Recommend books about the 20th century
September 6, 2015 2:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to fill in gaps in my knowledge of recent history, and need additional reading recommendations. Can you suggest books? Very specific or specialized is fine!

I've set myself a long-term project for steering my reading choices, with the goal of getting a more complete picture of "what happened in the 20th century?" I feel like most of what I learned in school just didn't stick, and so I have huuuuuuge gaps in what I know and how things connect. I've found that when I can learn about a specific event or place in more detail, everything else fits together a little better, and it's really satisfying to see something or someone mentioned in one work and have some context because I've seen them mentioned elsewhere as well.

I have been working my way forward-ish from World War I, but have hit some gaps and am looking for additional recommendations. It's a very (very) long-term project, so I'm not necessarily after sweeping overviews -- specificity is great! I'm also interested in more than just scholarly history books, and am really aiming for a range of types of works; some examples of what I've already read or got lined up are below:

history books - The Guns of August (Barbara Tuchman), Gay New York (George Chauncey)
oral histories / first person - The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War (Peter Englund), We Remember Pearl Harbor (Lawrence Reginald Rodriggs, ed.)
memoirs - Living My Life (Emma Goldman), West With the Night (Beryl Markham)
historical fiction - At Swim, Two Boys (Jamie O'Neill), Nanjing Requiem (Ha Jin)
contemporary fiction tied to its time/place - The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), Passing (Nella Larsen)

At this point I'm fairly well covered on WWI, the Russian Revolution & early USSR, the Civil Rights Movement in the US, and Britain in general -- anything else (or an especially compelling work on one of the areas mentioned) is fair game. I'm especially interested in books dealing with the day-to-day of regular people, esp. women and minorities, and places beyond the United States & Europe. I don't care as much about detailed military stuff that's focused on "and then in June, Generals A and B decided to deploy 2 more corps to this site" (that said, The Guns of August was very good and served as a really solid overview that made other things I read afterward fit a lot better).

Can you suggest additional books that fill in pieces of what was happening all over the world throughout the 20th century? Doubly appreciated if you'll specify the time and place in your recommendation. Thank you!
posted by josyphine to Society & Culture (44 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

oh, i have a good one (been waiting for a question where i can recommend it):

the dictator's shadow by heraldo muñoz. it's a political memoir that covers the period from the sept 11 coup in chile (1973) to the present day (more or less), focussing on the process and compromise necessary to regain democracy.

it's written by a socialist - a support of allende - but it also describes his political progression from "far left" to a much more central position, as he comes to understand the importance of working within a democratic framework. i suspect it's the "least biased" book you can find on the subject - very measured and reserved (and, because of that, even more damning of pinochet). the coverage of the economic policies of the time - their roots and how they succeeded or failed - is also interesting (and relevant to the "discussion" of pinochet's legacy) (pinochet's character is fascinating).

it's also amazingly well written. not a page turner blockbuster, i'll admit, but an easy read. i would never have guessed it was written by someone in their second language (although he's a career diplomat who's worked at the un).

(if i have one criticism, it's too dismissive of the armed struggle, imho - it doesn't really describe much of the experience of many people here my age, who were involved in that)
posted by andrewcooke at 3:05 PM on September 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Eduardo Galeano's CENTURY OF THE WIND. It's the third book in his MEMORY OF FIRE trilogy, which is a history of The Americas written in a magic realism style. CENTURY OF THE WIND deals with the 20th Century up to the early 80s.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:08 PM on September 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

the making of the atomic bomb by richard rhodes is also pretty good, if rather specific.

and for "day to day people" in chile, not history, but anthropology, life in debt by clara han is excellent.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:11 PM on September 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is a classic for early 20th Century labor.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is an interesting look into post-Vietnam refugees in the U.S. and how their culture and U.S. culture did (not) mix.
posted by littlewater at 3:14 PM on September 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

(contemporary fiction tied to its time/place)
Illywhacker by Peter Carey covers life in Australia 1919 - 1995...
'Illywhacker is a dazzling comic narrative, from the lips of the 109-year-old Herbert Badgery, the 'illywhacker' or confidence trickster of the title. Overflowing with magic, jokes and inventions, peopled with aviators, car salesmen, Chinamen and impressarios, Peter Carey's novel is a contemporary classic.'
Magic realism at its finest...
posted by Monkeymoo at 3:20 PM on September 6, 2015

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein is the best book I've read about the 60s.
posted by Chenko at 3:31 PM on September 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Stayin' Alive -- The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (USA)

Brokers of Empire -- Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea 1876-1945 (Japan/Korea)

Portugal's Guerrilla Wars in Africa: Lisbon's Three Wars in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea 1961-74 (Portugal/Africa)

The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs (France/Algeria/Morocco/Tunisia)
posted by jason's_planet at 3:32 PM on September 6, 2015

Postwar, by Tony Judt.
posted by aws17576 at 3:34 PM on September 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Three very different recs:

1913 by Florian Illes. It is fiction-yet-not. The book lines up real events of 1913 - specifically cultural events around Vienna and Berlin - and manages to capture the world just before the First World War (and foreshadows a bit too). I absolutely loved this.

All That's Solid Melts into Air by Marshall Berman. The grandaddy book of modernity, modernism, and the 20th century. Berman does drawn upon 19th C industrialism, but I still rec it.

Ready Steady Go! - Swinging London & the Invention of Cool by Shawn Levy. Fun, engaging read about the key players of the Swinging Sixties in London.
posted by kariebookish at 3:53 PM on September 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown gives a very compelling personal view of lower middle class families struggling with the Depression, and the lead-up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Excellent story.
posted by evilmomlady at 3:53 PM on September 6, 2015

It's a challenging read, but Against the Day by Pynchon spans from about 1895 through WW1 and hops all over the globe. It's difficult mainly because there's not really one central character or story - it's more just a bunch of people wandering around the world getting caught up in historical events, but for me it was a good jumping off point for a variety of interesting things that happened in that period.
posted by mannequito at 4:32 PM on September 6, 2015

They're long, but they're fascinating-- David Kynaston's series on post War Britain.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:49 PM on September 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Shigeru Mizuki's Showa 1926-1989 comics series, recently translated and released in four volumes by Drawn & Quarterly, is extraordinary. It alternates between more textbook-style (but engaging!) accounts of important episodes in 20th-century Japanese history and Mizuki's sometimes funny, sometimes poignant memoirs. I'm not doing it justice here, so here's a better review.
posted by thetortoise at 5:25 PM on September 6, 2015

Wild Swans, by Jung Chang, is a personal look at China's 20th-century revolutions.
posted by wintersweet at 5:36 PM on September 6, 2015

1968 by Mark Kurlansky
posted by matildaben at 5:38 PM on September 6, 2015

Islands In the Stream-Hemingway, about WW2 in the Carribean. For Whom the Bell Tolls-Hemingway, about the Spanish Civil War. Bridge on the River Kwai, the Pacific theater of WW2, Raise The Red Lantern, about Cbinese culture just before their revolution, with glimpses into the culture of polygamy. Going After Cacciato, about Viet Nam.
posted by Oyéah at 5:50 PM on September 6, 2015

These are all USA centric:
Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
Einstein's Wife and Other Women of Genius: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great 20th Century Women by Andrea Gabor
Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo
posted by hoppytoad at 5:56 PM on September 6, 2015

A Bright Shining Lie is a biography of a guy who participated in the Vietnam War from 1962 - 72. The book won a Pulitzer in 1989.

Also, Bloodlands . Really a stunning read about the total decimation on the eastern front of Europe in WWII.
posted by LoveHam at 6:05 PM on September 6, 2015

Age of Extremes is probably the best single-volume historical account of the 20th century. Read Hobsbawm's 3 earlier books in that series if you want to go earlier in history (Age of Empire partially covers the early 20th century).
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 6:10 PM on September 6, 2015

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy is a really good concise global overview of everything that happened up to 2001.
posted by ovvl at 6:41 PM on September 6, 2015

posted by janey47 at 6:48 PM on September 6, 2015

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, about the Northward migration of American blacks in search of better lives.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:21 PM on September 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're looking for an overview of postwar European history, you really can't do better than Postwar.

I also recommend reading The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt to understand how fascism developed.
posted by niagara_falling at 7:41 PM on September 6, 2015

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott is fantastic.

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago by Mike Royko is an absolute classic.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:51 PM on September 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a survivor of the last half of the 20th century, I feel I know a bit about this subject. First, no links, as I recommend getting these from your local library (and I'm lazy). Continuing in somewhat chronological order from the first world war:

"To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Grapes of Wrath" tell more about the Great Depression
than any non-fiction work I've read.

Bloodlands is a moving, chilling account of what happened in Eastern Europe in the 1930s. Anne Applebaum has a recent work on what happened in Eastern Europe after the war in . I'll let others offer their opinions on their preferred books on World War II.

David Halberstam's book on the 1950s ( puts that decade in a context that makes the 1960s make more sense. I would also read a primary work by the beats, either Kerouac's "On the Road" or Ginsburg's "Howl" to supplement.

Tons of stuff on the 1960s. Any non-fiction by Tom Wolfe. "Dispatches" by Michael Herr is the best book on Vietman (and The Things they Carried is a worthwhile fictionalization of the era). "The Power Broker" and Jane Jacobs' "Death of Life of Great American Cities" give a sense of where America began to fritter away its wealth.

For the 1970s, it's really all about Watergate and Nixon, as relatively nothing happened in the second half of that decade (which I now realize is a very good thing). +1 on Perlstein's Nixonland. I just read Tim Weiner's "One Man Against the World", and it gives a more detailed account of Kissinger and Nixon's machinations, as well as Nixon's downfall, but I could have used some more opinion. I guess the facts really do speak for themselves.

Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On" is a good account of the spread of Aids, and how the Reagan administration did nothing.

Find something on the last days of European communism to understand that event. I just read old New York Times articles I found online somewhere many years ago, but there are probably some good books.

In Europe and North America, the last 35 years have been dominated by the effects of the rise of neoliberalist ideologies that took hold in the laste 1970s. One of my favorite accounts of the 1980s is Jane Jacob's overlooked "Systems of Survival". I read Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" on the private-prison-industrial complex. Other books on the subject have been published since 1995 or so, but hers arrived when more of mainstream American started to take notice of what was going on.

"Blowback" by Chalmers Johnson ties the loose pieces between Bush I's Gulf War in 1990, Bush II's Iraq invasion, and why ISIS is wreaking havoc now. It helps to be aware that this goes back to at least the imposition of the Shah of Iran in 1953, which has earlier roots in how the middle east was colonized in the 19th century and then went through a bungled partition/independence after WWI.

Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" provides a stirring account on what happened in
Chile in 1973.

Happy reading.
posted by morspin at 10:01 PM on September 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Totally agree with "1913" by Florian Illes, but only if you read it with a laptop nearby. All the artists listed have multiple images in Google images, and they are truly amazing. Many of them far more modern and powerful than art made today. (Bonus: each chapter has a painting at the beginning. One of them includes the word "dangerous" in the title; the picture shown is an innocent scene of cherry blossoms. Look up the title. I'm a jaded old lady who thought she's seen everything, but my jaw dropped. That's some naughty doings, but so stylish!)

Two other wonderful books by and about women are "Testament of Youth" by Vera Brittain and "Nella Last's War" by Nella Last. The first is set during WWI; if you've been unfortunate enough to see the recent movie, erase it from your mind. This book is incredibly powerful. The second book was written during WWII; the English government recruited ordinary citizens to keep journals of their everyday lives. Nella Last did so, and brought the place and time she lived in alive.

***And can you imagine a time when the federal government thought it important to seek and preserve records of ordinary people's lives?***
posted by kestralwing at 10:37 PM on September 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Back to suggest "Dispatches" by Michael Herr; arguably the best book to come out of the conflict in Vietnam.

Also, "Sleeping the the Devil" by Robert Baer, the revealing story of the relationship between the United States and Saudia Arabia.
posted by kestralwing at 10:47 PM on September 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

U.S.: Haynes Johnson's The Best of Times is about the 90s up to 9/11. His Sleepwalking Through History is about the 80s. Both are excellent.

Kevin Phillips has some amazing stuff, starting with The Emerging Republican Majority in 1969. His American Theocracy is brilliant and it predicted the financial crisis four years before it happened.

Todd Gitlin's The Sixties is a great history of late 60s political radicalism.

David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest is a well-known book about the assholes who got us into and kept us in Vietnam.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:50 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nixonland is great, too. Pearlstein's stuff in general is good. It can be hyper-detailed.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:53 AM on September 7, 2015

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families Paperback – August 12, 1986
by J. Anthony Lukas

Master Of The Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Paperback – April 25, 2003
by Robert A. Caro
posted by mygoditsbob at 5:14 AM on September 7, 2015

Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.

Explains what happened the summer there were 23-24 race riots around the US and how this pushed the NAACP and civil rights forward in the 20th Century.

America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918
posted by RedEmma at 5:58 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide is a really excellent book which talks about genocides during the 20th century and how these genocides informed UN and US policy. It deals with Armenia, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Kurds.

On similar lines, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Family is a very in-depth look at the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath. Zlatas Diary is the diary of an 11-year old in Sarajevo during the war in the early 1990s.

Half of a Yellow Sun is about the Biafran War (historical fiction). Really amazingly written. The Invisible Bridge is one of my favorite historical fiction books about Europe before and during WWII/the Holocaust.

Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wathiongo are good options for contemporary fiction tied to their time and place (Nigeria and Kenya, respectively, spanning pre to post-colonial, highly political writing).

Unbowed by Wangari Maathai and This Child Will Be Great by Ellen Sirleaf Johnson are two interesting memoirs about growing up in post-colonial Africa (Kenya and Liberia respectively) and gaining political power.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:53 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all! This is exactly the kind of stuff I've been looking for. Some, like Half of a Yellow Sun, The New Jim Crow, and the Kynaston books about Britain were already on my list, and others I am excited to add. I have access to both a good public library system and a university library, so between the two I should be able to get ahold of most anything that's recommended here. Thanks again, and I'll continue to check the thread for additional suggestions.
posted by josyphine at 7:53 AM on September 7, 2015

Piers Brendon's The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s is hands down the best thing I've read about that difficult decade.
posted by languagehat at 8:11 AM on September 7, 2015

this is a bit of an odd suggestion, but machine dreams by mirowski is an interesting book about how science and economics co-developed in the second half of the century. it's very much a "pomo" riff on various ideas, and, well, it's perhaps something of an acquired taste, so i wouldn't suggest buying it at the price listed on amazon, but if you find it in a library, check it out.
posted by andrewcooke at 8:36 AM on September 7, 2015

> All That's Solid Melts into Air by Marshall Berman. The grandaddy book of modernity, modernism, and the 20th century. Berman does drawn upon 19th C industrialism, but I still rec it.

Forgot to respond to this: Much as I love the book, it's almost entirely about the 19th century — the 20th is tacked on in a short section at the end. So while I recommend reading it if you're interested in what it covers, it's not actually a good answer to the question as asked.
posted by languagehat at 8:57 AM on September 7, 2015

I highly recommend Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt.
posted by MrJM at 9:35 AM on September 7, 2015

I guarantee that "Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age" is the finest, most interesting book you'll read about the build up to WW1 and its cultural consequences. Very much focused on cultural history rather than political history.
posted by trigger at 2:59 PM on September 7, 2015

The Twentieth Century, Howard Zinn. This is just the chapters from A People's History of the United States that deal with the Twentieth century.
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:00 PM on September 7, 2015

Seconding The Age of Extremes, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Familes, Dispatches, and Wild Swans. There's also China Along the Yellow River, by Cao Jinqing. Must-reads.

I'll focus here on only stuff you didn't mention you already know about.

The Man Died, by Wole Soyinka (of the author, in prison, during the Nigerian civil war)

Shah of Shahs, by Ryszard Kapuściński

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

And Studs Terkel! Can't believe no one has yet suggested Terkel! There is your "day-to-day of regular people" read.
posted by pos at 6:52 PM on September 11, 2015

In 1999, National Review published their list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th Century.
posted by Bruce H. at 8:11 AM on April 10, 2016

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