History buffs with specific interests, recs from your interest?
December 8, 2014 1:30 PM   Subscribe

I want to read very good history books. I know such threads exist. But I want recommendations from people who are very well read (decently well read, even) in the subject. If you have a particular interest, what is it, and what are some excellent books you've read and recommend?

Whatever I may be reading, there's always a history book I'm reading too. There are specific areas of history (i.e. geographic regions or time periods) that I gravitate toward and feel more than a bit knowledgeable about. I'm by no means an expert, though.

My example: My intense interest in the partition of India has led me to read extensively about it; before, after, during. It's not as linear as that, yes, and its complicated and so much. Things are like that.

So, you're specific interest and books you can recommend (maybe even films).
posted by Rams to Education (20 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
WW2 - Stalingrad - The Fateful Siege
posted by H. Roark at 1:39 PM on December 8, 2014

posted by Jacen at 1:47 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Arctic exploration - Barrow's Boys: The Original Extreme Adventurers: A Stirring Story of Daring Fortitude and Outright Lunacy. The best book I've read on the subject, and I've read a bunch.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:49 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

The classic "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" is very long, and very involved, and very readable.
posted by Melismata at 1:52 PM on December 8, 2014

I really love a narrow(ish)-focused single-subject history. The one I've been recommending the most is Banana by Dan Koeppel. The modern banana is intense. I also have enjoyed:
-Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin
-The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift
-Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century by Laura Shapiro

My specific interest, though, is cartography. Mark Monmonier has written a bunch of books focused on the histories of certain types of mapping and cartographic challenges at a very accessible level - some are better than others, I'd go with Rhumb Lines (a history of the mercator projection) and Cartographies of Danger (about mapping natural hazards. It twins well with John McPhee's The Control of Nature if you like that sort of thing [which I do]). Dava Sobel's Longitude is another good, accessible one.
posted by troika at 2:09 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Early Modern Europe/Art History - The Embarrassment Of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama
posted by Sara C. at 2:10 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Whenever one of these threads rolls around I tend to reccommend the following books:
Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South
Anne Braden was a member of the white elite of Mississippi who joined the NAACP and fought for Civil Rights because she saw racism and segregation as a sickness that killed both white and black. There's a lovely documentary about her as well that'll make you bawl.
Warmth of Other Suns
All about the Great Migration and how African Americans throughout the South sought better lives and more freedom in the North and West.
Dwelling Place: Plantation Epic
Ever wondered how a person could remain a decent and moral individual while still owning other humans? This collection of letters and personal documents from a Presbyterian minister and plantation owner shows the shift from vaguely pro-Abolitionist thought to slave-owning reality.
posted by teleri025 at 2:30 PM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, by James McPherson
McPherson treats both subjects, rightly, as one revolution.
He won a Pulitzer for his other work on the same topic -- Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. But the latter book is a little more popular, a little less tight, a little less full of insight, and IMO the former is the best single book on the era. Either way, you can't go wrong with McPherson.
posted by LonnieK at 3:04 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

East Berlin: Stasiland is famous for a very good reason (and I originally found it recced on mefi!).

British East Africa: Start with Beryl Markham's West With The Night. Fascinating woman, fascinating time and place, and I personally think one of the great underappreciated books. Hemingway once said "She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl… can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers… it really is a bloody wonderful book.” It's more of a lyrical memoirs than a cut-and-dried history, though.

This isn't my area so I can't speak to the objective quality of it, but I deeply enjoyed George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I. Similarly, St. Petersburg: A Cultural History is absolutely phenomenal. It's one of the most gripping and emotional histories I've ever read.

And finally, a novel, because sometimes novels are the way in to a whole new historical obsession: Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear about the London Blitz.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:10 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seconding West With the Night. It's gorgeous and wonderful and deeply moving, and ugh, the writing is disgustingly effective.

On WWI: The Beauty and the Sorrow is magnificent. It's basically a book stitched together out of the diaries, letters, and personal memoirs of about 20 people, interwoven with each other through the course of the books. It presents WWI in this intensely and gorgeously personal and goddamn gripping way.

On WWII: If you want something with modern scholarship to offset Rise of The Third Reich, the Evans series is really, really good. It focuses on social and economic history rather than military, but was more interesting to me because it was less about tank movements and more interesting because of it.

(If you'd like to read more about Shirer and other American journalists in Nazi Germany right before WWII, Hitlerland is a light, fast read, though it fades towards the last half.)

Also, since others have done a novel that started them on a historical obsessoin: Mary Renault was known for her hardcore research. The Persian Boy is her greatest work, and it's just a fucking killer for transporting the reader to a different land in a different time with a different moral/social code. It started me on a serious bender about Alexander the Great.
posted by joyceanmachine at 4:01 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm into literature and popular culture. A few things I just loved:

Richard Holmes's masterful biography of Coleridge (Coleridge: Early Visions and Coleridge: Darker Reflections)—easily one of the most engaging things I've ever read.

John Matteson's Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father helped me look at Louisa May Alcott with new eyes.

Jill Lepore's Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin is an incredible example of what a biographer can do with scant material. It taught me things about Revolutionary America I never knew.

Finally, Pamela Smith Hill just released Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. It's a previously unreleased memoir by Laura Ingalls Wilder that features tons of really detailed annotations. You'll never think about the Little House books again after reading it.
posted by mynameisluka at 4:01 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

The best history book of the hundreds that I've read is probably What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe. It's a really good read and full of tons of great stuff about a period of history most Americans no almost nothing about.
posted by General Malaise at 4:14 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

A couple great Civil War books:
Drew Gilpin Faust "This Republic of Suffering"
James McPherson "Battle Cry of Freedom
If you're into the military nitty-gritty:
T. Harry Williams "Lincoln and his Generals"
Steven Woodworth "Jefferson Davis and his Generals"

Beyond the Civil War, my favorite history book is probably Timothy Egan's "The Worst Hard Time".
posted by BradNelson at 4:30 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I enjoy many historical periods and places, but here are a few of my favorites in early American history, one from modern American history, and one from the history of medicine and disease. All links go to GoodReads except the John Adams/HBO link, which goes to Amazon.

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick - Very well written, engaging narrative of the American Revolution leading up to the battle of Bunker Hill.

John Adams - the book by David McCullough and the HBO adaptation are both excellent.

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
posted by stampsgal at 5:06 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Shocked that I didn't mention Gotham in my initial answer.
posted by Sara C. at 5:21 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm the former Collections Librarian for the Historical Society of Washington, DC and still do and help with DC history-related research - I recommended some books useful for getting your head around the city's history here.

If you want to delve deeper, I'd add Harry Jaffee and Tom Sherwood's Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, DC and Howard Gillette, Jr.'s Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, DC.

Aside: Anyone interested in urban history should read Gillian Tindall's The Fields Beneath: The History of One London Village - it's probably the best history monograph I've read in the last ten years. In addition to being engaging London history, it's also a wry, razor-sharp assessment of the blindspots, lies, unspoken assumptions, self-promotion, self-delusion, hidden truths, and overlooked data points in any local historical record. You'll walk away with a much more informed and jaundiced eye, and be a better reader (and writer) of history for it.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:48 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

This dovetails with General Malaise's recommendation of the (excellent) Howe book. I have a longstanding interest in early American political economy and political economists. In this vein I'd strongly suggest reading Michael Hudson's America's Protectionist Takeoff 1815-1914: The Neglected American School of Political Economy for its introductory summaries of these ideas and people associated with them. It's a good backgrounder for a book I love to suggest to others interested in exploring the flow of ideas which helped shape events from the Era of Good Feelings into the Civil War: Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream by Gabor S. Boritt.
posted by CincyBlues at 7:19 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Pacific Fruit Express is the history of overland technology and organization to bring fresh fruit east and tracks the development of agriculture in the west.

The Rainbow Route: The illustrated history of the Silverton Railroads is a pretty amazing, audacious history of transport and mining around the Silverton area. One of the high points of Sundance Publication's printings.

Western Yesterdays (the set is mentioned in the comments), is a fantastic series started in the 1950's by a reporter interviewing early settlers of Colorado.
posted by nickggully at 7:32 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity by Reviel Netz is maybe a bit more high-concept/abstract than you're looking for, but it is one of the most defining, world-shaping books I read in grad school. Very readable, and gave all my fellow grad students and me a "I can see into the Matrix!" feeling for a week or so. It's about how the modern world controls space and movement. It's been a few years, but I remember it being super-readable; looks like Amazon has a preview if you want it.

Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights is also a pretty formative book for me about the development of human rights philosophy.

Jared Orsi's Citizen Explorer is also a very readable, very interesting biography of Zebulon Pike, the first in many decades.
posted by lilac girl at 8:42 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

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