Gift-worthy history books?
December 3, 2007 10:06 AM   Subscribe

My dad has mentioned that he would like a history book for Christmas. Help me find one that will really knock his socks off!

I asked my dad what he'd like for a Christmas gift, and he mentioned that he'd be into a history book. He particularly expressed interest in ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt, and I know he's a fan of US history, particularly the Civil War. I'm keeping those subjects in mind, but I'd really like to find something a little more unusual - the kind of topics that someone might not know much about, but would find fascinating. Basically, the history-themed version of that elusive perfect "I would have always wanted this but never knew it existed" gift. I'm the last thing from a history buff, so of course I've no idea where to begin.

Besides having a riveting subject matter, my ideal gift book would be accessible to the layperson, but respected by experts, and I'd rather err on the side of a photos-galore coffee-table book than a dry academic text - though pictures are certainly not a requirement. It doesn't have to be a book, either; if there's a DVD set, magazine subscription, or other gift he's likely to enjoy, I'm open to suggestions.

Though he loves the Civil War, I'm hesitant to get him anything Civil War-related unless I'm sure it's something he wouldn't have already come across.

A few bits of info about Metroid Dad that may or may not be helpful: he enjoys sports, especially college football, he's into genealogy (but probably knows all about it already), he has an offbeat and sometimes awesomely twisted sense of humor that I love, and he owns decades and decades of National Geographic. He's also the only Republican in the nuclear family, so I'd like to avoid giving anything that might be perceived as having a liberal bias; I'm not sure if that's anything I should even worry about in this situation, but obviously "A History of Hippies" is out.

Thanks in advance; I'm anticipating some awesome suggestions that Dad and I am sure to love!
posted by Metroid Baby to Education (45 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I've suggested this at least twice around here so far, so I'm obviously a fan: Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail. It's a wonderful history of the Gold Rush Trail - the author's a geologist, and he writes about that very clearly and beautifully; he uses lots of primary source material from the emigrants who traveled the trail. It's got maps and sketches. It's even funny in parts. It's one of the more unusual history books I've come across in recent years, and I'm going to be giving at least one copy for xmas.
posted by rtha at 10:13 AM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I had to read Life on the Russian Country Estate: A Social and Cultural History by Priscilla Roosevelt for a Russian cultural history class. It was absolutely fantastic. The illustrations are amazing, the text is definitely accessible, and definitely gets one of those "huh, never even thought about that" reactions. Sadly, it appears to be out of print, but still available used. When I get home, I'll check my shelves for classical history books and see if any of them might also be particularly awesome.
posted by General Malaise at 10:19 AM on December 3, 2007

The Ghost Map, about Dr. John Snow (the father of epidemiology) and his initial research into how cholera is spread (it's a lot more dramatic and interesting than it may sound, but I'll let you read the Amazon page).
Rats, all about the history of rats in NYC and how they shaped the city in ways you wouldn't imagine.
Strange Victory, regarding Hitler's unexpected conquest of France. The French loss was primarily caused not by a superiority of German armaments or overwhelming number,s but rather how poor planning and a refusal to challenge de facto thinking doomed the French defense.
Cicero, all about one of Rome's greatest politicians.
A Short History of Progress, Wright documents the rise and fall of four different civilizations.
Zero, in which you'll be shocked at how much opposition there was to what we now consider a very simple concept.
The Potato, we owe a lot to potatoes.
Salt, and to salt.
Cod, and finally, to cod.
posted by Nelsormensch at 10:23 AM on December 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Devil in the White City was very compelling, particularly if he's into criminology or architecture.
posted by cosmicbandito at 10:25 AM on December 3, 2007

Has he read Devil in the White City? It's about the Chicago World's Fair at the turn of the last century. Great read.

Also, he may have already read this, but my dad loved Team of Rivals, about Lincoln's contentious cabinet.
posted by lunasol at 10:27 AM on December 3, 2007

Ah! Should have previewed!
posted by lunasol at 10:27 AM on December 3, 2007

"I would have always wanted this but never knew it existed"

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond fits the bill for me. An excellent read that lays a good foundation for understanding history.

I also really enjoyed Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis which contains several anecdotes about the founder of the U.S.
posted by Manjusri at 10:31 AM on December 3, 2007

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Novel set in England in the late Middle Ages, including the building of a great cathedral. I loved it. (And Oprah loved it.)
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:37 AM on December 3, 2007

If he's interested in ancient history, he might like A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich. It's a condensation of the author's well-regarded three-volume on the empire. I read it this summer; it's compelling and well-crafted, and doesn't assume much prior knowledge of the period.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:40 AM on December 3, 2007

The Manhattan Project
posted by spock at 10:52 AM on December 3, 2007

Zinn is great, because it presents the history of the United States, from 1492 to present, from a point of view that is distinctly different that most history books. Plus Zinn is a great writer and its a pleasure to read.

The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires 1415-1980

Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World: Map by Map Directory
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:52 AM on December 3, 2007

Also, I second Guns, Germs and Steel.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:53 AM on December 3, 2007

Seconding Founding Brothers; Joseph Ellis' new book, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, sounds good, too.

The Oxford History of the United States series has several good titles.

April 1865: The Month That Saved America.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:59 AM on December 3, 2007

The Discoverers is a very interesting read, including history on clocks, map making, discovering America....
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 11:00 AM on December 3, 2007

A History of Britain is a three volume book set by Simon Schama. It also has a DVD version.

My wife and I picked up the DVD set on a lark at a used DVD shop. We were immediately hooked and lost about 8 hours to watching it that day - in those 8 hours we only made it up to the English Civil War.

One other option would be to get him a variety of books on a single topic. You could get him a few US Civil War books, the Ken Burns documentary, some Osprey books on uniforms and tactics, and a few lead soldiers for him to paint for an entirely themed holiday.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:06 AM on December 3, 2007

'The Capture of Attu: A World War II Battle as Told by the Men Who Fought There' is a fascinating book about a WW2 theatre that isn't instantly recognisable (at least to this Brit!).
posted by Ulleskelf at 11:11 AM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I always recommend The Fatal Shore, the epic of Australia's founding.
posted by zebra3 at 11:13 AM on December 3, 2007

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War.
posted by sushiwiththejury at 11:15 AM on December 3, 2007

I second the Norwich recommendation. I picked up the shorter at the library, because I felt guilty for knowing nothing about Byzantium, despite being an educated type. It was so good, I ordered the three volume set, also by Norwich, that the shorter was abridged from, before I'd gotten 3 chapters in.

It is one of the two best history books for the intelligent layman that I've read. Norwich is a diplomat by profession, and has a keen eye for political scandal and the kind of command of English prose that is a delight to read.
posted by QIbHom at 11:16 AM on December 3, 2007

"The Guns of August," about the start of World War I in Western Europe, and "August 1914," about Russia's first month in the war, are a really interesting pair of history books to read together, and also wonderfully written.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:21 AM on December 3, 2007

I would recommend Rubicon by Tom Holland about the end of the Roman Republic. Every one I know who has read it, including engineers and history majors, has loved it.

Also, Guns, Germs and Steel is a must read at some point. Gwynne Dyer's War was also really interesting and reminiscent of Guns, Germs, and Steel.
posted by carolr at 11:21 AM on December 3, 2007

The Path Between The Seas
posted by hortense at 11:22 AM on December 3, 2007

I recently finished reading The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. There's a lot of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt in there, as well as a solid overview of the surrounding civilizations. It does also cover some of the history of India and China, but skipping those chapters won't break the continuity of the rest. It was beautifully written, I learned a lot I hadn't known, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next volume (it's the first of four).
posted by Cricket at 11:25 AM on December 3, 2007

As much as I love Howard Zinn and would recommend the People's History of the United States (mentioned upthread), I definitely think he has a liberal bias which your father may not like.

I haven't read Guns, Germs and Steel, but I've heard nothing but good things about it.

Wish I could be of more help, but as I haven't read many history books, I will also be watching this thread with interest.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:26 AM on December 3, 2007

The The Iliad and The Odyssey Boxed Set (Fagles translation).

But no matter what, don't bother with The Aeneid; Virgil was nothing but a Homer wannabe. In translation to English, The Aeneid is a ripoff of the Odyssey to mythologize Roman ascendancy and superiority. I've heard that the original was considered the height of Latin writing.
posted by Doohickie at 11:31 AM on December 3, 2007

I'll second croutonsupafreak's recommendation of The Guns of August, which was a thoroughly fascinating and pleasurable read.
posted by saladin at 11:34 AM on December 3, 2007

Oh... another two (both by Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress from 1975 until 1987):

The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination, and

The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself

They are both fascinating pre-history to modern day sweeps of the history of creative thought and of technology. They are kind of like the James Burke Connections series, but with the details filled in.
posted by Doohickie at 11:39 AM on December 3, 2007

I'll second The Ghost Map. It's really interesting, with just enough detail and not too much.
posted by andraste at 11:48 AM on December 3, 2007

The Unknown American Revolution by Gary B. Nash. The american revolution from the viewpoint of people other than the founding fathers. History In the Making by Kyle Ward. How american history books change over time. Anything by Barbara Tuchman. Check the history CDs and DVDs on the Teaching Compant website.
posted by Raybun at 12:30 PM on December 3, 2007

Blood and Guts. A Short History of Medicine by Roy Porter is impossible to put down. A nice amount of illustrations too.
posted by gatchaman at 12:42 PM on December 3, 2007

Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America by Jason Goodwin is a brilliant book, and deals with the Civil War from an unexpected perspective.

Not non-fiction, but may I recommend one of my favourite authors, JG Farrell? The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip are two of the finest works of historical fiction ever written, IMHO, set during the Indian mutiny and the fall of Singapore to the Japanese respectively. I have given them as gifts on three or four occasions, and they have always been appreciated.
posted by WPW at 1:01 PM on December 3, 2007

I second:

Salt by Mark Kurlansky
Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond
posted by Argyle at 1:10 PM on December 3, 2007

Meh to "Salt." It's OK if you want a toilet back trivia book, but there's no clearly stated central thesis or cohesiveness to how Kurlansky presents all his tidbits about the mineral.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:25 PM on December 3, 2007

T.J. Stiles' book Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War is masterful at every level--the research, interpretation, and the prose are equally breath taking.
posted by LarryC at 1:47 PM on December 3, 2007

Devil in the White City is an excellent book but very narrative; it reads like a novel and may not be what your dad is looking for. (I also didn't think it was that well written. Sorry.)

A Short History of Nearly Everything, however, is very well written and quite fascinating.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:13 PM on December 3, 2007

Byzantine history is really, really interesting (it is, after all, well, you know); I would totally second the Norwich up there.

And, honestly, I'm sorry but I think reading Thucydides is about as exciting as watching grass grow. My vote for fifth-century-Greek source material totally goes to Herodotus. And as historical documents, they're pretty interesting - you get all the war and politics of Thucydides plus that fun stuff Herodotus decided was true or just plain interesting (the Nile floods because the sun gets blown off course! India is rich because its inhabitants steal gold from giant mountain ants!) and some commentary to explain just what he's trying to talk about (those mountain ants? marmots, mistranslated through Persian). Lots of intriguing examples of how Greek thought worked with a very incomplete view of the world around them.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 2:29 PM on December 3, 2007

I'm in almost exactly the same situation this year, and I went with a slice of the Loeb Classical Library. They've got attractive little volumes of pretty much any Greek or Latin author you can think of in side-by-side translation with the original text.
For the amateur classical historian, there's Herodotus, Thucydides, Julius Caesar, or Suetonius; Apollodorus's compendium of Greek myths is a good little-known pick; if he's a religous-variety Republican, they have all the Christian fathers (Augustine, Bede, St. Jerome, Clement of Alexandria). And if you're stuck again in the future, you can always go back and work on expanding his collection...
posted by ormondsacker at 2:39 PM on December 3, 2007

Ghost Map was a FABULOUS BOOK that I received as a birthday gift from my husband. I've asked for Guns, Germs and Steel as a Christmas present. I'm drooling for that book. I caveat that I haven't read it yet, but my perusal of it while I lovingly caress it in the bookstore imagining unwrapping it Christmas morning makes me confident it fits your bill.
posted by bunnycup at 2:41 PM on December 3, 2007

Thanks for giving me the chance to plump for the most stunningly informative coffee table picture book I have ever owned: The Sea Remembers, by Peter Throckmorton.

This book is full of highly detailed double-page color artist's renderings of a selection of the most interesting shipwrecks found and studied by archaeologists up until the date of writing (~1987). This is history from the true bottom up, and the density of fascinating information it contains is about the greatest I have ever encountered.

Here is a page describing used copies for sale (it seems to be out of print).
posted by jamjam at 2:54 PM on December 3, 2007

Off the beaten path just a bit, but really in-depth and fascinating is Rising '44 by Norman Davies. It's title refers to the Warsaw uprising by the Polish Home Army during WWII, but it's really about the politics of that period, more than anything. It's a big dense book, the kind you read for a bit, then put down, then return to. Really good for beginning to understand the complexities of the politics during that time.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:05 PM on December 3, 2007

1776: The Illustrated Edition (Hardcover) by David MCullough is a terrific history of the start of the Revolutionary War containing replicas of maps, lettters, sketches and other period artifacts that you can examine.
posted by MCTDavid at 6:45 PM on December 3, 2007

Bruce Cumings's Korea books, Korea's Place in the Sun and North Korea are both outstanding.

I wouldn't recommend Guns, Germs, and Steel, despite its importance, because it's boring and tedious to read (I just taught it, and its predictability and methodical plodding structure was brutal).

I just read Victory at Any Cost, about Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap. Great stuff. People like 1491 a lot, too.

If I were you, though, my first choice would be Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, a really mind-blowing book that, despite the premise of its project, is surprisingly hopeful and pragmatic. A truly important book.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:36 AM on December 4, 2007

Thanks, everyone! I knew you would come through. I'm probably going to end up getting him two books - the Norwich is a strong contender. Maybe even a couple more for his birthday, provided he doesn't stumble upon this list in the meantime! I'm also going to see if any of these are at the library, for my own reading.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:38 AM on December 4, 2007

Short History of Nearly Everything is Bryson's least insightful and most cliche book.

I would recommend The Lost Continent by Bryson instead. It documents his journies in small town America. Good stuff if you're looking for something more contemporary.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:10 PM on December 4, 2007

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