People sometimes ask me for book recommendations. As a card-carrying History nerd, I have read a lot, but I wouldn’t inflict many of them on an unwary public. A lot of “professional” History books are reworked doctoral dissertations—highly focused and deeply embedded in the discipline’s debates on how to think about history, with much less attention to “what actually happened.” They are useful, but only for a particular purpose. Many others a grand synthetic surveys; again, useful for a (different) particular purpose. Many are oh-so-eager to demonstrate their erudition, often at the expense of clarity. Of course, there are a lot of fine books out there, but most are aimed at folks (like me) who start every new book by looking at the bibliography.
On the other side, there is a lot of “popular” History: lots of biographies, frequent superficiality, much that is “half-baked,” and, sometimes, just plain wrong.
So, here is a list of ten books that I really like (in alphabetical order). As a modern Europeanist, with some interests in world history and a bent towards political stuff, my working collection draws from a small sample of what’s listed in the History section of any University Library. (I only have about a dozen books on the French Revolution out of several thousand that have been written.) I don’t have much US history, for example, and relatively little covering the period before 1500. I have tried to avoid the overly hefty tomes (although I was tempted by E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (a classic weighing in at 800+ pages)). Some items on the list are books I have used in my classes, some are “popular,” but each is well-written and has something interesting to say (sometimes revelatory) to the kinds of people who are likely to be reading my blog.
1491, Charles Mann (2005): What was going on in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus and the rest of the Europeans showed up? Actually, quite a bit more than you might think. A mix of science, history, current affairs, and anthropology written is a lively way (Mann is a journalist), with things that will make you rethink how our part of the world came to be how it is. His sequel, 1493, continues the story of the impact of Europeans and is also quite good.
Against the Grain, James Scott (2017): A stunning rethink of how “civilization” arose, with a particular focus on the Fertile Crescent. What was the relationship between agriculture, society, and the State? How have the fundamental structures of human existence survived and morphed over the past 8,000 years. Scott melds new discoveries and a willingness to push the interpretative “envelope.”
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, Amy Kelly (1957): Gender, politics, and society in medieval France and England. Beautifully written, this is more than a biography of a remarkable woman and her families.
The Great Cat Massacre, Robert Darnton (1984): A collection of studies of French culture (mostly 17/18C) that combines great stories and with historical analysis. Darnton, shows how Historians should work to extract insight from particular pieces of historical evidence and gives us a real sense of how peoples’ minds were changing as modernity was being developed.
The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman (1962): Of the dozens of books on the origins of WWI that I have read, this is still the most engaging, bringing the events of the summer of 1914 alive. It’s hardly the whole story, but if politico-military history can be a “fun read,” this is it.
Mosquito Empires, John McNeill (2010): Did bugs turn the tide of the American Revolution? You’ll have to rethink the relationship between the geographic/biologic/natural environment and traditional politico-military history with this remarkable study of war and malaria in the Western Hemisphere in the 16-19Cs.
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy (1987): Long before this hour of apparent American global decline, Kennedy showed how we fit a pattern over the past 500 years. Spain, France, Britain, and Germany have gone before us. Any success of imperialism is, at best, temporary.
Sapiens, Yuval Harari (2011): A sweeping interpretation of human history from the beginning through the future (better, in my view, than Harari’s other books). Engaging, startling, and fun to argue with.
The Scientific Revolution, Steven Shapin (1996): A brief (popular) survey that begins with one of the great lines in history writing: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution and this is a book about it.” If you’re up for a heavier lift, Shapin’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump blows apart the idea that the whole idea of scientific thinking developed in isolation from the political/religious turmoil of early modern Europe.
The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark (2014): The best rethink of the origins of WWI brought out in the spate of books marking the centenary of the start of the war. Not the easiest read among the books on this list, but full of new ideas and insights on this essential event from a broader perspective than Tuchman.
Of course, there’s more where this came from (as you know if you’ve been in my study). I certainly don’t claim that these are the “best” books out there (matters of taste, too). So, I’m happy to make more recommendations, especially if you can tell me what you like or dislike about any of the initial list above.
Check ‘em out!