American history in fifteen books or less
July 17, 2006 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Help me create a comprehensive reading list on American history

I'd like to put together a reading list that gives a comprehensive education in American history from the pre-colonial period to at least the end of the Cold War.

Ideally this would include about a dozen books, not more than 15. I'm not looking for any particular perspective, but rather a selection that would allow someone relatively unfamiliar with American history to come away with a nice overall survey, feeling educated and empowered in a discussion on such topics.

I realize there is a lot to be covered here, but limiting this to only a dozen books should bring out the best of the best. (I hope!)

Side note: I'd particularly like to have a few of the best biographies included.
posted by dead_ to Education (37 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: To clarify, I'm not looking for textbooks.
posted by dead_ at 8:29 AM on July 17, 2006

A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn
posted by ND¢ at 8:49 AM on July 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

American Revolutionary period: Gordon Wood's "The Radicalism of the American Revolution." It provides a great insight into the society of the colonies at the time of the war. Not to mention, Gordon S. Wood is considered one of the top, if the not THE top, Revolutionary War scholar.
posted by Atreides at 8:52 AM on July 17, 2006

second the Zinn. I'd never been interested in American history -- i blame it on boring and irrelevant high school textbooks -- but the story (or stories, more appropriately) in this book are absolutely engrossing.
posted by milkdropcoronet at 8:54 AM on July 17, 2006

You are looking at some huge books in this area. A couple of information packed, yet smaller tomes will be greatly appreciated. I recommend Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis for a look at the thinking of some of the most important figures of the Revolution. As for the Civil War, Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy is beyond compare. You probably would want to pick just one, in which case I recommend "A Stillness at Appomattox."
posted by caddis at 9:06 AM on July 17, 2006

A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton is one of my favorite books of all time. It's about the last year of the Civil War. It's the third in a series, but I think it's the best.

Can't go wrong with Ben's own words:
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: With Related Documents

And an excellent biography by Walter Isaacson:
Benjamin Franklin : An American Life
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:12 AM on July 17, 2006

Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass are two classics.
posted by donajo at 9:14 AM on July 17, 2006

I would recommend searching for some graduate course syllabi from that period - not only will you get the primary texts themselves, but also an excellent selection of metaanalysis.
posted by mrmojoflying at 9:37 AM on July 17, 2006

Thirding Zinn. I was taught in grammar school that the American Civil War was fought to free the slaves, which is a nice, clean version to tell kids that's not at all truthful. Peoples' History aims at the gritty truths behind the "headline" events.

For the latter section of your timeframe, The Glory and The Dream by William Manchester covers the period from WWII to the early 70's. Not quite as good at Zinn, but it covers its material in much the same way.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 9:41 AM on July 17, 2006

I think reading some of the Federalist papers is absolutely critical to good understanding.
posted by andifsohow at 9:41 AM on July 17, 2006

Ugh... Zinn is super one-sided (he says so himself) in the leftist/socialist/"read history from the little guy's point of view." The book's also quite dense and hard-to-read, imho. I say go for good biographies and/or more focused books on particular topics of interest. I've tried some large, cover-it-all survey type books and they tend to be boring; moreover, because they cover so much, you don't retain a lot. Very poor knowledge/effort ratio.
posted by shivohum at 10:06 AM on July 17, 2006

May not be 100% what you're looking for but Guns Germs and Steel is a great read and ecompasses some of what you need.
posted by ASM at 10:17 AM on July 17, 2006

Zinn's introduction explains his bias (mentioned by shivohum) and how the book is important because of, not in spite of said bias, due to how much of our history education is dominated by the history-is-written-by-the-winners mentality.

Fourth Zinn.
posted by hermitosis at 10:35 AM on July 17, 2006

Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers is very good, and he has a series of good individual biographies of several of the Founding Fathers.

Fred Anderson's Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 is a detailed history of the French and Indian War; his The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War is the companion piece to the recent PBS series.

James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is a good one-volume history of the Civil War. It's part of the Oxford History of the United States series. Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative is a good three-volume history.

posted by kirkaracha at 11:04 AM on July 17, 2006

Battle Cry of Freedom is truly a great book about the Civil War. Don't assign fifteen of that length though.
posted by caddis at 11:11 AM on July 17, 2006

Eric Foner's "Reconstruction."
posted by Juggermatt at 11:18 AM on July 17, 2006

Joseph J. Ellis' Founding Brothers is a good read, and helped me to understand that the conflict between liberals and conservatives is just an extension of a conflict that raged when this country was founded. In spots it's a great read, in others it's a slog, but I recommend it. The introduction is fantastic, as I recall -- very thought-provoking.
posted by jdroth at 11:20 AM on July 17, 2006

I'd also recommend Laurel Thatcher Ullrich's Diary of a Midwife. Ullrich takes the diary of Martha Ballard, who lived at the end of the 18th century, and from it describes what life was like for ordinary folk. It's a good read.

And, of course, The Education of Henry Adams, which is essentially Adams' biography. He descended from one of the great American families (a family that produced two early Presidents), and moved in influential circles during the 19th century, both in the U.S. and abroad. Adams had a curious mind, and this book, written ~1915, is the result of all that he had learned. Many people loathe it; I think it's a masterpiece. (It includes a section or two on the Civil War, and Reconstruction, as well as some great passages about his childhood before the Civil War.)
posted by jdroth at 11:24 AM on July 17, 2006

I strongly second Fred Anderson, a rare combination of scholarly accuracy and excellent writing. His collaboration with Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War, ties together history and biography and takes the story of America's war-based expansion from the 17th century down to Colin Powell. And the single best book on the pre-Revolutionary history of North America (not just the Anglo bits) is Alan Taylor's American Colonies; I learned something new on just about every page, and Taylor isn't afraid of making sweeping statements—opening at random to p. 89, I find: "The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was the greatest setback that natives ever inflicted on European expansion in North America." Superb bibliography as well, which will point you to more detailed works on periods that interest you.
posted by languagehat at 11:26 AM on July 17, 2006

Gay Power: An American Revolution by David Eisenbach.

It's a fascinating look at how early activists emerged as a tough-as-nails powerful fighting force, hell-bent on dismantling stereotypes by seizing their media moment -- and forever changing the face of America and American politics in the process.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:26 AM on July 17, 2006

Maybe The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner. It's a relatively quick read, and very interesting. Oddly enough, I first read it while studying in Germany.
posted by fantastic at 11:30 AM on July 17, 2006

No no no on Zinn. A People's History is silly nonsense. Or as Michael Kazin puts it: "A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable . . ."
posted by LarryC at 11:39 AM on July 17, 2006

i found 'only yesterday' a social history of the 20's by frederick allen to be pretty good. his thirties book, 'since yesterday' was ok, too.

another great history book i read was 'bury my heart at wounded knee' by dee brown was a good telling of the aboriginal vs european wars.
posted by lester at 12:26 PM on July 17, 2006

James Axtells' The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (Cultural Origins of North America) is well worth your time. It sounds dry, but it really isn't.
posted by NoMich at 1:37 PM on July 17, 2006

That would be "James Axtell's", not "James Axtells'". Yikes.
This books covers the time starting with the earliest explorers. Go nuts.
posted by NoMich at 1:43 PM on July 17, 2006

Response by poster: Great answers so far.

How about something specific to the first world war?
posted by dead_ at 1:54 PM on July 17, 2006

This is only a partly facetious recommendation.

This is not: Documents for the Study of American History. I offer this because, as you wend your way through your 12 to 15 books, I hope you find time to also read some of the key speeches and documents that shaped the events.
posted by paulsc at 2:16 PM on July 17, 2006

Er, that should have been: Documents for the Study of American History. Sorry about the dropped link.
posted by paulsc at 2:25 PM on July 17, 2006

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen is a good survey of things left out of your old high school history textbooks.
posted by the_bone at 2:26 PM on July 17, 2006

On WWI, I have always heard that the best book is The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. It's more focused on Brits than Americans, and on how the war and literature it produced permanently changed the way the English-speaking world understood itself. I haven't read it but have been meaning to for years.

As to Howard Zinn's People's History -- while it's true that Zinn's books is dry and one-sided, it is still very useful to alert you to stories a standard history book will underemphasize. A better way to cover these stories, once you are aware of them, is with primary sources. For example, obviously any course in American history will need to cover the experience of blacks in this country. Here are three sets of suggestions for excellent reads:

Fast and fascinating primary sources on slavery. These are a must-read for any US history course that covers the period.
Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas
And a few from any collection of slave narratives. (There are many such collections; I don't know enough to recommend one over the others.)

Follow these with the two most-read books of the two great late-nineteenth century black leaders. Shows the debate between greats about which political and economic and educational changes were most urgently needed, and which would be most productively fought for, to raise up former slaves and their kids. Similar debates are live today, in the US and in broken societies around the world. (I have linked $3 Dover editions; you can also get more expensive scholarly editions with useful introductory material.)

Booker T. Washington Up From Slavery
W.E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk

On the civil rights movement of the middle 20th century, Taylor Branch has written three (long, but amazing) histories.
Parting the Waters which covers 1954-1963
Pillar of Fire which covers 1963-1965
At Canaan's Edge which covers 1965-1968.

In addition to these, there's the less scholarly but totally engrossing The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:46 PM on July 17, 2006

For World War, John Keegan's The First World War is a good overview, and Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August is covers the origins of the war. Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory is good, too.

David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East and Margaret Macmillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World are good on how we're still feeling the repercussions of World War I.

I haven't read these, but Robert Zieger 's America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience got a good review in The Journal of American History, and Thomas J. Fleming's The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I sounds like an interesting revisionist take.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:57 PM on July 17, 2006

Two other handy books are the McGraw-Hill College Core review outlines of American history. I got these years ago and still consult them regularly. It looks like they may be out of print, but you should be able to find them used.

American History Before 1877 by Jason H. Silverman
American History Since 1865 by Birdsall S. Viault
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:03 PM on July 17, 2006

The Guns of August, The Great War and Modern Memory, and A Peace to End All Peace are excellent books but not about America, which is what the poster is interested in. I haven't read Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, but I presume the same applies.

I second The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Riveting.
posted by languagehat at 3:38 PM on July 17, 2006

Richard Reeves' President Kennedy: Profile of Power and President Nixon: Alone in the White House are two of the best biographies in modern US history. I haven't read his recent book President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, but I expect it is also excellent.
posted by raf at 6:26 PM on July 17, 2006

Niall Ferguson's Pity of War isn't US-centric, nor does it even offer a comprehensive account of the war. Still, it's great history, especially if WWI is one of your subsidiary interests.
posted by ewiar at 7:49 PM on July 17, 2006

For a satirical break, there's always The Complete History of America, Abridged.
posted by yeti at 8:09 PM on July 17, 2006

Zinn is a textbook, as far as I know, you said you didn't want those.

But do you really want monographs and research books? These are usually very detailed, well-researched and footnoted, but also very specific. It would be impossible to read 15, and learn American history. In a graduate course, there were about 15-20 assigned books in Early American history (to 1776) and even then we just scratched the surface of the research, let alone the deluge that is 19th and 20th century research. (Not that there's anything wrong with modern history - there is just a lot of it printed).
Maybe what you want are good synthetic books - books which aren't original research themselves, but aren't textbooks -- they use the monographs to form a larger, more macrohistory argument and contribute just as much to the historical debate by acting as meta analysis. It's not my field, but perhaps some of the Americanists around can recommend some.

As for monographs - Edmund S. Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom is an interesting look at the early days of slavery from a senior historian.
posted by jb at 3:29 AM on July 19, 2006

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