. Later in his life, Alan Lomax made many return trips to the Delta to continue his chronicle of the region's culture.
posted by EKStickland at 7:05 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Warmth of Other Suns. It covers the Great Migration, during which many blacks left the South and what was essentially white terrorism to move to the Northern Cities. It's amazing and every single person who wants to understand the full history of the US should read it.
posted by dame at 7:11 PM on August 28, 2014

On the same note, autobiographies of presidents/political figures ... would be great too.

Intrigued by this element of your question because I love reading first-person accounts of history, I googled up a list of autobiographies by presidents and looked up Goodreads pages for those plus one more that popped up: Jefferson, Buchanan, Grant, Roosevelt 1 2, Coolidge, Hoover, Truman 1 2 3, Eisenhower 1 2 3, Johnson, Nixon 1 2, Ford, Carter 1 2 3, Reagan 1 2 3, Clinton, Bush, and Obama 1 2.

As expected, Grant's memoirs had the best combination of readership and high ratings of any autobiographical work on that list from before the past ~30 years. But I think Jefferson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Nixon did OK. Among recent presidents, Obama had the largest readership by far, but Reagan had the highest ratings.

Mental Floss offers a little context for many of these (e.g. on ghost-writing), but this dissertation available online provides a great deal of context, plus descriptions of autobiographies by John Adams and James Monroe and a suggestion that there are actually many more (though I couldn't find an exhaustive list).

Incidentally, while looking into this, a number of other first-person primary sources came up with decent ratings: Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, Mother Jones, Eleanor Roosevelt, and many African-American memoirs and Old West memoirs.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:33 AM on August 29, 2014

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe is the very best American history book I have ever read. It also has the added benefit of being about a period of American history that was both vital and about which almost nobody knows anything.

Also, I'll second the Caro LBJ biography(ies). They're (it's) absolutely superb.
posted by General Malaise at 11:35 AM on August 29, 2014

Although they're more about travel, any Bill Bryson book about America has, in my experience, some good history in it, told in an interesting way.

I agree with turbid dahlia's comment and would specifically point you to Bryson's most recent book about the summer of 1927, which I thought was incredibly interesting:

One Summer: America, 1927
posted by cheapskatebay at 11:59 AM on August 29, 2014

« Older Gas, oil, electric? Which new furnace to get in...   |   Maybe dentist filter? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.