Books like Ken Burns
July 3, 2004 12:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm a big fan of Ken Burns' documentaries (just finished up watching Baseball for the third time, for instance, and have seen The Civil War twice)... What I'm curious about is what books would you recommend that present history in a siimilar fashion (easily digestible, compellingly written, etc.)?

Oh, and the topic could be anything (architecture, sports, war, politics, dog fighting...), as long as it's written in a way that makes the topic interesting.
posted by dobbs to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've found the various "People's history of..." books to be pretty digestible.

The US Pacific Northwest was home to a great folk historian, Stewart Holbrook, who put out a number of good books and newspaper articles that are worth reading.

I personally like reading the New History of the World from time to time.
posted by cmonkey at 1:00 PM on July 3, 2004

Stephen Biesty Cross Sections
posted by pieoverdone at 2:16 PM on July 3, 2004

Civilisation by Clark, Kenneth
posted by JohnR at 3:35 PM on July 3, 2004

Japan At War by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F Cook. An oral history of the Pacific War, from the perspective of the Japanese, from admirals to housewives. It will likely change the way you think about the Japanese during WWII.
posted by SPrintF at 3:35 PM on July 3, 2004

I recommend The Dark Valley : A Panorama of the 1930s, by Piers Brendon -- it's a gripping survey of what was going on in various countries that gives you a new perspective on the period leading up to WWII.

Also, the Hammond Atlas of World History (earlier editions were called Times Atlas of World History) is well written and presents developments in terms of brilliantly drawn maps, so that if visual imagery helps you assimilate information it might be worth getting.
posted by languagehat at 5:08 PM on July 3, 2004

For good "comfort food" style reading, I like the big old shelf of Will and Ariel Durant books. They're not exactly fashionable these days, and they're admittedly "eurocentric" (the first volume, written in the 1930s, dispenses with India, China and Japan in a few chapters, and was woefully out of date--both factually and in tone--within a decade or two), but they're great for picking up at random and just browsing through for enjoyment.

Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars", in the lively translation by Robert Graves of "I, Claudius" fame, is a can't-miss.

I enjoyed "The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s" by Eugen Weber, and "The Spanish Civil War" by Antony Beevor during the last year.
posted by gimonca at 5:40 PM on July 3, 2004

I'll tell you a great book: Longitude. Really, really good stuff.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:49 PM on July 3, 2004

I've always been interested in old movies and the early history of film. I grew up with The Movies, and spent many lazy rainy afternoons poring over its pages full of lush black-and-white stills. It covers film from the very beginnings up to the early 60's. And Lillian Gish's wonderful autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me is a fantastic insider view of how the first cinematic pioneers figured out how to use this new medium to tell compelling stories. Her director, D.W. Griffith, was arguably the most influential in the early days. Although to Lillian there would have been nothing the least bit arguable about it. She absolutely adored him. (To the best of my limited knowledge, there's no

I loved listening to my parents and grandparents telling about the events they had lived through, and so the history I've always been most interested in is American history, from 1920's thru the 1950's. Two of my absolute favorites that cover roughly this period are William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream, 1932 thru 1972 (a hefty tome, but VERY readable and engaging), and the rather lightweight but very enjoyable Time-Life series called This Fabulous Century.

I'd give a strong second to Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization, and also to their Dual Autobiography. They led a fascinating life. Traveled the world researching their books on history and philosphy and knew a great many of the important people of their time, including some of the anarchists, reds and radicals of the early 1900's, John Reed, Mabel Dodge, Max Eastman, Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell. They were also quite radical in their youth.

I've always found reading biographies a very enjoyable way to pick up a little history or maybe more a sense of what was life was like for people who were just living their lives while history was taking place. I liked Simone de Beauvoir's first two autobiographies, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, which takes place in France before, during and shortly after World War I, and Prime of Life, which is set in the time leading up to and including World War II.

For history addressing single subjects, I loved Isaac Asimov's Short History of Biology. It's always interesting how hard great thinkers have to work at overturning the accepted wisdom of their day.
posted by marsha56 at 7:10 PM on July 3, 2004

Oops, what I meant to say is that I don't think there is any relation between Richard Griffith, the author of The Movies, and D.W. Griffith, the great pioneering film director.
posted by marsha56 at 7:13 PM on July 3, 2004

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes perhaps? It's a gripping story, brilliantly told and he not only covers the people and politics from the earliest days of atomic physics onwards, he also includes the physics! (but don't let that put you off).
Another easy and yet compelling history read is the three volume History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich. Good books to have by the bed and dip into every so often (as are those of one of his main sources, Edward Gibbon, but his prose causes headaches for many modern readers).
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:57 PM on July 3, 2004

One more: "The American West" by Dee Brown (author of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"). If you saw Ken Burns' "The West" series, you'll get right into it.
posted by gimonca at 9:18 PM on July 3, 2004

Oh, and best place to get Durant books is probably your local used book store, in person. Tons of them floating around, because a couple of subscription book clubs used to give away the whole set if you agreed to join. Prices on used copies look good online, but shipping will be horrendous, so it's almost certainly better to patronize a local bookseller and cart them home yourself.
posted by gimonca at 9:22 PM on July 3, 2004

My bad. You're right gimonca. Local book store (or library) is a much better idea.
posted by marsha56 at 9:35 PM on July 3, 2004

A caveat: the Durants' history is seriously out of date (wasn't exactly cutting-edge when it appeared), so if they get you interested in any particular subject, you'll want to read a more current treatment.
posted by languagehat at 7:43 AM on July 4, 2004

Sarah Vowell.
posted by pomegranate at 1:22 PM on July 4, 2004

Mark Kurlansky is an exellent writer. His books Salt, Cod, and A Basque History of the World sound like they'd be right up your alley. Also, the PBS series Connections with James Burke is beyond cool.
posted by Miles Long at 3:08 PM on July 4, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks all. I've written 'em down and will hit the library.

Miles, yes, I've read Cod and quite like it. I've seen Salt in the store but the library copies are always out.
posted by dobbs at 10:34 PM on July 4, 2004

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