I want the easiest-reading, most engrossing history books.
January 25, 2015 9:08 AM   Subscribe

Tell me the history books you've read that you could not put down. History of just about anything, but especially historically significant people, say, before WWI.

I recently read G. J. Meyer's works on the Borgias and the Tudors. Even though I'd read a fair bit about both of these families previously, I was totally engrossed in these books and what I learned has stayed with me, I think because the quality of the writing was different than I've seen before.

If it helps, I can pinpoint a few of the elements that made Meyer's books so compelling to me:

- Interspersed with the narrative chapters, he added background chapters (say, a chapter about the history of monasteries in England, in order to give context to what was about to happen in the narrative of Henry VIII.)

- He himself is a journalist, not a historian by training; I think this affected both some of the research, the audacity of some of his conclusions, and the easy-reading tone of the books

- The books focused on the actions and character (and in many cases delved into the hypothesized decision making) of the subjects, so I wound up feeling like I understood the characters even when they were loathsome

- I should maybe say that I'm not sure I agreed with some of the author's conclusions but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the books at all - I loved how opinionated he was.

Some topics I know I want to learn more about: all of Asia; California history; history of science and medicine in general. But don't let that limit your suggestions!
posted by fingersandtoes to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 156 users marked this as a favorite
I found the book Fire in the Sky to be extremely engrossing, but then I'm fascinated by military history.

Most history books tend to tell events in chronological order. Bergerud deliberately tried to tell his history in different dimensions, kind of by taking a slice across events and look at various parts of what was revealed.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:12 AM on January 25, 2015

Stephen Ambrose, Nothing Like it in the World. Great book about the construction of the Intercontinental Railroad. Very easy reading gives a lot of color to the experience of each group working from corrupt railbarons building tracks they knew would fail just to get credit for built miles, down to railworkers who signed up on the East Coast then got shipped to California only to skip off work and go look for the gold in them thar hills.
posted by dstopps at 9:16 AM on January 25, 2015

I find Erik Larson to be extremely readable. If you're interested in science history, both Thunderstruck and Isaac's Storm would fit the bill.

Related, you may want to give Richard Holmes a shot. I really enjoyed The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. I haven't read his most recent, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air yet, but it's high on my to-read list.
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:26 AM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you like the history of medicine, have you read Roy Porter? Dude had a sense of fun, and he could also seriously, seriously, seriously write. I'm a big fan of his general English history stuff, and his history of 18th Centry English society is really enjoyable and full of scandalous delight

This is after your time period, but if you want vividly written personality-centered history, Caro's famous biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses are as good as it gets. Master of the Senate is the first history book that I ever picked up with the intention of reading a chapter, and then look up three hours later and find it's 2AM.
posted by joyceanmachine at 9:28 AM on January 25, 2015

This is more of a history of a specific bit of science/medicine than a general history, but The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is a fascinating read about how a doctor tracked down a cholera outbreak in 1850s London. The same author has a new book out, How We Got To Now, that is all about how various aspects of modern life were made possible. It's sort of like an updated take on the old "Connections" TV program, if you've ever seen that.
posted by Janta at 9:32 AM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Seconding Holmes' Age of Wonder - both well-written and up-to-date in a subfield where the exclusion of stuff like gender, race, class & empire still holds strong in popular writing. Patricia Fara's Science: a 4,000 Year History might not always be the best, but it's a breezy overview of the history of western science.

My real recommendation that I came here for? Richard White's "delightfully angry" Railroaded: the Transcontinentals & the Making of Modern America.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 9:35 AM on January 25, 2015

I like most of what David McCullough has written, but in particular The Great Bridge might be of interest to you. Great story of the people behind an amazing project.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 9:48 AM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Allison Weir.
It is very easy to read. Almost reads like a novel. And while it primarily focuses on lives of six women, it does flesh out the wider historical context of the time. Great book.
posted by Flood at 9:52 AM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh and obviously like Perlstein's Impending Storm/Nixonland/Invisible Bridge, even if they're post-war.

Michael Willrich's Pox: an American History, on the history and meanings of vaccination at the turn of the twentieth century.

Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: a Human History is, like the title suggests, a history of the Atlantic slave trade through the lens of various people's records of their experience on slave ships.

Grandin's Fordlandia; Conevery Valencius Bolton's The Health of the Country might be a bit more academic than you want, but it's really engrossing and a heck of a way to think about the way people in the fairly recent past thought about environment, economy, health, and their bodies as part of a continuum in a way that seems deeply alien. It'll make any future reading about the history of medicine that much richer (and stranger).
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 9:55 AM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Heroic Mexico
posted by johngoren at 9:58 AM on January 25, 2015

Taylor Branch's trilogy on the civil rights movement from 1954-68. It's funny to describe an almost 3,000 page work as a page turner, but it's true.
posted by sallybrown at 10:05 AM on January 25, 2015

Empires of light by Jill jonnes. All about Tesla, Edison, Westinghouse. Fabulously interesting.
posted by chasles at 10:08 AM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was going to add The Great Bridge and saw I'd been beaten to it. It is fabulous. I've read most of his work and like this best.
posted by jgirl at 10:15 AM on January 25, 2015

I guess it would be more meaningful to mark the best answers after I've read, but that will take months, so marking now to thank you all for the suggestions, which all sound on point and interesting. I've read the Weir and I liked it - it actually makes a nice companion to the Tudors book I mentioned in my question, as the Tudors book paints a detailed and extremely unflattering portrait of Henry VIII but concentrates more on his politics and doesn't go into detail on the wives.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:19 AM on January 25, 2015

I'd like to point out that Stephen Ambrose was indeed a good writer, and his books are very easy to read, but he was also a plagiarist.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:37 AM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding the suggestion of Alison Weir; two of my favorite works of hers are The Life of Elizabeth I (which I found genuinely moving) and The Lady in the Tower, her book about Anne Boleyn.

I really enjoyed Robert K. Massie's Peter the Great: His Life and World. Massie does a great job of explaining not only Peter's reign, but Russia's relationship to European powers at the time. The book is long, but it's really engrossing.

Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror (about medieval Europe in the 14th century), The Proud Tower (about Europe in the 25 years before World War I), and The Guns of August (about the first month of World War I) are all engaging reads.
posted by neushoorn at 10:47 AM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Engrossing pre-WWI history books with great narratives? Dude, Devil in the White City.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:49 AM on January 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

Another vote for the Holmes.

Conversely, I'd suggest A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change by John Glassie because Athanasius Kircher was awesomely, spectacularly wrong about almost everything he wrote. Also, the cat piano.
posted by sukeban at 10:51 AM on January 25, 2015

The Children
This re-creation of the early days of the civil rights movement by Halberstam (The Fifties) is at once intimate and monumental. By focusing on a small group of young African Americans who attended the Reverend James Lawson's workshop for nonviolent demonstrators in Nashville in 1959, then went on to play active roles in the movement, he hits the high points of the civil rights struggle and makes them immediate: the Nashville sit-ins; the founding of SNCC and CORE; the Freedom Rides; Bull Connor's attacks in Birmingham; the Klan in Memphis; the first singing of "We Shall Overcome"; the voter registration campaign; Bloody Sunday in Selma; and the march to Montgomery.
posted by SyraCarol at 11:06 AM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

In the science area, I've greatly enjoyed The Watershed: A Biography of Johannes Kepler by Arthur Koestler.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 11:18 AM on January 25, 2015

It's a bit old school, and I assume they've fallen out of favor, but when I was growing up, I loved Will and Ariel Durant's "The History of Civilization".
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 11:40 AM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Seconding Massie's Peter the Great, adding Catherine the Great. Very readable. He transports you back to that world.
posted by starman at 11:57 AM on January 25, 2015

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History exposes the pervasiveness of the marketing job done by the soap industry with this quote from a letter from Napoleon to Josephine: "I will return in five days. Stop washing".
posted by fairmettle at 12:12 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

I am a huge fan of James / Jan Morris's* Pax Britannica Trilogy. It's been called "an emotional history of the British Empire" or "a history of the aesthetics of empire" and covers roughly 1800 - 1950. She gives some historical and geographical background, but focuses instead on giant set-piece scenes written like something out of an epic novel: The day slavery ended in the British Caribbean; the first meeting of the Hudson Bay company; the hideous retreat from Kabul; and smaller slice-of-life bits of the everyday empire.

* Morris changed sexes partway through writing it.
posted by Hypatia at 12:58 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase to Catch Lincoln's Killer. My husband described it as a "rip-roaring yarn" and I made fun of him, but then I read it and it IS a rip-roaring yarn.
posted by something something at 2:15 PM on January 25, 2015

I liked Radium Girls. It is the one book I remember from a class I took on the history of science and technology. It has been a while since I read it, but it discussed the impacts to specific people, worker's rights, and (if I am remembering correctly) the use of untested or dangerous substances as health supplements.
posted by Shanda at 2:24 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I loved Nigel Cliff's The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama. It's the pretty astonishing story of how da Gama was the first to find a sea route from Europe to India, and the utterly insane events that happened along the way.
posted by adrianhon at 2:29 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie, about the fall of the czar in Russia and his family before the Communists took over.
posted by Leontine at 4:41 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I love to look at the History section on the Pinterest website. There are so many historical pictures on here, I find it very interesting.
posted by just asking at 5:10 PM on January 25, 2015

Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre!
posted by No-sword at 3:20 AM on January 26, 2015

Seconding Manhunt by James Swanson. It felt like I was in the middle of a movie!

Also seconding Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. He's a great storyteller.

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick. About the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, and some of the major players of that era, including Joseph Warren.

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto
posted by stampsgal at 7:26 AM on January 26, 2015

David McCullough's The Path Between The Seas, about the Panama Canal. Fabulous. Also, Robert K. Massie's Dreadnought, about the naval arms race between the British and the Germans that was one of the major escalators in the run-up to WW1. Nthing Ghost Map. But oh! Edmund Morris's three-book biography of Theodore Roosevelt, starting with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Brings the man fully to life, for better and (occasionally) for worse.
posted by charris5005 at 5:10 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's a little more recent that you're asking for, but I REALLY enjoyed The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. The book covers the last half century of war and politics in the Middle East.

Fisk, like Meyer is a journalist rather than a historian.
posted by sk8ingdom at 6:10 PM on January 26, 2015

I have recommended David Howarth's 1066 several times here on AskMe - it's engagingly, delightfully told, and its brevity is probably part of its charm.

I'd also like to second John Kennedy Toole Box on The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant - here's an excerpt I posted in another thread to illustrate the Durants' writing.

For California history, I haven't yet read the 8-volume Kevin Starr series, but it's supposed to be terrific - here's a glowing review in the LA Times about the last book, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963.

Thanks for this great question - I'm saving the thread for my own reading list.
posted by kristi at 9:09 AM on January 28, 2015

I think you would probably like The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer. It is mostly about the history of cancer treatment (so 1860ish-present, focusing mostly on the early-mid 20th century), delves pretty extensively into the (strong) personalities behind a lot of the early advances and intersperses the historical segments with the author's own experiences as an oncologist in training. It is one of the best books I've ever read and is easily understood by a layman with a high school level science background.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:22 AM on January 29, 2015

I found Tom Holland's book 'Persian Fire', about the war between the Hellenes and the Persian Empire, absolutely fascinating and a really engrossing, smooth read.

I've been told his other books are also pretty good.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:30 AM on February 4, 2015

The land of the great image by Maurice Collis. It's about a Portuguese missionary in India/Burma.
posted by dhruva at 5:49 PM on February 5, 2015

So many wonderful answers, thank you. I will keep it open for now since more answers seem to be coming in.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:01 AM on February 6, 2015

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