The Best Books of 2021

This Year's Must-Reads

The Ten Best History Books of 2021

Our favorite titles of the year resurrect forgotten histories and help explain how the U.S. got to where it is today

Meilan Solly

Meilan Solly

Associate Editor, History

History books illustration

After 2020 brought the most devastating global pandemic in a century and a national reckoning with systemic racism , 2021 ushered in a number of welcome developments, including Covid vaccines , the return of beloved social traditions like the Olympics and public performances , and incremental but measurable progress in the fight   against racial injustice . 

During this year of change, these ten titles collectively serve a dual purpose. Some offer a respite from reality, transporting readers to such varied locales as ancient Rome, Gilded Age America and Angkor in Cambodia. Others reflect on the fraught nature of the current moment, detailing how the nation’s past—including the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and police brutality—informs its present and future. From a chronicle of civilization told through clocks to a quest for Indigenous justice in colonial Pennsylvania, these were some of our favorite history books of 2021.

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz

“It’s terrifying to realize that most of humanity lives in places that are destined to die,” writes Annalee Newitz in the opening pages of Four Lost Cities . This stark statement sets the stage for the journalist’s incisive exploration of how cities collapse—a topic with clear ramifications for the “global-warming present,” as Kirkus notes in its review of the book. Centered on the ancient metropolises of Çatalhöyük , a Neolithic settlement in southern Anatolia; Pompeii , the Roman city razed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E.; Angkor , the medieval Cambodian capital of the Khmer Empire; and Cahokia , a pre-Hispanic metropolis in what is now Illinois, Four Lost Cities traces its subjects’ successes and failures, underscoring surprising connections between these ostensibly disparate societies. 

All four cities boasted sophisticated infrastructure systems and ingenious feats of engineering. Angkor, for instance, became an economic powerhouse in large part due to its complex network of canals and reservoirs, while Cahokia was known for its towering earthen pyramids , which locals imbued with spiritual significance. Despite these innovations, the featured urban hubs eventually succumbed to what Newitz describes as “prolonged periods of political instability”—often precipitated by poor leadership and social hierarchies—“coupled with environmental collapse.” These same problems plague modern cities, the writer argues, but the past offers valuable lessons for preventing such disasters in the future, including investing in “resilient infrastructure, … public plazas, domestic spaces for everyone, social mobility and leaders who treat the city’s workers with dignity.”

Preview thumbnail for 'Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

A quest to explore some of the most spectacular ancient cities in human history―and figure out why people abandoned them

Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America by Nicole Eustace

In the winter of 1722, two white fur traders murdered Seneca hunter Sawantaeny after he refused their drunken, underhanded attempts to strike a deal. The ensuing furor, writes historian Nicole Eustace in Covered With Night , threatened to spark outright war between English colonists and the Indigenous inhabitants of the mid-Atlantic. Rather than enter into a prolonged, bloody battle, the Susquehanna River valley’s Native peoples forged an agreement, welcoming white traders back into their villages once Sawantaeny’s body had been metaphorically “covered,” or laid to rest in a “respectful, ritualized way,” as Eustace told Smithsonian magazine’ s Karin Wulf earlier this year.

“Native people believe that a crisis of murder makes a rupture in the community and that rupture needs to be repaired,” Eustace added. “They are not focused on vengeance; they are focused on repair, on rebuilding community. And that requires a variety of actions. They want emotional reconciliation. They want economic restitution.”

The months of negotiation that followed culminated in the Albany Treaty of 1722 , which provided both “ritual condolences and reparation payments” for Sawantaeny’s murder, according to Eustace. Little known today, the historian argues, the agreement underscores the differences between Native and colonial conceptions of justice. Whereas the former emphasized what would now be considered restorative justice (an approach that seeks to repair harm caused by a crime), the latter focused on harsh reprisal, meting out swift executions for suspects found guilty. “The Pennsylvania colonists never really say explicitly, ‘We’re following Native protocols. We’re accepting the precepts of Native justice,’” Eustace explained to Smithsonian . “But they do it because in practical terms they didn’t have a choice if they wanted to resolve the situation.”

Preview thumbnail for 'Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America

Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America

An immersive tale of the killing of a Native American man and its far-reaching implications for the definition of justice from early America to today

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Sackler family’s role in triggering the U.S. opioid epidemic attracted renewed attention this year with the release of “ Dopesick ,” a Hulu miniseries based on Beth Macy’s 2018 book of the same name , and Patrick Radden Keefe ’s award-winning Empire of Pain , which exhaustively examines the rise—and very public fall—of the drug-peddling American “dynasty.” 

Meticulously researched, the book traces its roots to the early 2010s, when the journalist was reporting on Mexican drug cartels for the New York Times magazine . As Keefe tells the London Times , he realized that 25 percent of the revenue generated by OxyContin, the most popular pill pushed by Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma, came from the black market. Despite this trend, the family was better known for its donations to leading art museums than its part in fueling opioid addiction. “There was a family that had made billions of dollars from the sale of a drug that had such a destructive legacy,” Keefe says, “yet hadn’t seemed touched by that legacy.” Infuriated, he began writing what would become Empire of Pain .

The resulting 560-page exposé draws on newly released court documents, interviews with more than 200 people and the author’s personal accounts of the Sacklers’ attempts to intimidate him into silence. As the New York Times notes in its review, the book “paint[s] a devastating portrait of a family consumed by greed and unwilling to take the slightest responsibility or show the least sympathy for what it wrought.” 

Preview thumbnail for 'Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

A grand, devastating portrait of three generations of the Sackler family, famed for their philanthropy, whose fortune was built by Valium and whose reputation was destroyed by OxyContin

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America by Keisha N. Blain

Historian Keisha N. Blain derived the title of her latest book from a well-known quote by its subject, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer : “We have a long fight and this fight is not mine alone, but you are not free whether you are white or Black, until I am free.” As Blain wrote for Smithsonian last year, Hamer, who grew up in the Jim Crow South in a family of sharecroppers , first learned about her right to vote in 1962, at the age of 44. After attempting to register to vote in Mississippi, she faced verbal and physical threats of violence—experiences that only strengthened her resolve.

Blain’s book is one of two new Hamer biographies released in 2021. The other, Walk With Me by historian Kate Clifford Larson , offers a more straightforward account of the activist’s life. Comparatively, Blain’s volume situates Hamer in the broader political context of the civil rights movement. Both titles represent a long-overdue celebration of a woman whose contributions to the fight for equal rights have historically been overshadowed by men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Preview thumbnail for 'Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America

Explores the Black activist’s ideas and political strategies, highlighting their relevance for tackling modern social issues including voter suppression, police violence, and economic inequality

Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love by Rebecca Frankel

On April 30, 1942, 11-year-old Philip Lazowski found himself separated from his family during a Nazi selection in the Polish town of Zhetel. Realizing that the elderly, the infirm and unaccompanied children were being sent in one direction and families with work permits in the other, he tried to blend in with the children of a woman he recognized, only to hear her hiss , “Don’t stand next to us. You don’t belong in this group.” Looking around, Lazowski soon spotted another stranger and her daughters. Desperate, he pleaded with her to let him join them. After pausing momentarily, the woman— Miriam Rabinowitz —took his hand and said, “If the Nazis let me live with two children, they’ll let me live with three.”

All four survived the selection. From there, however, their paths temporarily diverged. Lazowski reunited with his family, remaining imprisoned in the Zhetel ghetto before fleeing into the nearby woods, where he remained hidden for the next two and a half years. Miriam, her husband Morris and their two children similarly sought refuge in a forest but did not encounter Lazowski again until after the war. (Lazowski later married one of the Rabinowitz daughters, Ruth, after running into Miriam at a 1953 wedding in Brooklyn—a “stroke of luck that … mirrors the random twists of fate that enabled the family to survive while so many others didn’t,” per Publishers Weekly .) 

As journalist Rebecca Frankel writes in Into the Forest , the Rabinowitzes and Lazowski were among the roughly 25,000 Jews who survived the war by hiding out in the woods of Eastern Europe. The majority of these individuals (about 15,000) joined the partisan movement , eking out a meager existence as ragtag bands of resistance fighters, but others, like the Rabinowitzes, formed makeshift family camps, “aiming not for revenge but survival,” according to the Forward . Frankel’s account of the family’s two-year sojourn in the woods captures the harsh realities of this lesser-known chapter in Holocaust history, detailing how forest refugees foraged for food (or stole from locals when supplies were scarce), dug underground shelters and remained constantly on the move in hopes of avoiding Nazi raids. Morris, who worked in the lumber business, used his pre-war connections and knowledge of the forest to help his family survive, avoiding the partisans “in the hope of keeping outside the fighting fray,” as Frankel writes for the New York Times . Today, she adds, the stories of those who escaped into the woods remain “so elusive” that some scholars have referred to them as “the margins of the Holocaust.”

Preview thumbnail for 'Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love

Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love

From a little-known chapter of Holocaust history, one family’s inspiring true story

The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age by Amy Sohn

Though its title might suggest otherwise, The Man Who Hated Women focuses far more on the American women whose rights Anthony Comstock sought to suppress than the sexist government official himself. As novelist and columnist Amy Sohn explains in her narrative non-fiction debut, Comstock , a dry goods seller who moonlighted as a special agent to the U.S. Post Office and the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, spent more than four decades hounding activists who advocated for women’s reproductive rights. In 1873, he lobbied Congress to pass the Comstock Act , which made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious” material—including documents related to birth control and sexual health —through the mail; in his view, the author adds, “obscenity, which he called a ‘hydra-headed-monster,’ led to prostitution, illness, death, abortions and venereal disease.”

The Man Who Hated Women centers on eight women activists targeted by Comstock: among others, Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the first woman to run for president; anarchist and labor organizer Emma Goldman; Planned Parenthood founder and notorious eugenicist Margaret Sanger ; abortionist Ann “ Madam Restell ” Lohman; and homeopath Sarah Chase , who fought back against censorship by dubbing a birth control device the “Comstock Syringe.” Weaving together these women’s stories, Sohn identifies striking parallels between 19th- and 20th-century debates and contemporary threats to abortion rights. “Risking destitution, imprisonment and death,” writes the author in the book’s introduction, “[these activists] defined reproductive liberty as an American right, one as vital as those enshrined in the Constitution. … Without understanding [them], we cannot fight the assault on women’s bodies and souls that continues even today.”

Preview thumbnail for 'The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age

The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age

A narrative history of Anthony Comstock, anti-vice activist and U.S. Postal Inspector, and the remarkable women who opposed his war on women’s rights at the turn of the 20th century

African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otele

In this sweeping chronicle , scholar Olivette Otele challenges white-centric narratives of European history by tracing African people’s presence on the continent from the 3rd century to the 21st. Featuring a rich cast of characters, including Renaissance duke Alessandro de’ Medici , 18th-century polymath Joseph Boulogne , and actress and artists’ muse Jeanne Duval , African Europeans artfully examines changing conceptions of race and how these ideas have shaped both real-world experiences and accounts of the past. 

“The term ‘African European’ is … a provocation for those who deny that one can have multiple identities and even citizenships, as well as those who claim that they do not ‘see color,’” writes Otele in the book’s introduction. “The aims of this volume are to understand connections across time and space, to debunk persistent myths, and to revive and celebrate the lives of African Europeans.”

Preview thumbnail for 'African Europeans: An Untold History

African Europeans: An Untold History

A dazzling history of Africans in Europe, revealing their unacknowledged role in shaping the continent

The Eagles of Heart Mountain by Bradford Pearson

Life at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, where some 14,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated between August 1942 and November 1945, was punctuated by harsh winters, inadequate medical care, and racist treatment by white staff and locals. A year or so after the camp’s opening, however, prisoners gained an unlikely source of hope: high school football. As journalist Bradford Pearson writes in The Eagles of Heart Mountain , the team—made up mainly of second-generation immigrants who’d never played the sport before—went undefeated in the 1943 season and lost just one game the year after that. 

Pearson juxtaposes the heartwarming tale of the underdog Eagles with details of how players resisted the draft. Reluctant to fight on behalf of a country that had ordered their detainment, several of the young men refused to enlist, leaving them vulnerable to (additional) imprisonment. “We are not being disloyal,” declared the Heart Mountain–based Fair Play Committee. “We are not evading the draft. We are all loyal Americans fighting for justice and democracy right here at home.”

Preview thumbnail for 'The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America

The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America

The impeccably researched, deeply moving, never-before-told tale about a World War II incarceration camp in Wyoming and its extraordinary high school football team

About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks by David Rooney

“[F]or thousands of years,” argues David Rooney in About Time , humans have “harnessed, politicized and weaponized” time, using clocks to “wield power, make money, govern citizens and control lives.” A former curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, home of Greenwich Mean Time , Rooney traces his fascination with horology to his childhood, when his parents ran a clockmaking and restoration business. Over a lifetime spent studying clocks, the scholar realized that the devices could be used as windows into civilization, revealing insights on “capitalism, the exchange of knowledge, the building of empires and the radical changes to our lives brought by industrialization.”

About Time centers on 12 clocks created over some 2,000 years, from a sundial at the Roman forum in 263 B.C.E. to a plutonium time-capsule clock buried in Osaka, Japan, in 1970. As the centuries progressed, timekeeping tools became increasingly accurate—a development that could “never [be] politically neutral,” notes the Washington Post in its review of the book. Instead, the standardization of time enabled capitalist endeavors like the opening and closing of financial markets and social control measures such as laws limiting when consumers could purchase alcohol. Overall, writes Rooney, his “personal, idiosyncratic and above all partial account” seeks to demonstrate that “monumental timekeepers mounted high up on towers or public buildings have been put there to keep us in order, in a world of violent disorder, … as far back as we care to look.” 

Preview thumbnail for 'About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks

About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks

A captivating, surprising history of timekeeping and how it has shaped our world

America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s by Elizabeth Hinton

Between July 1964 and April 2001, almost 2,000 urban rebellions sparked by racially motivated police intimidation, harassment and violence broke out across the U.S. These “explosions of collective resistance to an unequal and violent order,” in Elizabeth Hinton ’s words , are often characterized as riots—a term the Yale historian rejects in favor of “rebellion.” Citing a rich trove of historical data, Hinton’s America on Fire   convincingly argues that Black rebellions occur in response to police violence rather than the other way around. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1960s “ War on Crime ,” for example, contributed to the growth of local police forces that “encroach[ed on] all aspects of Black social life, transforming typical youthful transgressions into fodder for police assaults on young Black people,” per the New Yorker .

Published almost exactly a year after George Floyd was killed in police custody, America on Fire deftly draws parallels between the violence that followed the assassinations of civil rights leaders in the 1960s and the 2020 protests. Only “extraordinary” acts of police violence, like the well-documented murder of Floyd, prompt such rebellions today: “[T]he daily violence and indignities that Black people experience in encounters with police go unaddressed,” notes the Washington Post in its review of the book. “In this sense, Hinton argues that the status quo has won. Ordinary police violence has become normalized, run-of-the-mill. We respond to only its most brutal forms.”

Preview thumbnail for 'America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s

America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s

From one of our top historians, a groundbreaking story of policing and “riots” that shatters our understanding of the post–civil rights era

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Meilan Solly

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Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history.

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Best World History Books of 2022

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best history books reviews

50 best history books of all time

Spanning both centuries and continents, discover our edit of the best non-fiction history books. .

best history books reviews

As the oft-repeated quote by George Santayana goes, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ The past fascinates historians and readers alike, and history has much to teach us about our present and future. Here’s our edit of the best history books of all time.

Looking for fiction? Discover our edit of the best historical fiction books of all time.

  • Ancient & early history
  • British history
  • European history
  • Russian history
  • World history
  • History of religion
  • Historical figures

The best books on ancient & early history

Tutankhamun's trumpet, by toby wilkinson.

Book cover for Tutankhamun's Trumpet

It is over one hundred years since Howard Carter first peered into the newly opened tomb of ancient Egyptian boy-king, Tutankhamun. When asked if he could see anything, he replied: ‘Yes, yes, wonderful things.’ In  Tutankhamun’s Trumpet , acclaimed Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson takes the objects buried with the king as the source material for a wide-ranging, detailed portrait of ancient Egypt – its geography, history, culture and legacy. One hundred artefacts from the tomb, arranged in ten thematic groups, are allowed to speak again – not only for themselves, but as witnesses of the civilization that created them.

A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth

By henry gee.

Book cover for A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth

This lyrical and moving account takes us back to the early history of the earth – a wildly inhospitable place with swirling seas, constant volcanic eruptions and an unstable atmosphere. The triumph of life as it emerges, survives and evolves in this hostile setting is Henry Gee's riveting subject: he traces the story of life on earth from its turbulent beginnings to the emergence of early hominids and the miracle of the first creatures to fly. You'll never look at our planet in the same way again.

The Greatest Invention

By silvia ferrara.

Book cover for The Greatest Invention

This book tells the story of our greatest invention – the invention of writing. Writing allowed humans to create a record of their lives and persist past the limits of their lifetimes. The Greatest Invention explores the origins of our very first scripts in China, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Central America, deciphering the ancient stories and teasing out the timeless truths of human nature in our desire to connect, create and be remembered. 

by Paul Cartledge

Book cover for Thebes

Acclaimed historian Paul Cartledge brings ancient Thebes vividly to life in this fascinating account of what was once the most powerful city in Ancient Greece. With a history as rich as its mythic origins, Paul argues that Thebes is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ achievements – and thus to our own culture and civilization.

Pandora’s Jar

By natalie haynes.

Book cover for Pandora’s Jar

The Greek myths are among the world's most important cultural building blocks and they have been retold many times, but rarely do they focus on the remarkable women at the heart of these ancient stories. Now, in  Pandora's Jar: Women in the Greek Myths , Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Pandora and her jar (the box came later) as the starting point, she puts the women of the Greek myths on equal footing with the menfolk. After millennia of stories telling of gods and men, be they Zeus or Agamemnon, Paris or Odysseus, Oedipus or Jason, the voices that sing from these pages are those of Hera, Athena and Artemis, and of Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Eurydice and Penelope.

Divine Might

Book cover for Divine Might

In  Divine Might  Natalie Haynes, author of the bestselling  Pandora’s Jar , returns to the world of Greek myth and this time she examines the role of the goddesses. We meet Athene, Artemis, Aphrodite and Hera; each with their own story. We also meet Demeter, goddess of agriculture and mother of the kidnapped Persephone, we sing the immortal song of the Muses and we warm ourselves with Hestia, goddess of the hearth and sacrificial fire. These goddesses are as mighty, revered and destructive as their male counterparts. Isn’t it time we looked beyond the columns of a ruined temple to the awesome power within?

Don't Miss

A guide to Natalie Haynes' fiction & non-fiction books

A world beneath the sands.

Book cover for A World Beneath the Sands

The golden age of Egyptology was undoubtedly the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time of scholarship and adventure which began with Champollion's decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1822 and ended with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon a hundred years later. In A World Beneath the Sands , the acclaimed Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson tells the riveting stories of the men and women whose obsession with Egypt's ancient civilisation drove them to uncover its secrets.

The best books on British history

Turning points, by steve richards.

Book cover for Turning Points

In a landscape of frequent upheaval in British politics, the term 'unprecedented' is often invoked as ministers resign and inquiries ensue. Steve Richards, broadcaster and journalist, offers perspective by delving into ten pivotal moments that have moulded modern Britain. From the Suez Crisis to Covid-19, spanning 1945 to Thatcher, Richards argues that it is only with distance that we can perceive the tectonic plates shifting – and events that may seem earth-shattering in the moment might be a passing tremor with the perspective of history. Drawing on his extensive experience, he blends anecdotes and analysis to explore these key political events. 

Queen of Our Times

By robert hardman.

Book cover for Queen of Our Times

One of the leading writers on royalty brings us the definitive biography of Elizabeth II. Featuring new interviews with leaders from around the world, insights from friends and unparalleled access to unseen papers, Robert Hardman delves into the extraordinary life of our longest serving monarch. From war and romance to her accession to the throne at twenty-five as a mother of two, via travels, tragedy and crises, Elizabeth remained an intriguing, quietly determined figure. And this is a rounded and authoritative portrait of her.

Warriors in Scarlet

By ian knight.

Book cover for Warriors in Scarlet

Esteemed military historian Ian Knight uses firsthand accounts to show us the reality of life for British soldiers in this era. From mundane peacetime routines to overseas deployments' challenges, Knight captures the camaraderie, floggings, and hardships. As the empire rapidly expands, the army engages in global conflicts, exposing the harsh realities of colonial warfare. Knight delves into both perspectives, as British soldiers clash with local warriors; he recreates the action, from bloody skirmishes in Southern Africa and siege warfare in New Zealand to disasters like the 1842 retreat from Kabul and Chillianwalla in the Punjab.

Royal Renegades

By linda porter.

Book cover for Royal Renegades

A tale of love and endurance, of battles and flight, of educations disrupted, the lonely death of a young princess and the wearisome experience of exile,  Royal Renegades  charts the fascinating story of the children of loving parents who could not protect them from the consequences of their own failings as monarchs and the forces of upheaval sweeping England.

Who Are We Now?

By jason cowley.

Book cover for Who Are We Now?

In Who Are We Now?, Jason Cowley, editor-in-chief of the New Statesman, puts a lens up against contemporary England to offer a clear and compassionate analysis of how and why the United Kingdom has reached a cultural and political crossroads. Spanning the years since the election of Tony Blair's New Labour government to the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, this book takes a handful of key news stories from recent times and explores the common threads between them and the ways they have affected and changed us.

Black and British

By david olusoga.

Book cover for Black and British

Winner of the 2017 PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize.

In  Black and British , award-winning historian and broadcaster David Olusoga offers readers a rich and revealing exploration of the extraordinarily long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa. Drawing on new genetic and genealogical research, original records, expert testimony and contemporary interviews,  Black and British  reaches back to Roman times and to the present, and modern Britain, showing how black British history is woven into the cultural, social and economic histories of the nation.

by Peter Ackroyd

Book cover for Innovation

Innovation  concludes Peter Ackroyd’s History of England, and runs from the end of the Boer War to  the long reign of Queen Elizabeth – via two world wars, three other monarchs and the triumphant rise of the Labour Party. Suffrage, the NHS, slum clearance, the Bloomsbury Group, 1960s idealism and free love all feature in Ackroyd's masterful narrative about the forces that shaped modern Britain.

The Burning Time

By virginia rounding.

Book cover for The Burning Time

Smithfield, settled on the fringes of Roman London, was once a place of revelry. Jesters and crowds flocked for the medieval St Bartholomew's Day celebrations, tournaments were plentiful and it became the location of London's most famous meat market. Yet in Tudor England, Smithfield had another, more sinister use: the public execution of heretics. The Burning Time is a  vivid account of the men and women who were burned at the stake for heresy by the Tudor monarchs at London's Smithfield – the true story behind some of the key players in C. J. Sansom's Shardlake novels and Hilary Mantel's  Wolf Hall  and  Bring Up the Bodies . 

Book cover for Mistresses

Charles II ruled over a hedonistic court, and was described as being ‘addicted to women’, many who succumbed to his charms. In Mistresses , Linda Porter tells the story of the women who shared Charles’s bed, painting a vivid picture of both these women and of Restoration England, an era that was both glamorous and sordid.

A History of Modern Britain

By andrew marr.

Book cover for A History of Modern Britain

A History of Modern Britain tackles the triumph of consumerism over politics, tracing how grand visions succumbed to celebrity culture and self-indulgence. Decade by decade, leaders' plans falter as the resilient British defy expectations. Amid invasions, financial woes, and the Cold War, the nation stands at pivotal moments, shaping global capital and migration. This narrative weaves politics, economics, and cultural shifts, delving into comedy, counterculture, and Thatcher's impact. A vibrant, candid, and comprehensive account.

A House Through Time

Book cover for A House Through Time

Historian and award-winning TV presenter David Olusoga and research consultant Melanie Backe-Hansen offer readers the tools to explore the histories of their own homes, as well as giving a vivid history of British cities, industry, disease and class. Packed with remarkable human stories, A House Through Time is an intimate history of ordinary lives through extraordinary buildings across Britain.

The best books on European history

In the midst of civilized europe, by jeffrey veidlinger.

Book cover for In the Midst of Civilized Europe

In Ukraine and Poland, over 100,000 Jews were murdered between 1918 and 1921. Jews were seen as causing the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, resulting in ordinary people killing their Jewish neighbours without impunity. Today these pogroms have been mostly forgotten, despite dominating headlines at the time, with aid workers warning that Jewish populations were in danger of extermination. Twenty years later, these predictions would prove devastatingly true. In the Midst of Civilized Europe reframes the pogroms as a turning point as renowned historian Jeffrey Veidlinger shows how this wave of genocidal violence created the conditions for the Holocaust.

The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire

Book cover for The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire

In this vital work, historian David Olusoga describes how Europe's Great War became the World's War, and explores the experiences and sacrifices of four million non-European, non-white people whose stories have remained too long in the shadows. A unique account of the millions of colonial troops who fought in the First World War, and why they were later air-brushed out of history, David Olusoga's meticulously researched The World's War is not to be missed.

The Glass Wall

By max egremont.

Book cover for The Glass Wall

The Glass Wall  features an extraordinary cast of characters – contemporary and historical, foreign and indigenous – who have lived and fought in the Baltic and made the atmosphere of what was often thought to be western Europe’s furthest redoubt. Too often it has seemed to be the destiny of this region to be the front line of other people’s wars. By telling the stories of warriors and victims, of philosophers and Baltic Barons, of poets and artists, of rebels and emperors, and others who lived through years of turmoil and violence, Max Egremont reveals a fascinating part of Europe, on a frontier whose limits may still be in doubt.

The Greatest Escape

By neil churches.

Book cover for The Greatest Escape

This is the previously untold story of the largest escape of POWs in the Second World War. Led not by officers, but by British jazz pianist Les Laws, Australian bank teller Ralph Churches and American spy Franklin Lindsay, the escape saw 106 Allied prisoners freed from a camp in Maribor, in what is now Slovenia. The book follows the escapees on their nail-biting 160-mile journey across the Alps, as they were hounded and ambushed  by German soldiers. Told by Ralph Churches' son Neil, it is a fascinating tale of espionage, brutality and daring.

Lily's Promise

By lily ebert.

Book cover for Lily's Promise

This is the moving story of Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert, written with her great-grandson Dov. When Lily was liberated at the end of the Second World War, a Jewish-American soldier handed her a banknote with the words ‘the start to a new life, good luck and happiness!’ written on it. Decades later, when Lily was 96, Dov decided to track down the family of that soldier. Lily finally told her life story to the world, from her childhood in Hungary to the deaths of her family members in Auschwitz to her new life in Israel and then London, fulfilling the promise she made to her 16-year-old self to share the horrors of the holocaust.

Eight Days at Yalta

By diana preston.

Book cover for Eight Days at Yalta

In the last winter of World War Two, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin arrived in Yalta. Over eight remarkable days they decided on how to conduct the final stages of the war against Germany, how a defeated and how occupied Germany should be governed. Only three months later, less than a week after the German surrender, Roosevelt was dead and Churchill was writing to the new President, Harry S. Truman, of ‘an iron curtain’ that was now ‘drawn down upon [the Soviets’] front’. Meticulously researched and vividly written, in Eight Days at Yalta Diana Preston chronicles eight days that created the post-war world. 

Going with the Boys

By judith mackrell.

Book cover for Going with the Boys

On the front lines of the Second World War, a contingent of female journalists were bravely waging their own battle. Barred from combat zones and faced with entrenched prejudice and bureaucratic restrictions, these women were forced to fight for the right to work on equal terms as men. Going with the Boys  follows six remarkable women as their lives and careers intertwined in an intricately layered account that captures both the adversity and the vibrancy of the women’s lives as they chased down sources and narrowly dodged gunfire, as they mixed with artists and politicians like Picasso, Cocteau, and Churchill, and conducted their own tumultuous love affairs.

The Happiest Man on Earth

By eddie jaku.

Book cover for The Happiest Man on Earth

This heartbreaking yet hopeful memoir shows us how happiness can be found even in the darkest of times. In November 1938, Eddie Jaku was beaten, arrested and taken to a German concentration camp. He endured unimaginable horrors for the next seven years and lost family, friends and his country.  But he survived. And because he survived, he vowed to smile every day. He now believes he is the ‘happiest man on earth’. This is his story. 

The Trial of Adolf Hitler

By david king.

Book cover for The Trial of Adolf Hitler

On the evening of November 8, 1923, the thirty-four-year-old Adolf Hitler stormed into a beer hall in Munich, fired his pistol in the air, and proclaimed a revolution. Seventeen hours later, all that remained of his bold move was a trail of destruction. Hitler was on the run from the police. His career seemed to be over. In  The Trial of Adolf Hitler  historian David King tells the true story of how Hitler transformed the fiasco of the beer hall putsch into a stunning victory for the fledgling Nazi Party – and a haunting failure of justice with catastrophic consequences.

1939: A People’s History

By frederick taylor.

Book cover for 1939: A People’s History

In the autumn of 1938, Europe believed in the promise of peace. Still reeling from the ravages of the Great War, its people were desperate to rebuild their lives in a newly safe and stable era. But only a year later, the fateful decisions of just a few men had again led Europe to war. Bestselling historian Frederick Taylor focuses on the day-to-day experiences of British and German people trapped in this disastrous chain of events and not, as is so often the case, the elite. Drawn from original sources, their voices, concerns and experiences reveal a marked disconnect between government and people.

The Women Who Flew for Hitler

By clare mulley.

Book cover for The Women Who Flew for Hitler

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented, courageous women who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. With the war, both became pioneering test pilots and both were awarded the Iron Cross for service to the Third Reich. But they could not have been more different and neither woman had a good word to say for the other. In  The Women Who Flew For Hitler biographer Clare Mulley gets under the skin of these two distinctive and unconventional women, against a changing backdrop of the 1936 Olympics, the Eastern Front, the Berlin Air Club, and Hitler's bunker.

France: An Adventure History

By graham robb.

Book cover for France: An Adventure History

A profoundly original and endlessly entertaining history of France, from the first century BC to the present day, based on countless new discoveries and thirty years of exploring the country. Beginning with the Roman army's first encounter with the Gauls and ending with the Gilets Jaunes protests during the presidency of Emmanuel Macron, this is a vivid, living history of one of the world’s most fascinating nations. 

How to Be a Refugee

By simon may.

Book cover for How to Be a Refugee

The fate of Jews living in Hitler’s Germany is most familiar as either emigration or deportation to concentration camps. But another, much rarer, side to Jewish life at that time was denial of your origin to the point where you manage to erase almost all consciousness of it. How to Be a Refugee is Simon May’s gripping account of how three women – his mother and her two sisters  – grappled with what they felt to be a lethal heritage. 

by Simon Winder

Book cover for Germania

There are many reasons to be fascinated by Germany: forests, architecture and fairy tales, not to mention its history and inhabitants’ penchant for very peculiar food. Our distant and often maligned cousin, this is a place in which innumerable strange characters have held power, in which a chaotic jigsaw of borders have moved about seemingly at random, and which at the dark heart of the 20th century fell into the hands of truly terrible forces. And now Simon Winder is here to tell us everything else there is to know about this mesmerizing, tortured and endlessly fascinating country.

The best books on Russian history

Blood on the snow, by robert service.

Book cover for Blood on the Snow

In his revisionist account of the origins of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Robert Service explores the factors that led to the abolition of Tsarist rule in and the rise of communism in Russia. Exploring the period from the beginning of the First World War to Lenin’s death in 1924 through primary source material, Service argues that the seeds of revolution were planted not by the workers pushing for socialism, but by the Tsar’s unpopular decision to join the war against Germany in 1914. This compelling new book by one of the foremost experts on Russian history is a must-read. 

The Russian Job

By douglas smith.

Book cover for The Russian Job

Award-winning historian Douglas Smith tells the story of how American volunteers fought famine in Bolshevik Russia, saving Lenin’s revolutionary government from chaos and millions of people from starvation. Vividly written, with a rich cast of characters and a deep understanding of the period, The Russian Job shines a bright light on this strange and shadowy moment in history.

Kremlin Winter

Book cover for Kremlin Winter

Vladimir Putin has dominated Russian politics since Boris Yeltsin relinquished the presidency in his favour in May 2000. He served two terms as president, before himself relinquishing the post to his prime minister, Dimitri Medvedev, only to return to presidential power for a third time in 2012. Robert Service, one of the finest historians of modern Russia, brings his deep understanding of the country to this deeply insightful book about the man who leads it. This is a riveting exploration of power politics in Russia as the country faces difficulties both at home and abroad. 

The Last of the Tsars

Book cover for The Last of the Tsars

In March 1917, Nicholas II, the last Tsar of All the Russias, abdicated and the dynasty that had ruled an empire for three hundred years was forced from power by revolution. In this masterful and forensic study, Robert Service examines the last year Nicholas's reign and the months between that momentous abdication and his death, with his family, in Ekaterinburg in July 1918. Drawing on the Tsar's own diaries and other hitherto unexamined contemporary records,  The Last of the Tsars  reveals a man who was almost entirely out of his depth, perhaps even willfully so. 

The Diary of Lena Mukhina

By lena mukhina.

Book cover for The Diary of Lena Mukhina

In May 1941 Lena Mukhina was an ordinary teenage girl, living in Leningrad. Then, on 22 June 1941, Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and declared war on the Soviet Union. All too soon, Leningrad was besieged and life became a living hell. Lena and her family fought to stay alive; their city was starving and its citizens were dying in their hundreds of thousands. Lena records her experiences: the desperate hunt for food, the bitter cold of the Russian winter and the cruel deaths of those she loved. A remarkable account of this terrible era,  The Diary of Lena Mukhina  is the vivid first-hand testimony of a courageous young woman struggling to survive.

The best books on World history

The utopians, by anna neima.

Book cover for The Utopians

Santiniketan-Sriniketan in India, Dartington Hall in England, Atarashiki Mura in Japan, the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France, the Bruderhof in Germany and Trabuco College in America: six experimental communities established in the aftermath of the First World War, each aiming to change the world. Anna Neima's  The Utopians  is an absorbing and vivid account of these collectives and their charismatic leaders and reveals them to be full of eccentric characters, outlandish lifestyles and unchecked idealism.

by Jonathan Raban

Book cover for Bad Land

Jonathan Raban's enthralling journey into the history of the Great Plains of Montana – the least populated, most uncharted region of the United States – to uncover the heart and soul of the country, with a new introduction from Jane Smiley. Bringing to life the extraordinary landscape of the prairie and the homesteaders whose dreams foundered there, and reaching through history to the present day,  Bad Land  uncovers the dangerous legacy of American innocence gone sour.

The Making of the Modern Middle East

By jeremy bowen.

Book cover for The Making of the Modern Middle East

Jeremy Bowen, the International Editor of the BBC, has been covering the Middle East since 1989 and is uniquely placed to explain its complex past and its troubled present. In  The Making of the Modern Middle East, Bowen takes us on a journey across the Middle East and through its history. He meets ordinary men and women on the front line, their leaders, whether brutal or benign, and he explores the power games that have so often wreaked devastation on civilian populations as those leaders, whatever their motives, jostle for political, religious and economic control.

Until Proven Safe

By geoff manaugh.

Book cover for Until Proven Safe

Quarantine has shaped our world, yet it remains both feared and misunderstood. It is our most powerful response to uncertainty, but it operates through an assumption of guilt: in quarantine, we are considered infectious until proven safe.  Until Proven Safe  tracks the history and future of quarantine around the globe, chasing the story of emergency isolation through time and space. Part travelogue, part intellectual history – this is a book as compelling as it is definitive, and one that could not be more urgent or timely.

Day of the Assassins

By michael burleigh.

Book cover for Day of the Assassins

While there has been enormous speculation on what lay behind notorious individual political assassinations – from Julius Caesar to John F. Kennedy – the phenomenon itself has scarcely been examined as a special category of political violence, one not motivated by personal gain or vengeance. Now, in  Day of the Assassins , acclaimed historian Michael Burleigh explores the many facets of political assassination, explaining why it is more frequent in certain types of society than others and asking if assassination can either bring about change or prevent it, and whether, like a contagious disease, political murder can be catching.

Falling Off the Edge

By alex perry.

Book cover for Falling Off the Edge

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, international corporations and governments have embraced the idea of a global village: a shrinking, booming world in which everyone benefits. What if that's not the case? Foreign correspondent, Alex Perry, travels from the South China Sea to the highlands of Afghanistan to see first-hand globalization at the sharp end. Whether it's Shenzen, China's boom city where sweatshops pay under-age workers less than $4 a day, or Bombay, where the gap between rich and poor means million-dollar apartments overlook million-people slums, Perry demonstrates that for every winner in our new world, there are hundreds of millions of losers.

India After Gandhi

By ramachandra guha.

Book cover for India After Gandhi

Born against a background of privation and civil war, divided along lines of caste, class, language and religion, independent India emerged, somehow, as a united and democratic country. Ramachandra Guha’s hugely acclaimed book tells the full story – the pain and the struggle, the humiliations and the glories – of the world’s largest and least likely democracy. Massively researched and elegantly written,  India After Gandhi  is a remarkable account of India’s rebirth, and a work already hailed as a masterpiece of single-volume history.

by V. S. Naipaul

Book cover for India

Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul first visited India in 1962, hoping to settle the ghosts of a painful ancestral past.  An Area of Darkness  chronicles his initial visit as estrangement gives way to connections and conversations. Prompted by the Emergency of 1975,  India: A Wounded Civilization  presents an intellectual portrait of a country whose people are no longer so willing to bear witness.  India: A Million Mutinies Now  captures a panorama of voices fifteen years later, at another moment of national upheaval. Born of Naipaul’s wish to see the homeland from which he was twice displaced,  India  emerges as an invaluable account of a nation in times of dramatic change.

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Book cover for The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

In a forensic examination of the world we now live in, acclaimed historian Michael Burleigh sets out to answer: are we living in the best, or the worst of times? Who could have imagined that China would champion globalization and lead the battle on climate change? Or that post-Soviet Russia might present a greater threat to the world’s stability than ISIS? And while we may be on the cusp of still more dramatic change, perhaps the risks will – in time – bring not only change but a wholly positive transformation.

The best books on the history of religion

God: an anatomy, by francesca stavrakopoulou.

Book cover for God: An Anatomy

Three thousand years ago, in the region we now call Israel and Palestine, people worshipped an array of deities led by a god called El. El had seventy children, all of whom were gods themselves; one of these children, Yahweh, fought humans and monsters and eventually evolved into the God of the great monotheistic faiths. The history of God in culture stretches back centuries before the Bible was written. Elegantly written and fiercely argued, Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou provides a fascinating analysis of God’s cultural DNA, and in the process explores the founding principles of Western culture.

The Darkening Age

By catherine nixey.

Book cover for The Darkening Age

A Sunday Telegraph History Book of the Year for 2017. The Roman Empire had been generous in embracing and absorbing new creeds. But with the coming of Christianity, everything changed. This new faith, despite preaching peace, was violent, ruthless and intolerant. Classicist and journalist Catherine Nixey’s debut book tells the largely unknown story of how the rise of Christianity attacked and suppressed vast swathes of classical literature, ushering in centuries of unquestioning adherence to 'one true faith'. 

Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilisation from the Past

By firas alkhateeb.

Book cover for Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilisation from the Past

In the bestselling work Lost Islamic History, Firas Alkhateeb seeks to shine a new light on the contributions of Muslim thinkers, scientists and theologians, not to mention statesmen and soldiers, which have been overlooked for millennia. This important book rescues from oblivion a forgotten past, charting its narrative from Muhammad to modern-day nation-states. From Abbasids and Ottomans to Mughals and West African kings,  Alkhateeb sketches key personalities, inventions and historical episodes to show the monumental impact of Islam on global society and culture.

The best books on historical figures

The three mothers, by anna malaika tubbs.

Book cover for The Three Mothers

These are the stories of Louise Little, Alberta King, and Berdis Baldwin – the mothers of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin, respectively. Anna Malaika Tubbs' vital history book is part-biography, part-manifesto, and centers on three remarkable women who were traumatized by the country that both they and their sons would go onto change irrevocably. This essential celebration of their lives and contributions to the civil rights movement serves to ensure that their stories are not erased and gives credit where it is long overdue.

Dutch Light

By hugh aldersey-williams.

Book cover for Dutch Light

Dutch Light is both a vivid account of the remarkable life and career of Christiaan Huygens and the story of the birth of modern science as we know it today. Christiaan Huygens was a true polymath and Europe’s greatest scientist during the latter half of the seventeenth century, developing the theory of light travelling as a wave, inventing the mechanism for the pendulum clock, and discovering the rings of Saturn – via a telescope that he had also invented. 

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

By mary seacole.

Book cover for Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

Mary Seacole was a fiercely independent self-funded entrepreneur from Jamaica. A trained nurse, she was desperate to offer help during the Crimean War, but was denied work by officials and by Florence Nightingale. Mary knew what she wanted to achieve and wouldn’t let anything stand in her way, so she set up her famous hotel for British soldiers, offering respite from the front line. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands is her gutsy autobiography.


By alexander lee.

Book cover for Machiavelli

Thanks to the invidious reputation of his most famous work,  The Prince , Niccolò Machiavelli exerts a unique hold over the popular imagination. But was Machiavelli as sinister as he is often thought to be? Might he not have been an infinitely more sympathetic figure, prone to political missteps, professional failures and personal dramas? This riveting biography reveals the man behind the myth, following him from cradle to grave, from the great halls of Renaissance Florence to the court of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, from the dungeons of the Stinche prison to the Rucellai gardens, where he would begin work on some of his last great works. 

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The best history books to transport yourself to the past

Check out these insightful history books.

Nick Hilden

Looking for a way to pass time and escape from the present? Diving deep into the pages of books about the past is a great way to go about it. History is messy stuff , but much of it is, in fact, not ugly and not all that hard to process. The more you know about it, the more the messes make sense, both in a historical and modern context. Here are some of the best history books that give you brilliant knowledge in enjoyable prose.

While best is an easy word to throw around, it's harder to pin down. In the case of the best history books ever written, best is a highly subjective distinction that depends on your perspective. What is considered the best by someone born in raised in Los Angeles, for example, is likely very different from someone raised in Tokyo. It is, however, fairly easy to determine the greats that should be included in any true history buff's reading list.

What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr

An outlier on this list in that it doesn't look at any specific period or event in history, Carr's book is nevertheless essential reading in that it teaches you how to read and understand history. Initially criticized for its "dangerous relativism," the book is now considered foundational to the field thanks to its explanation of how perspective and bias can affect the way we interpret historical events. This should arguably be your first book if you're making your initial forays into history.

1491 by Charles C. Mann

As we all know from the schoolroom rhyme, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Then he "discovered" the Americas. This, of course, is an accurate depiction of history only if you're willing to ignore the millions of people who were already living in complex societies when he got there. In this book, Mann not only dispels the myth of Columbus's discovery, but details the various civilizations residing in North, Central, and South America, explaining their customs and cultures, providing a glimpse into a lost way of life, and reminding us that -- for better or worse -- history tends to be told by the victors rather than the vanquished.

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Precolonial Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop

When it comes to the history of Africa, the vast majority of "western" readers receive information solely from "western" historians. Accordingly, they end up with a very one-sided look at the continent's past. Here, the renowned Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop takes readers into the histories of many overlooked African civilizations, illuminating not only their histories, but how they played a key role in the development of the world as we know it today.

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Few events have changed the course of world history as distinctly as World War I, and few people have a clear idea of why and how the war got started in the first place. If World War II had obvious enemies and causes, the origins of the so-called "war to end all wars" were much more obscure. Here, Tuchman looks at the month leading up to the tragic conflict, unraveling its numerous strands and relating the day-to-day developments with clarity and intensity, unlike any book that proceeds it.

Parallel Lives by Plutarch

Now we're getting deep into the classics. Written by the great Greek philosopher and historical Plutarch sometime in first half of the second century AD, Parallel Lives (also often known just as Lives) is made up of 23 side-by-side biographies comparing the lives of historic Greek and Roman figures who lived out similar destinies. Athens founder Theseus, for example, is paralleled with Rome's founder Romulus. In another chapter, Alexander the Great is posed against Julius Caesar. Considered one of the earliest works of history as we understand it, it's essential reading for any student of the Antiquities.

The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

While Beevor is known for having written several of the greatest books on World War II, this book stands out in that it is often considered the most comprehensive look at the test-run war that led directly up to it, the Spanish Civil War. With its in-depth exploration of the many factions, detailed maps of engagements, and explanation of foreign support from future enemies like Germany and Russia who were using the conflict as a proxy skirmish, the book provides a fascinating look at the war that bled directly into WWII.

Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice P. Nimura

In the 1870s, five girls from Japan visited the United States with the intention of learning something of western culture and then to bring it back to their native country. They spent roughly a decade in the U.S., then returned home with new ideas about women's education and their place in society. Nimura's book is a powerful read for anyone looking to understand the development of women's rights and the formation of early global bonds.

The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge

Almost universally heralded as the most expansive examination of the series of conflicts that plagued the Levant and Mediterranean over the course of the Middle Ages, here Asbridge looks not only at the Crusades themselves but how they have impacted the world that followed. This isn't just a great read for anyone seeking a detailed understanding of the topic in question, but who wants an engaging, sometimes outright thrilling narrative.

This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan

The newest book to appear on our list, here we look not at an event or period but at specific plants and how they've impacted our society. While Pollan has looked at a variety of plants before, here he zooms in on coffee and tea, opium poppies, and mescaline cacti, examining the histories of the plants and their effects on our bodies, minds, and society.

The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

Written some 2,500 years ago, this is a detailed -- emphasis on detailed -- dive into the great war between Sparta and Athens. It's an insanely dense book that no one expects you to read, but if you do you will be part of a select group of exceedingly patient history buffs. This is the Mount Everest of history books. Suffice to say that it's an impressive addition to your bookshelves.

The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer

Publisher's Weekly said Susan Wise Bauer's book The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome "guides readers on a fast-paced yet thorough tour of the ancient worlds of Sumer, Egypt, India, China, Greece, Mesopotamia, and Rome." I'd call that a fine summation. When you close this sweeping, nearly 900-page tome, you won't know the blow-by-blow of the Battle of Thermopylae or the intimate details of the plot leading up to Caesar's assassination, but you will have a keen sense of how each early civilization developed, grew, and ultimately fell (or at least changed or merged with another) in addition to how they impacted one another. If you have forgotten the bulk of your ninth-grade ancient history class (I haven't, by the way, Mr. Farquahar!), then this book is a good place to start your re-education.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies isn't the history of one particular place, people, or period, it is an examination of what happened to a range of peoples in a host of places and times based on agriculture, disease, and other factors, like luck. History happened the way it happened not because one group of people was innately better than any other, but simply because some folks first developed better weapons or learned how to grow more food than the next culture over. But for slight changes, it all could have been different. (Not necessarily better, mind you, just different.)

1776 by David McCullough

Ah, David McCullough, dropping knowledge on us for decades. As usual with his books, 1776 unpacks just about everything you need to know about its subject -- in this case, we're talking about the formation of the United States of America, a nation forged in the fires of war but crafted by ideals. In these pages, George Washington is no mythic figure, he is flesh and blood, but no less impressive for it. And British commander Sir William Howe is no villain, either, but a formidable and worthy adversary. McCullough's writing is authoritative yet readable.

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

It's important that you note the subtitle of James McPherson's book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. For while this celebrated tome covers all the major battles and features all the major officers on both sides of the war, it also spreads wider, looking at the politics of the war years, the events that preceded the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, and the ramifications of America's deadliest conflict. This is one of the best single-volume histories ever written about the Civil War and might be one of the best single-volume histories on any topic of so large a scale.

The Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson didn't write the book about World War II, he wrote the books. His three-volume series, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, The Day of the Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, and The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, is about the best resource you could ask for when it comes to a comprehensive telling of America's role in the entirety of the Western Theater of WWII. In reading the books , it's shocking to learn at first how ill-prepared America was for war and amazing just how good we got at waging it in less than half a decade. Through the course of the books , you follow generals and GIs as, slowly but steadily, the tide turns from a harrowing defensive fight against Axis forces to a certain and total victory.

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Few actors have had more surprising careers than Mark Wahlberg. After living out a fairly troubled youth and having a brief career as a rapper, Wahlberg transitioned to the big screen and became one of the most enduring movie stars of the past 20 years. Across a wide range of genres, Wahlberg has managed to prove that he has the kind of charisma and charm to carry big-budget spectacles. At the same time, he's also proven that his skills as an actor can be used in smaller, supporting performances, leading to a far more successful acting career than many might have assumed 25 years ago. The films on this list are the best Mark Wahlberg movies, and the ones that crystallize what a great Wahlberg movie should be.

Instant Family (2018)

By now, everyone knows just how crucial of a role sleep plays in our overall wellness. Just getting more sleep is not the answer for most. With the hustle and bustle of the modern world following us into the bedroom, it's no wonder so many of us have trouble sleeping.

We all know the proper steps to get a good night's sleep: No caffeine after 2 p.m., no staring at screens in bed as blue light is horrible for sleep, no drinking excessively before bed, and most importantly, having a bedtime routine. Other helpful actions can include sleeping in a totally dark room, keeping the ambient room temperature around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, making sure to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (yes, even on weekends), and getting outside in sunlight first thing in the morning (window sun does not count).

Whether it is your dad, grandpa, a brother, a cousin, or a paternal or father figure, Father's Day is the time to celebrate the special men in your life. Regardless of whatever you call him, he's the man who helped you become the individual you are today. Outside of working his tail off and making sure he's turned off every unused light in the house, he's still just a man who has interests and hobbies. Some dads go fishing to blow off steam, while others collect vinyl records.

This Father's Day, don't just get your dad a gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse; put some thought behind it. Hopefully, within this list of the 23 best Father's Day gifts, you'll see something that your dad will love. Here are some of our favorite Father's Day gifts for 2023.

45 Best History Books of All Time

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Blog – Posted on Friday, May 21

45 best history books of all time.

45 Best History Books of All Time

If the mere mention of ‘history books’ is enough to conjure up memories of fighting back yawns in your middle school classroom, then chances are you haven’t been looking in the right places. But fear not — this list is here to bring you some of the most well-researched, entertaining, and readable works by the most preeminent historians of today and generations past.

On this list, you not only find some of the best American history books, on topics spanning slavery and empire, Civil War, and Indigenous histories, but also stories ranging from Asia to Africa, and everywhere in between. This list traverses continents, historical eras, the rise and fall of once-great empires, while occasionally stopping off to hone in on specific, localized events that you might never have heard of.

Whether you’re a history buff looking to flex your muscles, or you struggle to distinguish your Nelson from your Nefertiti, there’ll be something suitable for you. So what are you waiting for? Let’s dive into our 45 best history books of all time.

If you’re looking for history books that give the broader picture as well as the finer details, let us introduce you to some of the most seminal texts on global history. These reads cover the moments and events that form the connective tissue between continents, cultures, and eras. Whether you’re looking for more abstract, theoretical writing on what ‘history’ is and does, or just a broader volume that pans out, rather than in, there’ll be something for you.

1. What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr

Famous for his hefty History of Soviet Russia , E. H. Carr’s foray into historiography (that is, the study of written history) was panned by critics at first. Initially written off as ‘dangerous relativism’, it is now considered a foundational text for historians, one which probes at the very seams of the discipline. By asking what exactly historical knowledge is and what constitutes history as we have come to understand it, Carr provides a compelling and masterful critique of the biases of historians and their moralized narratives of history. This groundbreaking text also interrogates such notions as fact, science, morality, individualism, and society. Carr’s masterpiece is referenced in countless college applications for a reason — it’s a formidable dive into history as a discipline, and laid the foundations for the subject as it exists in the modern world.

2. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

Though first and foremost considered a political theorist, much of Marxist thought can be a means to understand history with attention to economic systems and principles. In this seminal text, Marx argues that all of history has been defined by the struggles between the proletariat working-class and the capital-owning bourgeoisie. According to Marx, economic structures have been defined by class relations, and the various revolutions that have occurred throughout history have been instigated by antagonism between these two forces. As Marx famously opined in his 1852 essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”, and he lays out those repetitions with striking clarity here. As an added bonus, since this was originally intended as a pamphlet, the manifesto comes in at under 100 pages, so you have no reason not to prime yourself on one of modern history’s greatest thinkers.

3. Orientalism by Edward W. Said

A titan of Middle Eastern political and historical study, Edward Said coined the titular phrase ‘Orientalism’ to describe the West's often reductive and derisive depiction and portrayal of "The East." This book is an explanation of this concept and the application of this framework to understand the global power dynamics between the East and the West. Orientalism is considered by many a challenging read, but don’t let its formidable reputation put you off — it’ll all be worth it when you find yourself thinking about global history in ways you haven’t before.

4. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen

It’s no big secret that the US school curriculum is more than a little biased — governments have a tendency to rewrite history textbooks in their favour, and the US government is no exception, keeping quiet on the grizzly, harrowing details and episodes which made the USA the country it is today. With particular focus on the American Civil War, Native Americans and the Atlantic Slave Trade, Loewen tries to interrogate and override simplistic, recountings of these events that portray White settlers as heroes and everybody else as uncivilized and barbarous. This is essential reading for anybody wanting to challenge their own preconceptions about American history and challenge the elevated status of American ‘heroes’.

5. Democracy: A Life by Paul Cartledge

From its birth in the city-state of Ancient Athens to contemporary times, democracy’s definition, application, and practice have been fiercely discussed and debated. With this book, Cartledge presents a biography of a political system that has been alternately lauded as the only means to govern a liberal society and derided as doomed to ineffectiveness.

Based on a near-legendary course of lectures Cartledge taught at Cambridge University, this book charts the social, cultural, and political dimensions of democracy, displaying a mastery of the scholarship to brilliant effect. For those that want to know more about democracy beyond ‘governance for the masses’.

6. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary

When history is so often focalized through a Western lens, reading from alternative positions is essential to challenge these normative understandings of the past. Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted does exactly this. By centering on an Islamic recounting of historical events, it challenges preconceived ideas about Western dominance, colonialism, and stereotyped depictions of Islamic culture and custom. Ansary discusses the history of the Islamic world from the time of Mohammed, through the various empires that have ruled the Middle Eastern region and beyond, right up to contemporary conflicts and the status of Islam in a modern, globalizing world. 

7. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

If you think salt is a substance useful for not much more than topping fries, let journalist Mark Kurlansky prove otherwise. In this book, Kurlansky charts the origins of civilization using a surprising narrative throughline — salt. Many early settlements were established near natural sources of salt because of its many beneficial properties, and this surprisingly precious mineral has continued to play an important role in societies ever since. From its use as a medium of exchange in ancient times to its preservative properties (which allowed ancient civilizations to store essential food throughout the winter), this innocuous substance has been fundamental to the health and wealth of societies across the globe.

8. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

With his collective bibliography having sold over 16 million copies, you’re probably already familiar with Bryson’s work documenting his travels around the world, or his meditations on the brilliant diversity of global culture. Though primarily a travel writer, he’s also turned his hand to history, and A Short History of Nearly Everything specifically focuses on the scientific discoveries of yore that have defined human society. From quantum theory to mass extinction, Bryson recounts these miraculous, unplanned, sometimes ill-fated marvels of human achievement with humor and insight. If there’s a book that’ll have you repeatedly saying “can you believe this?” to random passers-by, this’ll be it!

9. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine

A nation's ability to conquer the seas has always been a mark of prestige and greatness, especially for empires looking to expand beyond their borders and nations wanting to trade and connect with other peoples. Paine discusses how many societies managed to transform the murky depths of the ocean from natural obstacle to a means of transporting goods, people, and ideas — from the Mesopotamians wanting to trade with their neighbors in ancient Aegea and Egypt, to those in East Asia who fine-tuned their shipbuilding techniques to conquer foreign lands.

10. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Here’s another book that frequents the reading lists of politics and history majors the world over! Many have theorized on why certain human societies have failed while others have thrived — but perhaps none have done it as astutely as Jared Diamond has in Guns, Germs, and Steel . The three things featured in the book’s title make up the nexus that Diamond presents as being fundamental to the development (or lack thereof) of human society. Though Diamond's thesis has as many detractors as it has supporters, it’s worth reading to see which side of the debate you fall on.

11. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity by Amartya Sen

In this collection of sixteen essays, esteemed economist Amartya Sen explores the Indian subcontinent, with particular focus on the rich history and culture that has made it the country it is today. The title refers to what Sen believes is inherent to the Indian disposition: argument and constructive criticism as a means to further progress. In his essays, Sen presents careful and considered analysis on a range of subjects that other academics have often tiptoe around, from the nature of Hindu traditions to the major economic disparities existing in certain regions today (and what their roots might be). Whether you’re an expert or new to the topic, you’ll be sure to learn something from Sen’s incisive commentary.

Ancient kingdoms are shrouded in mystery — a lot of what we know has been painstakingly pieced together by brilliant archaeologists and historians who have uncovered ancient artifacts, documents, and remains, and dedicated their working lives to understanding their significance to ancient people. Aren’t the rest of us lucky they’ve done the hard work for us?

12. Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend

The pre-colonial Central America ruled by the Aztecs was one characterized by remarkable innovation and progressiveness. Western historians, however, often failed to acknowledge this or pay the region and its ancient empires much academic attention. Moreover, the history of the Mexican people as recounted by the Spanish has often leaned into stereotyped, whitewashed versions of events. Townsend’s Fifth Sun changes this by presenting a history of the Aztecs solely using sources and documents written by the Aztec people themselves in their native Nahuatl language. What results is an empathetic and invigorating interpretation of Aztec history for newbies and long-time enthusiasts alike.

13. When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara Cooney

When you think of Ancient Egyptian queens, Cleopatra probably comes to mind — but did you know that the various Egyptian dynasties boasted a whole host of prominent women? Cooney’s When Women Ruled The World shifts the spotlight away from the more frequently discussed Egyptian pharaohs, placing attention on the likes of Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra, all of whom commanded great armies, oversaw the conquering of new lands, and implemented innovative economic systems. In this captivating read, Cooney reveals more about these complex characters and explores why accounts of ancient empires have been so prone to placing powerful women on the margins of historical narratives. 

14. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by Edward Gibbon

If you’re a fan of serious, in-depth scholarship on ancient history, then this first volume of Gibbon's classic treatise on the Roman Empire is a perfect fit for you. Despite being published in 1776, Gibbon’s work on the Roman Empire is still revered by historians today. Along with five other volumes of this monumental work, this text is considered one of the most comprehensive and pre-eminent accounts in the field. Gibbon offers theories on exactly how and why the Roman Empire fell, arguing controversially that it succumbed to barbarian attacks mainly due to the decline of “civic virtue” within Roman culture. If this thesis has piqued your interest, then we naturally suggest you start with Volume I to understand what exactly Gibbon considers “virtue” to be, and how it was lost. 

15. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer

Historians are often wont to focus on a particular historical era or location when producing historical nonfiction — but Susan Wise Bauer had grander ambitions. In this text, Bauer weaves together events that spanned continents and eras, from the East to the Americas. This book, described as an “engrossing tapestry,” primarily aims to connect tales of rulers to the everyday lives of those they ruled in vivid detail. With an eloquently explained model, she reveals how the ancient world shaped, and was shaped by, its peoples.

16. Foundations of Chinese Civilization: The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty by Jing Liu

Believe it or not, history doesn’t always mean slogging through page after page of dense, footnoted text. This comic by Beijing native Jing Liu turns history on its head by presenting it in a fun, digestible manner for anybody that has an interest in Chinese history (but isn’t quite ready to tackle an 800-page book on the subject yet). Spanning nearly 3,000 years of ancient history, this comic covers the Silk Road, the birth of Confucianism and Daoism, China's numerous internal wars, and finally the process of modern unification.

Middle Ages and renaissance

Some of the most fearsome and formidable characters in history had their heyday during the Middle Ages and renaissance periods — though it’s hard to know whether their larger-than-life reputations are owed to actual attributes they had, or from their mythologizing during a time where fewer reliable sources exist. Either way, we think they’re great fun to read about — as are their various exploits and conquests. From Genghis Khan to Cosimo de Medici, we’ve got you covered.

17. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Road, an artery of commerce running from Europe through Russia to Asia (and a vital means of connecting the West with the East), has long been of interest to historians of the old world. In this book, Frankopan goes one step further, to claim that there has been more than one silk road throughout history — and that the region stretching from the Mediterranean to China (modern-day Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan) remains the crossroads of civilization and the center of global affairs. Frankopan argues compellingly that this region should be afforded more attention when historians theorize on centers of power and how they have shifted across time. It’s a convincing argument, and one that is expertly executed by Frankopan’s engaging writing and scrupulous research.

18. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Genghis Khan is perhaps one of the most formidable figures in global history. Many recognize his iconic topknot-and-horseback image despite not knowing all too much about his life or the military successes he oversaw as leader of the Mongolian empire. Weatherford’s book takes a deep dive into this complex character and explores new dimensions of the society and culture he imposed upon the many peoples he conquered. As a civilization, Khan's was more keenly progressive than its European counterparts — having abolished torture, granted religious freedoms, and deposed the feudal systems that subordinated so many to so few. If you’re in the mood for an epic tale that’ll challenge your understanding of the global past, you’ll want to pick this book up.

19. Precolonial Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop

Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian, anthropologist, physicist, and politician, dedicated his working life to the study of pre-colonial African culture and the origins of human civilization itself. This book, arguably his most influential text, draws out comparisons between European empires and societies with the often overlooked African civilizations. Diop carefully shows that Africa contributed far more to the world’s development than just its exploited labor and natural resources. Precolonial Black Africa thus sets out to reorient our knowledge of a period that is so often derided by non-African thinkers as “uncivilized” and “barbarous” with brilliant attention to detail.

20. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge

In the 11th century, a vast Christian army was summoned and ordered by the Pope to march across Europe. Their aim was to seize Jerusalem and claim back the city considered the holy seat of Christianity. As it happened, Jerusalem was also a land strongly associated with the Prophets of Islam. The Christian mission thus manifested in the Crusaders’ rampage through the Muslim world, devastating many parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Asbridge’s innovative recounting of this momentous event is unique in the way it even-handedly unpacks the perspective of both the Christian and Muslim experiences and their memorializing of the Holy Wars. With rich and detailed scholarship, this book reveals how the Crusades shaped the Medieval world and continue to impact the present day.

21. The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert

Renaissance Florence is perhaps most famous as the cradle of revered art, sculpture, and architecture by the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo — but in the 15th century, it was also home to the Medicis, one of the most powerful banking dynasties in Europe. Starting with enterprising Cosimo de Medici in the 1430s, Hibbert chronicles the impressive rise of a family that dominated a city where mercantile families jostled for political and social influence, often to bloody ends. And — spoiler alert, if you can spoil history — as with every great period, the rise of the Medicis naturally involves a spectacular fall. It’s the kind of stuff soap operas are made of: an unmissable tale of family intrigue and the corrupting influence of money. 

In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.

22. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

Mainstream history has too often made it seem as though the Americas was all but a vacant wasteland before Columbus and other European conquerors drifted upon its shores in the 15th century. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth — from the Aztecs to the Incas to the tribes of Northern America, many complex social and cultural structures existed prior to the arrival of Europeans. Southern American peoples in particular had sophisticated societies and infrastructures (including running water!) that have unfortunately been obliviated from the popular (or at least white Western) consciousness. A classic book that challenges the victor’s story, Charles C. Mann’s 1491 provides exciting new information on civilizations that have more to teach us than we have previously acknowledged. 

23. The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones

Is there a more abiding emblem of British history than that of Medieval England’s monarchy and the Wars of the Roses? Though its historical figures and events have often been portrayed in television dramas, plays, and books, little is commonly known about the House of Plantagenets, who ruled from the 12th to the 15th century — an era packed with royal drama, intrigue, and internal division. For a witty, acerbic account of the whole ordeal, visit Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets . He approaches the subject with dazzling storytelling skills and charm that it will feel like you’re reading a novel, not a nonfiction book.

Enlightenment, empire, and revolution

You can’t make sense of the present without understanding the forces that got us here. The mechanized and globalized, mass-producing and mass-consuming world we live in today was forged in the fiery hearth of the Industrial Revolution, on the decks of ships setting out in search of uncharted territory, and in battles that were fought over supposedly ‘undiscovered’ lands. A lot changed for the common man in this period, and a lot has been written about it too — here are some of the best works.

24. The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective by Robert C. Allen

The Industrial Revolution is perhaps the most important phenomenon in modern history. It started in 18th-century Britain, where inventions like the mechanical loom and the steam engine were introduced, changing the nature of work and production. But why did this happen in Britain and not elsewhere in the world, and how precisely did it change things? These questions are answered lucidly in Robert C. Allen’s informative book. From the preconditions for growth to the industries and trades that grew out of them, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspectives has it all covered. Though it leans a bit on the academic side, it provides valuable knowledge that will vastly improve your understanding of today’s mass-producing, mass-consuming world.

25. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

For an overview of the history of the US, try this impressive treatise by historian and political scientist Howard Zinn. There’s a reason why this book is so often assigned as mandatory reading for high school and college history courses — it challenges readers to rethink what they’ve been told about America’s past. Rather than focusing on ‘great’ men and their achievements, A People’s History dives unflinchingly into the societal conditions and changes of the last few centuries. Exploring the motives behind events like the Civil War and US international interventions in the 20th century, Zinn shows that while patriotism and morality have often been used to justify America’s social movements and wars, it’s often been economic growth and wealth accumulation that truly drove leaders’ decisions.

26. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

At Wounded Knee Creek in 1890, the Lakota people confronted the encroaching US Army to protect their homeland and community. What followed was a massacre that for decades was viewed as a heroic victory — exemplifying how history is truly shaped by the victors, unless someone else speaks up. In 2010, Dee Brown did just this, exploring the colonialist treatment that Indigenous Americans suffered throughout the late 19th century in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Using council records and personal accounts from people of various Native American tribes, Brown demonstrates just how destructive the US administration was to these communities: in the name of Manifest Destiny and building new infrastructure, white settlers destroyed the culture and heritage of the Indigenous population. It’s something that's sadly still too familiar now, making this an even more pressing read.

27. Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi

While this isn’t strictly a history book, Four Hundred Souls is certainly an eye-opening volume if you’re looking to explore oft-hidden aspects of history. This collection of essays, personal reflections, and short stories is written by ninety different authors, all providing unique insights into the experiences of Black Americans throughout history. Editors Kendi and Blain do a brilliant job of amalgamating a variety of emotions and perspectives: from the pains of slavery and its legacy to the heartfelt poetry of younger generations. If you’re looking for your fix of African American Literature and nonfiction in one go, consider this your go-to.

Since its U.S. debut a quarter-century ago, this brilliant text has set a new standard for historical scholarship of Latin America. It is also an outstanding political economy, a social and cultural narrative of the highest quality, and perhaps the finest description of primitive capital accumulation since Marx.

Rather than chronology, geography, or political successions, Eduardo Galeano has organized the various facets of Latin American history according to the patterns of five centuries of exploitation. Thus he is concerned with gold and silver, cacao and cotton, rubber and coffee, fruit, hides and wool, petroleum, iron, nickel, manganese, copper, aluminum ore, nitrates, and tin. These are the veins which he traces through the body of the entire continent, up to the Rio Grande and throughout the Caribbean, and all the way to their open ends where they empty into the coffers of wealth in the United States and Europe.

Weaving fact and imagery into a rich tapestry, Galeano fuses scientific analysis with the passions of a plundered and suffering people. An immense gathering of materials is framed with a vigorous style that never falters in its command of themes. All readers interested in great historical, economic, political, and social writing will find a singular analytical achievement, and an overwhelming narrative that makes history speak, unforgettably.

This classic is now further honored by Isabel Allende’s inspiring introduction. Universally recognized as one of the most important writers of our time, Allende once again contributes her talents to literature, to political principles, and to enlightenment.

28. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano

The instabilities of Latin America over the last century have largely stemmed from its turbulent and violent past, its land and people having been exploited by European imperial powers, followed by American interventionism. In Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano passionately and compellingly recounts this history while also keeping it accessible to modern readers. Still on the fence? Let the foreword by Latinx literary giant Isabel Allende convince you: “Galeano denounces exploitation with uncompromising ferocity, yet this book is almost poetic in its description of solidarity and human capacity for survival in the midst of the worst kind of despoliation.”

29. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Illustrated by Olaudah Equiano

Though it was published in the late 18th century, this autobiography is still being reprinted today. It follows the life of Equiano, a slave who was kidnapped from his village in Nigeria and trafficked to Britain. In this foreign land, he was traded like merchandise time and again, struggling against adversity to find his freedom and define his identity. The accuracy of the story has been called into question, which is why reprinted editions have footnotes and additional details to better explain the social context of the situation. Regardless, the narrative style of the book makes it a hypnotizing read, immersing readers in the world of Georgian England and the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The World Wars

We thought the biggest events of the 20th century deserved their own section. The fact that so many people across the globe lived to experience these two momentous, destructive wars is perhaps why so much has been written about them — and how they reinvented life as we know it. The books below, covering a variety of perspectives, will intrigue, surprise, and hopefully teach you a thing or two.

30. Ten Days That Shook The World by John Reed

If you’re interested in firsthand accounts of people who've lived through historical moments, then this is the book for you. Published in 1919, Ten Days that Shook the World is the thrilling political memoir of someone who witnessed the October Revolution unfold in St Petersburg, Russia. Reed was a socialist and a newspaper correspondent who happened to be in close contact with the likes of Lenin and Trotsky, aka the innermost circle of the Bolsheviks. His account of the revolution thus provides a very unique perspective — one of both an insider and an outsider. While Reed couldn’t be as impartial as he intended as a journalist, this book is still a useful insight into one of the most important moments in modern history.

31. The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman

If you’re a fan of history books, then you’ve probably heard of Barbara Tuchman: she was a historian and author who twice won the Pulitzer Prize, once for this very book. In The Guns of August , Tuchman uncovers the beginnings of World War I. She starts by examining the alliances and military plans that each country had in case of warfare, demonstrating how delicate this moment was before the declarations and the first battles on various fronts. The militaristic theme of the book could’ve made the tone dry, yet Tuchman lets the stories unravel in a way that intrigues and enthralls. As the granddaughter of the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Tuchman was in Constantinople as the war began, and as a result, her work takes on the gravity of someone who was in the thick of it.,

32. Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie

In the 1930s, when Hitler was making moves to acquire land from neighboring countries, the rest of the Allies pursued a policy they called appeasement. In the book of the same name (previously known as Appeasing Hitler ), the reasoning behind such a policy — despite the Nazis’ blatant antisemitism and aggressive nationalism — reveals how that led to World War II. Spoiler alert: ironically, this was all done with the assumption that if Hitler got what he wanted, there wouldn’t be another large-scale war that would last another four years. As informative as it is, Appeasement is also a valuable reminder that what happened in the past wasn’t a given — at that moment in time, things could have gone any number of ways. What matters, looking back, is what we can learn from it for the future.

33. Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid

From historical fiction novels like Atonement to the somber box office hit Dunkirk , our mainstream knowledge about the Second World War has predominantly featured the French Western Front. Possibly because American forces were much more involved in this side of the war, we tend to overlook the biggest battles, which took place in Eastern Europe.

In Leningrad , Anna Reid sheds a light on one of these epic battles. Breaking Hitler’s vow of non-aggression, German forces poured into the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1941, expecting a quick victory. Little did they know that Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) was not about to go down without a vicious fight. Over the next three years, this massive city was put under a siege that resulted in destruction, famine, and countless deaths, though the Germans were ultimately defeated. What was life like in this prolonged blockade, and was it truly a Soviet victory? You’ll have to read Leningrad to find out.

34. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower

As the only country to have been a victim of nuclear attacks, Japan’s postwar experience has arguably been one of the most unique and difficult of all the countries that took part in the world wars. Prior to and during WW2, Japan was a major power that had annexed much of East Asia by 1941. After the war, Japan was a defeated nation, strong-armed into surrendering by the Soviet army and two American atomic bombs.

Embracing Defeat is about a nation coming to terms with its new reality in the following years, during which the US-occupied Japan and was actively involved in its rebuilding. Shock, devastation, and humiliation were just a few of the emotions that society had to live through. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, MIT professor John Dower explores these sentiments and how they translated into social and cultural changes in Japan.

35. Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century by Konrad H. Jarausch

Over the course of the 20th century, Germany truly experienced all possible transformations. From a key European imperial power to an economically crippled state, to Nazism and the Holocaust, and then to Cold War partition — there’s certainly been no shortage of tumult in Germany over the past hundred years. Collecting stories from over 60 people who lived through these ups and downs, Konrad Jarausch presents a down-to-earth picture of what it was like to undergo these changes in everyday life. While we often see historical changes as a given in hindsight, for the people who lived through the period, these transformations were sometimes far from foreseeable — yet have been formative to their individual and collective identities.

It’s remarkable to consider what humanity has achieved in the last century alone, from the first manned flight to landing people on the moon. But that’s not all: world wars were fought, empires were toppled, living conditions improved for many across the world and human rights were advanced in ways many would not have been able to fathom even a few decades before. To absorb more of our “modern” history, peruse the books below.

36. Stalin's Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring by Andrew Lownie

If you’re a fan of thrilling spy novels , then Stalin’s Englishman is the history book for you: it’s the biography of Guy Burgess, an English-born Soviet spy from the 1930s onward. In a way, Burgess was made for the job — he was born into a wealthy family, attended prestigious schools like Eton and Cambridge, worked at the BBC and then for MI6, making him entirely beyond suspicion in the eyes of his own people. Though little is officially recorded about Burgess’s life, Andrew Lownie has compiled plenty of oral evidence related to this charming spy, weaving together an exciting narrative that will keep you turning the pages.

37. The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith

Since the end of World War II, Africa has seen several waves of independence movements. And while it was once a vision of hope, the effects of colonialism have frequently made post-independence life in Africa unstable and dangerous. Martin Meredith looks into the nuances of this legacy and how it has played out in the post-independence era. Rather than focusing on individual countries, Meredith widens his scope and presents a thorough overview of the continent, making this book an essential read for anyone new to modern African history.

38. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm is a well-known Marxist historian, and so it’s no surprise that his account of 20th-century history leans on the critical side. The Age of Extremes is all about failures: of communism, of state socialism, of market capitalism, and even of nationalism. 

Dividing the century into three parts — the Age of Catastrophe, the Golden Age, and the Landslide — Hobsbawm tracks Western powers and their struggles with world wars, economic failures, and new world orders that involved them losing colonies and influence. In their place, new systems rose to prominence, though all exhibited fundamental faults that made it difficult for them to last. The Age of Extremes is not a jovial read, but it provides an interesting perspective on modern world history. If you’re up for some harsh social commentary, you should definitely pick this book up.

39. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Vietnam War, as it is commonly called in the US, still looms large in the American imagination. But while the trauma and camaraderie of American soldiers in the tropical jungles of Vietnam have often been often highlighted, shamefully little has been said about the sufferings of the Vietnamese people — both those who remained in Vietnam and those who eventually left as “boat people.”

The gap in mainstream memory of this heavily politicized war is what Viet Thanh Nguyen addresses in his thought-provoking nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies . Having lived through the tail end of that conflict himself, Nguyen offers a perspective that’s too often swept under the rug. Through his writing, he reminds readers that history as we know it is often selective and subjective; it’s more than what we choose to remember, it’s also about why we choose to remember the things we do, and how sinister political motives that can factor in.

40. Age Of Ambition : Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

History isn’t all about the distant past, and with such rapid changes over the last several decades, the contemporary history of China grows ever more fascinating by the year. Following economic reforms in the 1980s, China has grown exponentially and become one of the biggest economies in the world. But this opening up also meant that the Communist Party could no longer control the people’s discourses as effectively as before. In Age of Ambition , Evan Osnos draws on his firsthand observations as a journalist in China, talking about the recent transformation of Chinese people’s aspirations and plans to reach beyond the border of their country through their studies, their work, their consumption, and their communications.

41. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

If you think history can’t be gripping, then let Patrick Radden Keefe convince you otherwise: in this modern history book, he uses a murder investigation as a window into the bitter ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland. The book begins in 1972, in the middle of the Troubles — a 30-year conflict between the Catholic Irish, who wanted to leave the UK, and the Protestants who wanted to stay. A 38-year-old woman by the name of Jean McConville, married to a Catholic former soldier of the British Army, has disappeared. The suspects are members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), known to have executed people they believed were spying on them for the British. All deny the accusation, of course — some even going as far as to deny their involvement in the IRA altogether. Looking back at the incident and its suspects four decades later, Keefe highlights the atrocities that were committed by all parties during this period, and how they still resonate through NI today.

42. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

An esteemed researcher of African American literature and history, Hartman has produced a trove of work on the practices and legacies of slavery in the US. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is but one of the insightful titles she’s produced, discussing the lives of Black women in late 19th-century New York and Philadelphia. Looking at the concept and understanding of sexuality in these communities, Hartman found that despite the criminalization practiced by the state, there was space for women to own their sexuality and gender identity. It was a small space, and it would have slipped into oblivion if no one cared to explore the nuances of the urbanizing life of the 1890s — but this book ensures that they can never be left in the dust.

43. Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

This book, written to accompany the 4-episode docuseries of the same name, is a must-read for everyone interested in British history. The common understanding of this island nation’s history is usually related to its seaborne conquests and longstanding monarchies. But what of the servants and slaves, the people that actually did the work and fought the battles? What of the people who were moved here through colonial exchanges? Retracing British history with an eye upon the waves of immigration, Olusoga gives a comprehensive overview of the complexity of Black Britishness in the UK, a group whose stories are often obscured. He also shows that these people were and are integral to the nation’s development, and are thus not to be forgotten.

44. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

For those who enjoy storytelling, check out this thrilling novel-style history book on H. H. Holmes, the man considered to be one of the first modern serial killers. Holmes was only ever convicted for one murder but is thought to have had up to 27 victims, many lured to the World’s Fair Hotel that he owned. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is thus the immersive setting of The Devil in the White City , and is written from the point of view of the designers who contributed to the fair. It reads like suspense — think The Alienist — but it also informs on the excitement and uncertainty of the early stages of urbanization, coming together as a marvelous blend of mystery novel and true crime . 

45. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger

In 1954, Guatemalan President Árbenz was overthrown. As with many Cold War-era coups in Asia and Latin America, the US was heavily involved in the plot. Even more absurdly, one of the main forces lobbying for this intervention was the United Fruit Company, which has been benefiting from labor exploitation in Guatemala. The result of this was the installation of an undemocratic and oppressive government, supremely heightened political unrest, and ultimately a prolonged civil war. Bitter Fruit dives into the rationales (or rather irrationalities) behind American involvement, highlighting the powerful paranoia that underlay many decisions throughout the Cold War.

Seeking more fodder for your non-fiction shelf? Why not check out the 60 best non-fiction books of the 21st century !

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The best history books

From churchill to the romans, our recommendations offer a tour of world history..

History books make up an important genre in non-fiction. They help us understand the past so we can build a better future. From the American Civil War and two World Wars, to the Cold War and the Vietnam War, there is a vast selection of titles about the conflicts that have shaped our world. History books also provide a deep insight into key historical figures, from Genghis Khan to Ulysses Grant and Winston Churchill. World history is vast, and these 30 books are the tip of the iceberg. Our list of the best history books includes bestsellers, Pulitzer Prize winners and editor's picks from distinguished historians and biographers.

Recommended history books

Best history books

More essential reading lists

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  • The 60 Best History Books of All Time (to Read at Any Age)

The Best History Books of All Time Cover

​“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana wrote in 1905. As humans, we can only remember our own past, but we’ve also invented a mind-blowing technology: books. Because others wrote down their past right after it happened, we can “remember” a lot more than just what we’ve experienced ourselves. That’s why history books are some of the most interesting, important, and valuable reads of all — and if you’re here for an overview of the best ones, I say come in, take a seat, and get comfortable!

A good history book will transport you to a time and place in which you’ll never live and introduce you to people you’ll never get to meet. Best of all, it’ll drop you off back home safely and in time for dinner! Whether you’re curious, care about society and our planet, or want to be successful, you could do worse than to start with the history section in the library. Ray Dalio , CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund, credits studying history for his great understanding of macroeconomics — reading history books literally made him a billionaire!

So, if you’re ready to explore how humans came to be the dominating species, what pros and cons different political systems have, or which technological innovations have had the biggest impact on humanity, we’ve got just the curriculum for you. After summarizing over 1,000 books , we’ve hand-selected the absolute best titles in the history category for you.

In order to make this list easy to navigate, we’ve sorted the best history books into several groups:

Best History Books Overall

  • America and the United States
  • India, China, and the East
  • Space, Time, and the Universe
  • The Evolution of Humans
  • Global Politics
  • Civilization and Society
  • Nation States and Political Systems
  • The Evolution of Philosophy
  • Climate Change & Population Growth

Best History Books With a Self-Help Angle

  • Important People

For each book, we’ve included our favorite quote, a one-sentence-summary of the book, why you might want to read it, and three key takeaways. We’ve also added links to read the free summary of the book on Four Minute Books or buy a copy for yourself on Amazon. Just use the buttons below each title. Lastly, use the clickable table of contents below to quickly jump to any book or category . There should also be an arrow in the bottom right corner that you can use to come back up here at any time!

Alright, the class is in session! Let’s dive deep into the world’s best history books!

Table of Contents

1. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

2. the lessons of history by will & ariel durant, 3. the dawn of everything by david graeber & david wengrow, 4. the evolution of everything by matt ridley, 5. factfulness by hans rosling, 6. enlightenment now by steven pinker, 7. a people’s history of the united states by howard zinn .

  • 8. Common Sense by Thomas Paine 

9. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

10. the warmth of other suns by isabel wilkerson, 11. orientalism by edward w. said, 12. restart by mihir s. sharma, 13. age of ambition by evan osnos, 14. napoleon the great by andrew roberts.

  • 15. The House of Rothschild by Niall Ferguson 

16. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

17. salt: a world history by mark kurlansky, 18. homo deus by yuval noah harari, 19. how we got to now by steven johnson, 20. the third wave by steve case.

  • 21. At Home by Bill Bryson 

22. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

23. a brief history of time by stephen hawking, 24. the double helix by james d. watson, 25. the selfish gene by richard dawkins, 26. sex at dawn by christopher ryan, 27. a splendid exchange by william j. bernstein, 28. capitalism by james fulcher, 29. narrative economics by robert j. shiller, 30. a world in disarray by richard haass, 31. prisoners of geography by tim marshall, 32. the power of myth by joseph campbell, 33. the republic by plato, 34. caste by isabel wilkerson, 35. the social contract by jean-jaques rousseau, 36. capitalism and freedom by milton friedman.

  • 37. The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek 

38. Socialism by Michael W. Newman

39. fascism by madeleine k. albright, 40. on liberty by john stuart mill, 41. how democracies die by steven levitsky.

  • 42. Discourses by Epictetus 

43. The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

  • 44. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker 
  • 45. Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes 

46. The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

47. lives of the stoics by ryan holiday, 48. the sixth extinction by elizabeth kolbert, 49. the uninhabitable earth by david wallace-wells, 50. empty planet by darrell bricker & john ibbitson.

  • 51. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli 

52. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

53. the 48 laws of power by robert greene, 54. alexander the great by philip freeman, 55. benjamin franklin: an american life by walter isaacson, 56. the autobiography of malcolm x by malcolm x, 57. steve jobs by walter isaacson, 58. the immortal life of henrietta lacks by rebecca skloot, 59. a woman of no importance by sonia purnell, 60. long walk to freedom by nelson mandela, other book lists by topic, other book lists by author.

Best History Books #1: Sapiens

Favorite Quote

“History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.” — Yuval Noah Harari

The Book in One Sentence

Sapiens  is your guide to becoming an expert on the entire history of the human race as it reviews everything our species has been through from ancient ancestors to our dominating place in the world today.

Why should you read it?

This might be the most comprehensive, all-in-one history book out there. It is jam-packed with fascinating facts and details, making it an essential read for anyone interested in human history.

Key Takeaways

  • The ability to think gave early humans language, which eventually led to agricultural advances allowing them to grow exponentially. 
  • Improvements in trade were only possible with the invention of money and writing.
  • With better economic and communication means, scientific progress gave our race the abilities necessary to get to where we are today.

If you want to learn more, you can read our free four-minute summary or get a copy for yourself.

Best History Books #2: The Lessons of History

“You can’t fool all the people all the time, but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.” — Will & Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History describes recurring themes and trends throughout 5,000 years of human history, viewed through the lenses of 12 different fields, aimed at explaining the present, the future, human nature, and the inner workings of states.

If you want a concise overview of the causes behind major events throughout history, read this book. It will change the way you view society, politics, culture, and even personal relationships. You’ll learn how to see the world through a different lens and finally understand why things happen as they do.

  • Humans are unequal by nature, fighting that would mean giving up freedom.
  • The evolution of humans was a social one, not a biological one.
  • War is a more natural state than peace.

Best History Books #3: The Dawn of Everything

“We are projects of collective self-creation. What if we approached human history that way? What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures who deserve to be understood as such?” — David Graeber & David Wengrow

The Dawn of Everything uses archaeological evidence to argue the case that human history did not follow a linear path but emerged from a big, complex network of individual, decentralized communities.

This book puts history on its head, arguing against much of what is taken for granted in schools and universities across the globe. The last book written before Graeber’s sudden death in 2020, it will challenge your very understanding of history, thus making it a top read in the category.

  • There is no single original form of human society; many different versions have developed independently over millennia.
  • There are three ways to dominate in human societies: sovereignty, bureaucracy, and politics.
  • Instead of complaining about inequality, we should ask ourselves how we lost the flexibility and political creativity we once used to have.

Best History Books #4: The Evolution of Everything

“The things that go well are largely unintended; the things that go badly are largely intended.” — Matt Ridley

The Evolution of Everything compares creationist to evolutionist thinking, showing how the process of evolution we know from biology underlies and permeates the entire world, including society, morality, religion, culture, economics, money, innovation, and even the internet.

This could almost qualify as a self-help book. The distinction between creationist and evolutionist thinking, and learning how to spot them both everywhere, will change your life and allow you to make progress in almost any situation.

  • Evolutionist and creationist thinking are two opposing views, and creationist thinking dominates the Western world.
  • Culture, economics, and technology all progress through evolution.
  • Money changed from evolutionist to creationist subject, and the same might happen with the internet.

Best History Books #5: Factfulness

“There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.” — Hans Rosling

Factfulness  explains how our worldview has been distorted with the rise of new media, which ten human instincts cause erroneous thinking, and how we can learn to separate fact from fiction when forming our opinions.

This book will help you fight your many biases. Through easy-to-understand research and engaging examples, you’ll learn to see the truth rather than just the media’s spin on things. If Bill Gates can learn something from this book, I think so can you and I.

  • There is no such thing as “the East and the West.” We only have one world.
  • Population growth will eventually level off, despite our perception of increasing numbers.
  • To see the world accurately, you always need multiple perspectives.

Best History Books #6: Enlightenment Now

“There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow.” — Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now describes how the values of the Enlightenment — science, reason, humanism, and progress — keep improving our world today, making it a better place day by day, despite the negative news.

This book is a welcome antidote against fake news, media manipulation, and populism. If you need to regain your faith in humanity or want some hope, this title will show you that not everything is as bad as it seems to be in the news.

  • Wealth has increased not just in the West but around the globe, all while decreasing poverty and inequality.
  • The United Nations bring humanism to a global scale, which has made our lives safer than ever.
  • We still have problems, such as AI, terrorism, and the environment, but we must face them with reason.

Best History Books About America and the United States

Best History Books #7: A People's History of the United States

“The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.” — Howard Zinn

A People’s History of the United States will give you a better understanding of the true, sometimes shameful, sometimes inspiring, story of America’s rise to power.

Historically, the US has been terrible at being honest about how it got to where it is. Then again, so are most countries. History is written by the winners, as they say. That’s why it’s so important to get the other side of the story, and that’s what this book delivers. Just be careful not to let your anger keep you from focusing on a better future rather than the not-so-nice past.

  • The founding fathers set up the US government to benefit wealthy landowners, who still have power today.
  • The Civil War wasn’t as much about ending slavery as it was about advancing political interests.
  • The US has repeatedly used war as a way to improve their economic situation.

8. Common Sense by Thomas Paine  

Best History Books #8: Common Sense

“Time makes more converts than reason.” — Thomas Paine

Common Sense is a classic piece of US history that will show you the importance of societies coming together to form a fair governmental system, and how these ideas paved the way for the American revolution.

This book helped kickstart the American Revolution. If you want to know what it takes to write a compelling manifesto, this book is a great place to start. It’ll also show you how to collaborate well and lead great teams by getting people to rally around a shared cause.

  • We depend on each other to survive and thrive, and this means that we need society and rules to guide us.
  • Having kings and queens is a bad idea, it’s better to elect representatives to enact laws that the people want.
  • Just like a teenager preparing to leave home, America came to a point where it had to separate from its mother country.

Best History Books #9: Team of Rivals

“A real democracy would be a meritocracy where those born in the lower ranks could rise as far as their natural talents and discipline might take them.” — Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals explains why Abraham Lincoln rose above his political rivals despite their stronger reputations, and how he used empathy to unite not just his enemies but an entire country.

If you want to know more about how Abraham Lincoln managed to do what he did — see through the abolition of slavery — this book is a must. It’s also a good primer on how to work with your enemies rather than against them, something that’s especially needed in today’s times of division and extremism. Bill Gates thinks it’s the best book about leading a country there is.

  • Lincoln’s many hardships as a child shaped his ambitions and strengthened his resolve to succeed as an adult.
  • Due to his brief track record in politics, Lincoln was the most unlikely choice as a presidential candidate.
  • After Lincoln’s assassination, both the North and South felt the country had suffered a tragic loss, since his leadership was extraordinary.

Best History Books #10: The Warmth of Other Suns

“They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.” — Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of how and why millions of Black Americans left the South between 1915 and 1970 to escape the brutality of the Jim Crow Laws and find safety, better pay, and more freedom thanks to what is known today as The Great Migration.

Through multiple stories from several perspectives, this book will teach you empathy and a better understanding of the history of Black people in America.

  • The Great Migration happened for many different reasons, and people left from and went to diverse places throughout it.
  • Ida Mae and her family were just one example of a Black family leaving the South to become safer and earn more money.
  • Settling in Chicago, Ida Mae entered the workforce, but like many others, she didn’t see all of the benefits she had hoped moving would bring.

Best History Books About India, China, and the East

Best History Books #11: Orientalism

“Our role is to widen the field of discussion, not to set limits in accord with the prevailing authority.” — Edward W. Said

Orientalism reveals why false Western assumptions about Eastern countries have prevailed for over 200 years, and how they still affect how we view the Eastern world today.

Asian cultures in Western countries are some of the most discriminated against minorities today, and if you care about racism, or rather, want to take a stand against it, this book will show you how to do that when it comes to the Eastern nations of the world.

  • Western people fabricated views of Eastern nations, telling stories in ways that would benefit Western nations. 
  • The inroads of Orientalism made it difficult for even those with a genuine interest in the East to see it truthfully.
  • Although the name has faded, three key characteristics still govern modern Orientalism today.

Best History Books #12: Restart

“Better people are possible to create, even in Delhi.” — Mihir S. Sharma

Restart tells the story of India’s almost-leadership of the world’s economy, showing why and how it instead succumbed to problems from the past, how those problems still hold it back today, and what the country might do about them.

If you know little about India or want to learn more about your country’s history, this book is for you. It’s also a good read if you are or want to go into politics or economics.

  • India struggles in part because of its inadequate infrastructure, which results from cultural beliefs affecting manufacturing practices.
  • Unemployment is a big problem in India because there aren’t enough industrial jobs available, and farms are unprofitable.
  • The government puts too much power in the private sector, but if they didn’t, things could improve.

Best History Books #13: Age of Ambition

“Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path, but once people begin to pass, a way appears.” — Evan Osnos

Age of Ambition explains how China has gone from impoverished, developing country to a world superpower and economic powerhouse in just 30 years.

This book will get you up to speed on China, but it’ll also show you that normal people still have the power to make a big difference in and for their nation. If you’re fascinated with China’s rise to power, this is the book for you.

  • Politics didn’t cause China’s rise to power, it was the average, everyday peasant class.
  • The Chinese people are ambitious for success.
  • Freedom of choice in China hasn’t always been strong, but the country’s increasing individuality is making it easier.

Best History Books About Europe

Best History Books #14: Napoleon the Great

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon the Great is the definitive, modern biography of legendary leader, French idol, and European visionary Napoleon Bonaparte, detailing his life from his early years as an immigrant to his rise through the military ranks, all the way to his greatest battles, political achievements, and ultimate exile.

If you ever wanted to learn more about Napoleon Bonaparte and his life, look no further than this very detailed book. It is an easy read yet full of information, much better than reading his Wikipedia page. Plus, the book will show you that if you’re ambitious enough, you can achieve great things in life.

  • Napoleon was (almost) an immigrant, which turned out to be a huge advantage.
  • He had a truly Stoic philosophy about life.
  • Like all great leaders, Napoleon was ahead of his time.

15. The House of Rothschild by Niall Ferguson  

Best History Books #15: The House of Rothschild

“The most outstanding personal qualities may sometimes require exceptional circumstances and world-shattering events to come to fruition.” — Niall Ferguson

The House of Rothschild examines the facts and myths around the wealthiest family in the world in the 19th century, and how they managed to go from being outcast and isolated to building the biggest bank in the world.

One of the aspects of being good at making and handling money is knowing its history, but this book is for more than just investors. If you’re curious about the history of banking or want to break into an industry that’s hard to crack, this book is a must-read.

  • In business, use whatever industry is available to you as a springboard into the next one.
  • If the best solution isn’t good enough, build your own.
  • Expect the 80/20 rule to apply, even in the most extreme cases.

Best History Books About Food

Best History Books #16: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.” — Tom Standage 

A History of the World in 6 Glasses will teach you the origins and impact of the world’s six favorite drinks: beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee, and soda.

If you enjoy a good drink or “Feierabendbier,” as we call our post-work beer here in Germany, this book is for you. It’ll teach you more about the origins of your favorite beverage, as well as reveal how different drinks have become dominating forces in various cultures. Fascinating!

  • Beer is much older than you might think and had a major part in the move of our ancestors to farming instead of hunting and gathering.
  • The Middle Ages brought the existence of coffee, which was originally most useful for intellectuals like scientists.
  • Coca-Cola’s original purpose was medicinal, but Americans began drinking it for pleasure and it quickly spread worldwide.

Best History Books #17: Salt: A World History

“The Roman army required salt for its soldiers and for its horses and livestock. At times soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression ‘worth his salt’ or ‘earning his salt.’” ― Mark Kurlansky

Salt: A World History explores how the everyday mineral we know as table salt has shaped human civilization for centuries, causing wars and even the rise and fall of entire empires.

If you’re the kind of person who tends to miss the obvious that’s right in front of them, this book is for you. It is a “well-seasoned,” riveting narrative about what seems to be a boring everyday product, showing how it lies at the heart of some of history’s biggest conflicts. Includes lots of illustrations too!

  • One of the wealthiest, ancient, unknown people is the Celts, who built their empire on salt.
  • The demand for salt fueled and escalated the conflict between young America and Great Britain into a full-blown revolutionary war.
  • The salt industry has caused much environmental damage, but the tax levied on it has concentrated power in the hands of a few big players.

Best History Books About Technology

Best History Books #18: Homo Deus

“This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.” — Yuval Noah Hariri

Homo Deus illustrates the history of the human race from how we came to be the dominant species to what narratives are shaping our lives today, all the way to which obstacles we must overcome next to continue to thrive.

Sapiens is Harari’s take on the past — Homo Deus offers a glimpse into the future. If you care about where the world is headed and want to know which paths might spell our utopia or doom, this is a great read!

  • Shared narratives are what allow us to collaborate at a large scale and, thus, dominate as a species.
  • The most prevalent, current narrative is humanism.
  • Algorithms could eventually replace us, depending on which future narrative takes over.

Best History Books #19: How We Got to Now

“Sometimes the way a new technology breaks is almost as interesting as the way it works.” — Steven Johnson

How We Got to Now explores the history of innovation, how different inventions connect to one another, and what we can do to create an environment in which change and innovation blossom.

Innovation is a complex process, but this book makes it terrific fun to learn more about it. If you want a brief overview of history’s most important inventions or feel like you can’t change the world on your own, this book is a must-read.

  • Innovations can create an environment for more change, rather than just a change on their own.
  • One innovation can act as a springboard for another, unexpected one, and even change the legal situation.
  • Some innovations highly depend on the person creating them and their rich background.

Best History Books #20: The Third Wave

“We’ll realize that what’s emerging is the much broader Internet of Everything.” — Steve Case

The Third Wave lays out the history of the internet, including why it’s about to permeate everything in our lives, as well as what it takes for entrepreneurs to make use of this mega-trend and thrive in an omni-connected, always-online world.

If you feel like you need to get up to speed with the internet (no judgements here), this book is for you. It’ll also show you the potential the internet (still) has, so if you want to build an online business, this is also a great read!

  • The internet will soon permeate everything on this planet.
  • You must embrace disruption to thrive in a Third Wave world.
  • Cooperate with Second Wave incumbents to succeed.

21. At Home by Bill Bryson  

The Best Books About History #21: At Home

“It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” — Bill Bryson

At Home takes you on a tour of the modern home, reminiscing about the history and traditions of each room, thus revealing how the everyday amenities and comforts you now take for granted have come to be.

Everything we take for granted today was once a life-changing innovation. It’s important to not forget how hard-won the things we consider normal originally were. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and this book will help you remember that.

  • Fighting harder for longer: food didn’t come easily until very recently.
  • Rodents and rings made sleep much less regenerative 100 years ago.
  • There are two very different reasons why there’s a salt and a pepper shaker on every kitchen table.

Best History Books About Space, Time, and the Universe

The Best Books About History #22: A Short History of Nearly Everything

“If you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.” — Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything explains everything we’ve learned about our world and the universe so far, including how they formed, how we learned to make sense of time, space, and gravity, why it’s such a miracle that we’re alive, and how much of our planet is still a complete mystery to us.

This book will have you laughing out loud one minute and scratching your head in wonderment the next. If you don’t stop to realize that life is an amazing miracle at least once a week, I fully recommend this book to you!

  • Most of the universe was created in a single, three-minute moment.
  • Given the odds of a planet being livable, it’s a miracle we’re here at all.
  • Every day that the world keeps turning is a gift, because there are many things that could potentially end it.

The Best Books About History #23: A Brief History of Time

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” — Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time is Stephen Hawking’s simple way of explaining the most complex concepts and ideas of physics, such as space, time, black holes, planets, stars, and gravity, so that you and I can better understand where our planet came from, and where it’s going.

Stephen Hawking had one of the fastest-traveling minds of anyone who’s ever lived, and yet, he always managed to convey his incredibly complex insights in the simplest of words. Any minute spent reading a page of one of his books is a minute well spent.

  • Theories can never be proven.
  • Time is not fixed, due to the speed of light.
  • There are three reasons why time can likely only move forward.

Best History Books About the Evolution of Humans

The Best Books About History #24: The Double Helix

“One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.” — James D. Watson

The Double Helix tells the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA, one of the most significant scientific findings in all of history, by outlining the struggles and rivalries of the prideful scientific community, as well as other roadblocks James Watson faced en route to the breakthrough of a lifetime.

If you’re obsessed with something, be it art, business, or a mysterious natural phenomenon, this book is for you. That’s what James Watson and Francis Crick shared: an obsession with DNA. In this fascinating account of the discovery and analysis of the basic Lego block of life, you’ll be reassured that your passion can take you very far — if only you stick with it!

  • Our recent advancements in our understanding of DNA began with a team of chemists in the 1950s.
  • Things got tough as they competed with others who were also studying DNA.
  • Through perseverance and errors of their competition, Watson and Crick made breakthroughs in the study of genetics that won them a Nobel Prize.

The Best Books About History #25: The Selfish Gene

“Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.” — Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene explains the process of evolution from the perspective of genes, showing how they manifest in the form of organisms, what they do to ensure their own survival, how they program our brains, which of their strategies have worked best throughout history, and what makes humans so special in this context.

If you’ve ever wondered about whether we have free will, this book is for you. Beyond catching you up on everything important you missed while snoozing in biology class, it asserts a shocking theory: What if humans are just the “carriers” of genes, and it’s really the genes running the show? A trippy and yet extremely insight-dense book!

  • Sometimes, mutually altruistic behaviors benefit the genes of two different organisms.
  • Humans have managed to splice off culture with its own evolutionary process.
  • Our ability to simulate and foresee allows us to overcome the downside of our selfish genes.

The Best Books About History #26: Sex at Dawn

“The bigger the society is, the less functional shame becomes.” — Christopher Ryan

Sex at Dawn challenges all conventional views on sex at once by diving deep into our ancestor’s sexual history and the rise of monogamy, as well as delivering starting points for thinking over our understanding of what sex and relationships should really be like.

If you’re shy about sex or know that, deep down, you’re too uptight about it, this book will help. You’ll learn to not stress about sex so much, see it for the biological impulse that it is, and understand that it’s merely a remnant of our distant past, not to be worried about but to be enjoyed.

  • Agriculture marked the beginning of monogamy, and not in a good way.
  • Women want sex just as much as men but are conditioned to play it down.
  • Our bodies have evolved to thrive in sexual competition.

Best History Books About Economics

The Best Books About History #27: A Splendid Exchange

“Few other historical inquiries tell us as much about the world we live in today as does the search for the origins of world trade.” — William J. Bernstein

A Splendid Exchange outlines the history of global trade, revealing how it has enabled the progress of civilization, and how it continues to change the world on a daily basis.

All day long, you’re trading. You’re trading your time for money, your money for goods and services, and goods and services for quality moments with your family. Getting better at transacting is something we can all benefit from, and so whether you want to improve your business, become a better investor, or spend money more meaningfully, this book lives up to its title: your time will be well spent in acquiring its knowledge.

  • One of the earliest trades in history dealt with stones.
  • You never just trade the items you exchange.
  • Not all innovations that helped foster global trade were about transporting goods.

The Best Books About History #28: Capitalism

“Leisure as a distinct non-work time, whether in the form of the holiday, or evening, was a result of the disciplined and bounded work time created by capitalist production.” — James Fulcher 

Capitalism outlines the origins and future of the world’s most popular and, arguably, successful economic system to show you how money actually makes the world go ’round.

The first step to making more money is to understand the way it works, and this book is a great place to start. That said, if you want to know how money can corrupt and how it impacts countries at scale, this is also a good read.

  • Using money to make more of it is the core of capitalism.
  • Although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact birth of this system, the roots of it began in medieval Europe.
  • One feature of capitalism is financial crises, and we need to fix this. 

The Best Books About History #29: Narrative Economics

“Trying to understand major economic events by looking only at data on changes in economic aggregates runs the risk of missing the underlying motivations for change. Doing so is like trying to understand a religious awakening by looking at the cost of printing religious tracts.” — Robert J. Shiller

Narrative Economics explains why stories have a massive influence on the way our economies operate, analyzing in particular the rise of Bitcoin, several stock market booms and busts, and the nature of epidemics.

If you’re a stay-in-the-loop kind of person, this book is for you. It’s also for you if you’re an investor or entrepreneur, as narratives dramatically shape our economic landscape all the time. To anyone who wants to learn why certain topics dominate our conversations where others don’t: read this book.

  • Bitcoin is the perfect example of how stories affect economics.
  • Epidemics and economic narratives have a lot in common.
  • If we want to be ready for the future, we need to understand the narratives of the past.

Best History Books About Global Politics

The Best Books About History #30: A World in Disarray

“Managing a situation in a manner that fails to address core issues can be preferable to attempting to bring about a solution sure to be unacceptable to one or more of the parties.” — Richard Haass

A World in Disarray will open your mind to new ways of making the world a more peaceful place by guiding you through the major changes in global affairs since World War II.

If you’re a pacifist, chances are, this title is for you. If you want to know what it takes to keep world peace and where we’re about to fail to do so, read this book.

  • Things have been relatively peaceful since World War II because of power balances, nuclear weapons, and economic agreements.
  • New policies concerning intervention in international events were born when the world stood by during the tragedies in Rwanda. 
  • The three major superpowers must thrive and cooperate if we want to have a peaceful world.

The Best Books About History #31: Prisoners of Geography

“Why do you think your values would work in a culture you don’t understand?” — Tim Marshall

Prisoners of Geography explains how the location of a country dramatically affects its success and the amount of power it has in the world, as well as why and how geography has determined t he outcomes of major world events for centuries.

This book will show you why the world is the way it is. Why is America so powerful and Africa so poor? Why is Russia always worried about war? A fascinating theory with really sound arguments.

  • Russia could get invaded from the West; that’s why they have a strong presence in the Baltics. 
  • The United States is nearly invulnerable because of where it’s located.
  • Southern Europe suffers while its northern countries flourish, simply because of geography.

Best History Books About Civilization and Society

The Best Books About History #32: The Power of Myth

“We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about.” — Joseph Campbell

The Power of Myth is a book based on Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer’s popular 1988 documentary of the same name, explaining where myths come from, why they are so common in society, how they’ve evolved, and what important role they still play in our ever-changing world today.

If you wonder why we’re here or what happens after death, read this book. It’ll show you that myths are useful beyond being good stories, and it’ll also teach you how to tell better stories yourself.

  • Myths are stories that unite people in communities, identify the beginnings of cultures and giving people a common identity.
  • As guidelines for community members, legends give a framework for people to think and act.
  • The power of myth helps us make sense of life, appreciate it, and even prepare to die.

The Best Books About History #33: The Republic

“The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.” — Plato

The Republic is one of the most important works about philosophy and politics in history, written by Plato, one of Socrates’ students in ancient Greece, as a dialogue about justice and political systems between Socrates and various Athenian citizens.

If you feel like your country’s judicial system isn’t working, this book is for you. It’ll also show you why it’s difficult to rule others, no matter what form that takes. Even a middle manager could benefit from reading this book. It’s hard to go wrong with such a classic.

  • Justice must be looked at on an individual as well as a city level.
  • Both cities and souls can be divided into three distinct parts.
  • Philosophers trying to rule others justly will face lots of difficulty.

The Best Books About History #34: Caste

“The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when no one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.” — Isabel Wilkerson

Caste unveils the hidden cultural and societal rules of our class system, including where it comes from, why it’s so deeply entrenched in society, and how we can dismantle it forever to finally allow all people to have the equality they deserve.

Whether you believe you are suffering from the social class system, want to know more about it, or hope to understand what alternative structures society could use to function better, this is the book for you.

  • There are eight foundational pillars of a caste system, and the first four are Divine Will and Laws of Nature, Heritability, Endogamy, and Purity vs Pollution.
  • The last four pillars of the caste system deal with hierarchy, dehumanization, terror, and superiority.
  • We can dismantle the caste with monuments and memorials and support all who try to break it down.

Best History Books About Nation States and Political Systems

The Best Books About History #35: The Social Contract

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract is a political piece of writing that serves as a roadmap for the democracies of today, outlining the elements of a free state in which people agree to coexist with each other under the rules of a common body that represents the general will.

Most of us aspire to be sovereign citizens in a free state, but we have no idea what that even means. This all-time classic of philosophy will show you.

  • A state becomes legitimate only if its citizens accept to live in it.
  • The general will of the people should be the law of any legitimate state.
  • People should meet often to express their will and communicate more for better governance.

The Best Books About History #36: Capitalism and Freedom

“To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them.” — Milton Friedman

Capitalism and Freedom   helps you understand some of the most important factors protecting your liberty by outlining the government’s role in economics and explaining how things go best when political entities are small and stay out of the flow of money in a country.

For better or for worse, capitalism is impossible to ignore or do away with in our current civilization. If you want to better understand free markets and the benefits and advantages of fully enabling those vs. going with more regulated, government-steered systems, this book is for you.

  • Freedom, both political and economic, is healthier when government is small and decentralized.
  • When the feds mess with the economy, things get worse even though politicians are trying to make them better.
  • A negative income tax, among other measures, should replace the current inefficient social welfare systems.

37. The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek  

The Best Books About History #37: The Road to Serfdom

“To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behavior as individuals within the group.” — Friedrich Hayek 

The Road to Serfdom makes a case for keeping our freedom and individuality by rejecting socialism, identifying its risks to turn into totalitarianism, and highlighting the socialist dynamics taking a hold in global politics after WWII.

This book will show you how much control a government should have — and what happens when it oversteps its boundaries. If you’re worried about various governments’ increasing interventions in our day-to-day lives, read this one.

  • Socialism doesn’t enable personal freedom, it smothers it.
  • Corrupt people end up in power in totalitarian, socialist systems.
  • The socialist parts of the world struggled after World War II, but the freer countries thrived because of their freedom.

The Best Books About History #38: Socialism

“Today’s utopia often becomes tomorrow’s reality.” — Michael W. Newman

Socialism outlines the history of the governmental theory that everything should be owned and controlled by the community as a whole, including how this idea has impacted the world in the last 200 years, how its original aims have been lost, and in what ways we might use it in the future.

If you feel like socialism might be the answer to all our problems, read this book. It’ll show you that it started from good intentions but later spiraled off the virtuous path — but also what we might be able to learn form and do with this system in the future.

  • There might not be a single, simple definition of socialism, but the different forms it’s had over the years share common characteristics. 
  • Nineteenth-century capitalism paved the way for socialism, and from there, it divided into two different schools of thought. 
  • If we learn from the mistakes of the past, socialism can actually bring a promising future.

The Best Books About History #39: Fascism

“The real question is: who has the responsibility to uphold human rights? The answer to that is: everyone.” — Madeleine Albright

Fascism explores what lies behind its titular, far-right, authoritarian ideology, from how it can rise to power in uncertain times to why it still poses a serious threat against even our most established democratic systems today.

If you think a few skinheads here and there probably won’t be a big problem, read this book. It’s a fascinating account of how quickly extremism can spiral out of control if left unchecked, and what are the right ways to keep it in check without trying to choke it altogether and thus be as bad as outright fascists themselves.

  • Authoritarian parties often rise to power through democratic means.
  • We can always expect fascism to find its way back, history says.
  • Democracy is fragile, and we should defend it.

The Best Books About History #40: On Liberty

“One person with a belief is equal to a force of ninety-nine who have only interests.” — John Stuart Mill

On Liberty is a philosophy classic that laid the foundation of modern liberal politics, applying the concept of utilitarianism to societies and countries in order to create a working system between authority and liberty.

This is a classic but not easy to read, yet if you truly want to understand democracy and freedom, and why one doesn’t automatically lead to the other, this may be worth a few hours of concentrated studying.

  • Democracy alone does not guarantee personal freedom.
  • The only reason to limit liberty should be to save people from harm.
  • False opinions are not only good, they’re important.

The Most Interesting History Books #41: How Democracies DIe

“Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders — presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” — Steven Levitsky

How Democracies Die lays out the foundational principles of working democracies by looking at historical events, especially in Latin America, that show how democracies have failed in the past, how it could happen again, and how we can protect democracy from threats like bad leadership, inequality, and extremism.

If you live in a democratic country, you probably take your political process and inclusion for granted. This book shows that it can all end rather quickly, and before we know it, we won’t have a say at all. To learn more about the pitfalls of democracy and how we can avoid them, read this book.

  • A democracy needs solid gatekeepers to protect it.
  • With the arrival of Donald Trump in the political arena, the future of our democracy depends on our leadership. 
  • We can resist authoritarianism by holding fast to democratic norms.

Best History Books About Ethics

42. discourses by epictetus  .

The Most Interesting History Books #42: Discourses

“What else is freedom but the power to live our life the way we want?” — Epictetus

Discourses is a transcription of the lectures of ancient philosopher Epictetus, resulting in a series of lessons and tales that help us make sense of what’s happening around and to us, including hardship, challenges, and life events that will ultimately make our character stronger.

This book will make you more resilient in the face of failure, rejection, and adversity. Written as mostly easily digestible, informal lectures Epictetus gave to his students, you’ll find plenty of little bits of inspiration in this classic.

  • Without life’s challenges, we wouldn’t feel the need to grow and evolve. 
  • Everything that is great in life takes time and effort to build.
  • If you can’t control it, don’t stress over it.

The Most Interesting History Books #43: The Lucifer Effect

“The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.” — Philip Zimbardo

The Lucifer Effect explains why you’re not always a good person, identifying the often misunderstood line between good and evil that we all walk by recounting the shocking results of the author’s Stanford Prison Experiment that show anyone can be made to do evil under the right (or wrong) circumstances.

Dividing the world into “good people” and “bad people” is easy. Realizing anyone has great capacity for both is hard — but it’s the truth we need, and that’s what this book is for. Shocking and much needed, this book is a must-read for anyone who wants to be a good person or who’s curious as to why even some of the best people in the world turn evil.

  • Your personality changes depending on the situation you’re in.
  • The Stanford prison experiment is a shocking example of just how bad everyday people can get in the right, or wrong, circumstances.
  • Don’t worry about being permanently evil; you can always choose to be a hero and act morally.

44. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker  

The Most Interesting History Books #44: The Better Angels of Our Nature

“As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister.” — Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that we live in the most peaceful time in history by looking at what motivates us to behave violently, how these motivators are outweighed by our tendencies towards a peaceful life, and which major shifts in history caused this global reduction in crime and violence.

If you need a break from bad news and doombait, this is the one to grab. Well-researched and uplifting, it’ll show you that the world is better than it seems — and there’s always more we can do to make it even better!

  • Ideologies always start out with good intentions but can quickly deteriorate into horrific proponents of violence.
  • The Flynn effect increases our ability to reason over time, which makes us less violent.
  • With the invention of the printing press, humanitarian philosophy could spread and further decrease violence across the board.

Best History Books About the Evolution of Philosophy

45. meditations on first philosophy by rené descartes  .

The Most Interesting History Books #45: Meditations on First Philosophy

“Dubium sapientiae initium — doubt is the origin of wisdom.” — René Descartes

Meditations on First Philosophy is the number one work of philosophy of the Western world, written by René Descartes in 1641, abandoning everything that can be doubted and then starting to reason his way from there.

If you often find yourself stricken with doubt and wish it weren’t so, this book is for you. It reveals the upside of doubt and how it can help us challenge our own assumptions and improve. This book will teach you to apply your knowledge in a scientific manner rather than just take things at face value. 

  • Your senses don’t always tell the truth.
  • The fact that you think proves that you exist.
  • There are three levels of truth in the world.

The Most Interesting History Books #46: The Story of Philosophy

“Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos.” — Will Durant

The Story of Philosophy profiles the lives of great Western philosophers such as Plato, Socrates, and Nietzsche, exploring their contemplations on governance, religion, the meaning of life, and other philosophic concepts from their individual lifetimes of research, thought, and diligent study.

If you want a comprehensive but quick overview of history’s most important philosophers and how their ideas shaped the world, read this book.

  • Ancient Greek philosophers paved the way for philosophy, science, and a new form of governance.
  • Philosopher Spinoza helped decipher the hidden meanings in religion.
  • Voltaire was partially responsible for the French revolution and the improvement of political systems around the world.

The Most Interesting History Books #47: Lives of the Stoics

“There is no better definition of a Stoic: to have but not want, to enjoy without needing.” — Ryan Holiday

Lives of the Stoics is a deep dive into the experiences and beliefs of some of the earliest philosophers and followers of stoic virtues like justice, courage, and temperance.

This book covers both the tenets of Stoic philosophy itself as well as its most prominent proponents. The chapters are short and written in an easy-to-digest style, so for anyone looking to improve their lives, this is a good pick!

  • Stoicism came about as a result of extreme hardship. 
  • Not everyone who followed Stoicism lived up to its standards. 
  • Marcus Aurelius was a Roman whose practice of Stoicism helped him lead with compassion and humility.

Best History Books About Climate Change & Population Growth

The Most Interesting History Books #48: The Sixth Extinction

“As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed beyond the limits of that world.” — Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction  summarizes how human activity has contributed to the mass extinction of species and points out ways to mitigate our biggest environmental problems.

Instead of just doling out more blame to humans for destroying the planet, this book focuses on facts, which makes it refreshing. If you want a book about the environment that makes you feel less guilty and more empowered to act, go for this one.

  • There are several ways in which the human race is responsible for the sixth mass extinction.
  • Homo sapiens has been encouraging the extinction of various species long before the industrial era.
  • There are many ideas for what we can still do to save at least some species.

The Most Interesting History Books #49: The Uninhabitable Earth

“We think of climate change as slow, but it is unnervingly fast. We think of the technological change necessary to avert it as fast-arriving, but it is deceptively slow judged by how soon we need it.” — David Wallace-Wells

The Uninhabitable Earth  explains how humanity’s complacency and negligence have put this world on a course to soon be unlivable unless we each do our small part to improve how we care for this beautiful planet we live on.

While I would recommend balancing this book with something a little less depressing, it provides a fantastic overview of all the factors contributing to global warming. So if you want to know where we can start digging in to save the planet and our future, this one’s for you!

  • Even enacting all the policy changes agreed to in Paris, we will still exceed the threshold where climate disaster begins.
  • Without emissions reduction, we will see our oceans rise to fatal levels, putting major cities underwater.
  • Unless we change our ways, bacteria of ancient diseases in melting Arctic ice sheets will begin a global health crisis.

The Most Interesting History Books #50: Empty Planet

“Will we struggle to preserve growth, or accept with grace a world in which people both thrive and strive less?” ― Darrell Bricker & John Ibbitson

Empty Planet explains why overpopulation alarmists are wrong, and how depopulation poses the more imminent threat to the happiness and success of humanity.

Whether you want to have kids or not, this book will change your perspective on the common notion that “there are already too many people on the planet,” showing that we might soon suffer from the opposite of this problem. An enlightening and contrarian read!

  • The forces that cause fertility to drop, such as urbanization, education, and secularization, only increase.
  • A falling population threatens human quality life in a variety of ways, both materially and culturally.
  • Population decline is likely to happen even more quickly than predictions suggest.

51. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli  

The Most Interesting History Books #51: The Prince

“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” — Niccolò Machiavelli

The Prince is a 16th century political treatise, famous for condoning, even encouraging evil behavior amongst political rulers in order for them to stay in power.

If you secretly lust for power, this book is for you. It’ll show you how to get and keep that power, sure, but also how to use it well and how to avoid becoming a “Machiavellian prince” who gets completely consumed by their own desire for more.

  • Countries can be easy to conquer but hard to rule or vice versa – and markets are the same.
  • To protect a country it needs its own army, not mercenaries. The same holds true for businesses.
  • If you want to run a business, you have to assemble your advisors and know when to listen to them.

The Most Interesting History Books #52: Man's Search for Meaning

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning  details holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s horrifying experiences in Nazi concentration camps, along with his psychological approach of logotherapy, which is also what helped him survive and shows you how you can – and must – find meaning in your life.

If you’ve ever felt hopelessness and despair, this book is for you. It’ll show you that there’s a way out of any situation, no matter how grim — even if that way is just accepting the situation as it is and waiting for it to pass. A must-read for almost anyone.

  • Sometimes the only way to survive is to surrender to death.
  • Your life has its own meaning, and it’s up to you to find it.
  • Use paradoxical intention to make your fears go away.

The Most Interesting History Books #53: The 48 Laws of Power

“Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.” — Robert Greene

The 48 Laws of Power draws on many of history’s most famous power quarrels to show you what power looks like, how you can get it, what to do to defend yourself against the power of others, and, most importantly, how to keep it and use it well.

This book will show you how to get ahead in life thanks to some uncomfortable but important truths. Each law comes with a short story about an interesting person, so it’s a nice pastime book as well.

  • Always make superiors look smarter than you.
  • Confuse competitors by acting unpredictably.
  • Don’t force others to do what you want, seduce them instead.

Best History Books About Important People

The Most Interesting History Books #54: Alexander the Great

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” — Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great is the definitive biography of the life of the ancient Macedonian king, who would extend his empire from a little slide of land in Greece through Persia, Egypt, and all the way to India, forming the greatest empire the ancient world had ever seen.

Whether you’re looking to fill a gap in your knowledge or just want an absolutely epic story, this book will deliver both. It’ll reveal the origins of Christianity as well as detail one young man’s dramatic conquest of the world, and you’ll feel both entertained and informed.

  • Bundle your energy.
  • Always do the unexpected.
  • Without Alexander the Great, Christianity wouldn’t exist.

The Most Interesting History Books #55: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

“Knowledge is obtained rather by the use of the ear than of the tongue.” — Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life takes a thorough look at the life of one of the most influential humans who ever lived and explains how he could achieve such greatness in so many different fields and areas.

Walter Isaacson might be the best biographer alive today, and any book of his feels more like a novel than a boring list of accomplishments. Whether you want to be creative, succeed in business, or learn more about the history of the US and its important people, this book is a great place to start!

  • Benjamin Franklin was a self-improvement nerd.
  • If you really want to learn something, you’ll find a way.
  • Don’t be afraid to be 20 years ahead of your time.

The Most Interesting History Books #56: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

“The ability to read awoke inside of me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” — Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X chronicles the life and work of one of the most influential members of the civil rights movement in the United States, Malcolm Little, aka Malcolm X.

If you want to get a real sense of how difficult it was for the civil rights movement to succeed, and what it truly takes to bring about change in the world, you’ll love this book.

  • What happens in your childhood will leave a mark on you for life.
  • Sometimes, you have to get totally lost to find yourself.
  • Even the best of us can get it wrong.

The Most Interesting History Books #57: Steve Jobs

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” — Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs  is the most detailed and accurate account of the life of the man who created Apple, the most valuable technology company in the world.

Do you want to build a business? Create great technology? Change the world? Look no further. Jobs’ story has it all, and, given how recently it all happened, this is one of the most relevant biographies to read in the 21st century.

  • Steve Jobs’s team invented a name for his most important skill, the reality distortion field.
  • The Apple name was chosen for a very specific reason.
  • Apple didn’t make Steve Jobs a billionaire, Pixar did.

The Most Interesting History Books #58: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Henrietta’s were different: They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.” — Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reveals the previously unknown story of a woman with extraordinary cells that still live today, and how they have contributed to dozens of medical breakthroughs.

If you want to better understand how consent works in healthcare while discovering the inspiring story of a forgotten but extremely impactful individual, this is the one to grab off the shelf.

  • Henrietta Lacks was a poor Black woman who died of aggressive cervical cancer at a young age, but her immortal cells lived on. 
  • Even though her cells were famous, most people didn’t know of Henrietta and her family until recently. 
  • The use of Hela cells has raised questions about privacy and ethics in cell donation.

The Most Interesting History Books #59: A Woman of No Importance

“Valor rarely reaps the dividends it should.” — Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance tells the fascinating story of Virginia Hall, an American who became one of the best spies for the Allies in World War II, thus significantly contributing to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

This book will make you feel empowered to choose your own way in life. Hall’s life reads like a movie, and if you hear the call to adventure but are hesitant to follow it, this might be the little push you need to live your best life despite all the difficulties it might bring.

  • Too independent to marry, Hall went on to study in Europe and pursue a political career even though she lost a leg in a terrible accident.
  • After multiple failed attempts to join the war efforts, she finally became a member of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, almost by accident. 
  • Virginia’s work helped in many different ways during World War II, including the vital preparations for D-Day.

The Most Interesting History Books #60: Long Walk to Freedom

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” — Nelson Mandela

Long Walk to Freedom is the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, South African anti-apartheid activist, national icon, and the first Black South African president, elected in the first fully democratic election in the country.

If you’ve ever wondered how someone might survive more than 20 years in a tiny jail cell without going insane, make this your next read. Mandela’s story is one of the most inspiring ones I’ve ever learned about, and I’m sure his story will make you feel stronger and more courageous too.

  • Your best bet at finding true freedom is education.
  • If you want to be remembered, you must learn to challenge authority.
  • It’s most important that you don’t give up right after your biggest setback.

That concludes our list of the best history books. Don’t let its size intimidate you. History is a large field, and you just have to start somewhere that interests you! Pick the first book that jumps out at you, read its free summary on Four Minute Books, and then perhaps order a copy for yourself to dive in deeper later.

There is nothing new under the sun — but if we don’t study past sunrises and sunsets, we won’t see what’s coming, and everything, from pandemics to recessions to political tensions, will shock us into paralysis. When we study history, we are always prepared, even for the unexpected. Understand the past, master the future. That’s how it works — there’s no better day to start than today.

Looking for more of the best books on various topics? Here are all the book lists we’ve made for you so far:

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Looking for more books by the world’s most celebrated authors? Here are all of the book lists by the author we’ve curated for you:

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Penguin Random House

The Best History Books of All Time

Discover real-life stories that are perfect for history buffs from the reign of queen elizabeth i to the cold war, there’s something for everyone on this list..

Killers of the Flower Moon (Movie Tie-in Edition) Book Cover Picture

Killers of the Flower Moon

By david grann, paperback $18.00, buy from other retailers:.

Four Hundred Souls Book Cover Picture

Four Hundred Souls

By ibram x. kendi and keisha n. blain, paperback $20.00.

The Forgotten 500 Book Cover Picture

The Forgotten 500

By gregory a. freeman.

All That She Carried Book Cover Picture

All That She Carried

By tiya miles, paperback $18.99.

Medical Apartheid Book Cover Picture

Medical Apartheid

By harriet a. washington.

Horizontal Vertigo Book Cover Picture

Horizontal Vertigo

By juan villoro, hardcover $32.50.

Say Nothing Book Cover Picture

Say Nothing

By patrick radden keefe.

The Spy and the Traitor Book Cover Picture

The Spy and the Traitor

By ben macintyre.

Against All Odds Book Cover Picture

Against All Odds

By alex kershaw.

Empress Dowager Cixi Book Cover Picture

Empress Dowager Cixi

By jung chang, paperback $23.00.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee Book Cover Picture

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee

By david treuer.

The Splendid and the Vile Book Cover Picture

The Splendid and the Vile

By erik larson.

The Black Church Book Cover Picture

The Black Church

By henry louis gates, jr..

Twilight of Democracy Book Cover Picture

Twilight of Democracy

By anne applebaum, paperback $17.00.

The Warmth of Other Suns Book Cover Picture

The Warmth of Other Suns

By isabel wilkerson.

The Power Broker Book Cover Picture

The Power Broker

By robert a. caro, paperback $27.00.

A Woman of No Importance Book Cover Picture

A Woman of No Importance

By sonia purnell.

Dreams in a Time of War Book Cover Picture

Dreams in a Time of War

By ngugi wa thiong'o, paperback $16.00.

The Devil in the White City Book Cover Picture

The Devil in the White City

Paperback $19.00.

The Life of Elizabeth I Book Cover Picture

The Life of Elizabeth I

By alison weir.

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Book Reviews

The Historian  is the publication for general members of the HA. One of its regular features is book reviews. The reviews cover everything from the popular new history books to some of the more obscure, specialist books that make you proud that publishers still value history books. Find out what is hot on the history shelves here.

best history books reviews

J.L. Petit: Britain’s Lost Pre-Impressionist

J.L. Petit: Britain’s Lost Pre-Impressionist, Philip Modiano, RPS Publications, 122p. 2022, £20. ISBN 978-1-9164931-2-4.  Philip Modiano’s championing of prolific Victorian water-colourist and pioneering campaigner for the preservation of ancient buildings, Reverend John Louis Petit [1801-1868], continues to raise the profile of this neglected Staffordshire artist. His new book follows on...

best history books reviews

Greek Secrets Revealed: Hidden Scottish History Uncovered Book 1 – Edinburgh

Greek Secrets Revealed: Hidden Scottish History Uncovered Book 1 – Edinburgh, Ian McHaffie, self-published, 2022, 200p, £12-00 [including p+p]. ISBN 978-0-9546681-7-4. Copies can be ordered via [email protected] Professor W. G. Hoskins once commented that one of the principal joys of local history was its inter-disciplinary nature. He could see how...

best history books reviews

Working-class Lives in Edwardian Harrogate

Working-class Lives in Edwardian Harrogate, Paul Jennings, Palatine Books, 2022, 264p, £14.99. ISBN 978-1-910837-37-5. Instinctively most people would identify Harrogate in modern times as a rather well-built and prosperous tourist centre. Of course, it is more than that because the real impetus to its history was its emergence as a...

best history books reviews

Cemeteries and Graveyards

Cemeteries and Graveyards, Celia Heritage, Pen and Sword, 2022, 236p, £15.99. ISBN 978 1 52670 237 1. This is a most thorough and engaging book. Its focus is specifically the widest context of burials in England and Wales. As a handbook to be used by anyone wanting to understand burial...

best history books reviews

Tracing Your Family History with the Whole Family

Tracing Your Family History with the Whole Family: A Family Research Adventure for All Ages, Robin C. McConnell, Pen and Sword, 2022, 151p, £14.99. ISBN 9781399013888. This is a very well-intentioned book, based on the exceptionally strong idea of inter-generational collaboration. Robin McConnell is very persuasive in his proposition that...

best history books reviews

The Great Passion

The Great Passion, James Runcie, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, 260p, £16.99. ISBN 978-1-4088-8551-2. One of my academic mentors, Professor Alan Everitt, believed that novels set in carefully researched setting could be a very reliable contemporary source for historians. My experience confirms his judgement: Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat...

best history books reviews

S.E.19: My London Life, 1937-63

S.E.19: My London Life, 1937-63, Roger Ward, Over Bite Press, 2022, 222p, £10-00. ISBN 978-1-9­­15292-39-1. This is a deeply personal book, written by Professor Roger Ward to describe and explain his early life in Upper Norwood for his children. It is reminiscent of Roy Hattersley’s A Yorkshire Boyhood [1983] and...

best history books reviews

Clarke, Petit and St Mark’s: A 19th Century journey on the Isle of Man

Clarke, Petit and St Mark’s: A 19th Century journey on the Isle of Man, Philip Modiano, RPS Publications, 2022, 44p., £9.00 [plus postage]. ISBN 9781916493117. Contact via [email protected] In this extraordinary booklet Philip Modiano explains the architectural and personal relationship built up between the notable water-colourist, the Revd John Louis Petit,...

best history books reviews

London’s Railway Stations

London’s Railway Stations, Oliver Green, Shire Publications, 2022, 64p, £9.99. ISBN 978 1 78442 505 0  Genuinely authentic Londoners will be familiar with all thirteen of its railway terminuses and this book, by a recognised expert on London’s railway provision, provides an excellent introduction to the topic which will now...

best history books reviews

The Grand Tour

The Grand Tour, Mike Rendell, Shire Publications, 2022, 64p, £8-99. ISBN 978-1-78402-695-4.  ‘The Grand Tour’ became a major rite of passage for many young aristocrats and was at its peak in the mid-18th century, when Europe experienced a rare three decades of relative peace. It was inspired by Catholic priest and...

best history books reviews

Ten Cities that Led the World: From Ancient Metropolis to Modern Megacity

Ten Cities that Led the World: From Ancient Metropolis to Modern Megacity, Paul Strathern, Hodder and Stoughton, 2022, 260p, £25-00. ISBN 978-1-529-35934-2. This book has such a level of coherence and insight that it will be read in a single session. Any book that manages to encompass the notion of...

best history books reviews

Uncommon Courage: The Yachtsmen Volunteers of World War II

Uncommon Courage: The Yachtsmen Volunteers of World War II, Julia Jones, Adlard Coles, 2022, 310p, £20-00. ISBN 978-1-4729-87105 Historians are frequently obsessed with defining what constitutes a primary source, a source which will be guaranteed to yield reliable data. What Julia Jones has done is to produce a book which...

best history books reviews

Victorian Stained Glass

Victorian Stained Glass, Trevor Yorke, Shire Publications, 20222, 64p, £8-99. ISBN 978-1-78442-483-1 This is an extraordinarily helpful introduction to the art and manufacture of stained glass. Its extra attraction is that it offers much more than the title suggests. Trevor Yorke provides a very succinct but clear explanation of the...

best history books reviews

Wingfield: Suffolk’s Forgotten Castle

Wingfield: Suffolk’s Forgotten Castle, Elaine Murphy, Poppyland Publishing, 2021, 396pp., £19.95. ISBN 978-1-909796-88-1.  Grade 1 listed Wingfield Manor, ancestral home of the Wingfield family was inherited by Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, in 1385, less than four weeks after his marriage to Katherine Wingfield, sole heir of her...

best history books reviews

How Norwich Fought Against the Plague: Lessons from the Past

How Norwich Fought Against the Plague: Lessons from the Past, Frank Meeres, Poppyland Publishing, 2021, 138p, £9.95. ISBN 9781909796898 The importance of this book has already been acknowledged at a regional level by having been awarded the 2021 East Anglia Book Award for History and Tradition. What Frank Meeres has...

best history books reviews

Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals

Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals, Simon Jenkins, Penguin Books Ltd, 2021, 360pp., £30, ISBN: 978-0-241452-63-9. Ever leafed through one of the visitor books found in many of our churches and read the comments? ‘Very peaceful’, ‘Lovely’, ‘Beautiful’, and similar well-meaning but bland observations are typical. Coming up with something more meaningful isn’t...

best history books reviews

The Historic Sporting Landscape

The Historic Sporting Landscape, Trevor James, Lichfield Press, 2021, 114p, £10-00. ISBN 978-0-905985 978  Having in a recent book effectively surveyed England’s saintly landscape, Trevor James has now turned his attention to the rather less saintly sporting landscape. He believes implicitly that England has been and is ‘the most enthusiastically...

best history books reviews

Beleaguered and Besieged: A Year in a Place of Rocks

Beleaguered and Besieged: A Year in a Place of Rocks, Hugh Gault, Gretton Books, 2021, 124p, £10-00. ISBN 978-1-999851-9-5 Long-standing contributor to The Historian Hugh Gault has developed a novel approach to the study of the siege of Mafeking. The novelty occurs in two forms. He has created a diary...

best history books reviews

The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain

The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain, Tristram Hunt, Allen Lane, 2021, 323pp., £25. ISBN 978-0-24128-789-7.  As MP for Stoke-on-Trent, Tristram Hunt was prominent in the 2014 fight to save the Wedgwood Museum at Barlaston and prevent its contents going to auction. As director of the Victoria...

best history books reviews

Welfare in Widecombe 1700-1900: An illustrated journey through local archives

Welfare in Widecombe 1700-1900: An illustrated journey through local archives, Roger Claxton, Widecombe History Group, 2019, 194p, £17-00 [plus postage and packing], ISBN 978-1-9162849-0-6. More details from Meticulous research has enabled Roger Claxton to produce his Welfare in Widecombe 1700-1900, with its longer and highly significant title of an...

History Extra logo

21 best books for history lovers: BBC History Magazine’s Books of the Year 2022

From meditations on the medieval era to biographies of “bad” Roman emperors, we asked historians to tell us which new history books they have enjoyed the most in 2022

Catherine Nixey, Rana Mitter and Michael Wood, photographed by Fran Monks for BBC History Magazine

  • Rhiannon Davies
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What history books should go on your Christmas wish list this year? In the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine , historians Michael Wood, Rana Mitter and Catherine Nixey discussed their top history books of 2022.

Below they have nominated nine bonus books they particularly enjoyed this year, from historical fiction gems to unsung heroes. Four other historians have also shared their favourite historical reads from 2022.

Watch the full Books of the Year 2022 discussion , or listen to the 2022 Books of the Year podcast .

And if you’re looking for Christmas present ideas, read our rundown of the top 20 gifts for history lovers .

First to choose is broadcaster and professor of public history Michael Wood, whose latest book is a revised edition of In Search of the Dark Ages (BBC Books, 2022)

Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year, by Eleanor Parker

Books 289 Xmas22 Winters in the world

A lovely guide to the world as the Anglo-Saxons saw it. They may have lived 1,000 years ago but, as Chaucer remarked, they “did as well in love as men do now”. Shiver with delight!

  • Buy now on Amazon
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  • On the podcast | Eleanor Parker discusses Winters in the World on the HistoryExtra podcast

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, by Paterson Joseph

Books 289 Xmas22 Sancho2

Sancho is such an intriguing figure: musician, essayist, anti-slavery crusader, one of the great voices of the 18th century. But how did he become who he was? Starting with his birth on an Atlantic slave ship this is a glorious imagined account.

  • Read Paterson Joseph’s history hero , where he chooses Ignatius Sancho

The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, by Jonathan Freedland

Books 289 Xmas225

This book tells the incredible tale of Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz and brought the Allies a detailed account of the horrors. The heart-pumping, terrifying narrative starts with him hiding under a petrol-soaked woodpile for three days while guards search the camp for him.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at St Cross College, University of Oxford. He is also one of the presenters of Free Thinking on Radio 3

Books 289 Xmas22 Rana Mitter

Guru to the World: The Life and Legacy of Vivekananda, by Ruth Harris

Books 289 Xmas226

This is a deeply researched and compellingly argued biography of Swami Vivekananda, one of the first Indian religious thinkers to become known in the west, and one of the makers of modern India .

Peach Blossom Spring, by Melissa Fu

Books 289 Xmas222

A story that remains little-known in the west, the devastation visited on refugees within and from China during the Second World War is told to moving effect through the eyes of a young boy.

Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia and North Korea, by Katie Stallard

Books 289 Xmas224

This gripping story of how Russia , China and North Korea draw on their histories of wartime to create nationalism in the present day is essential reading if you want to understand the self-belief of the powerful autocracies of the world.

Catherine Nixey is a classicist and a writer for The Economist. She is the author of The Darkening Age (Macmillan, 2017)

Books 289 Xmas22 Catherine Nixey

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self, by Andrea Wulf

Books 289 Xmas22 Magnif Rebels

There is no collective noun for artists but if there were it should be a quarrel. In this marvellous history, Andrea Wulf tells how Romanticism – along with numerous feuds – was born in the small German town of Jena.

  • On the podcast | Andrea Wulf discussing Magnificent Rebels on the HistoryExtra podcast

After Sappho, by Selby Wynn Schwartz

Books 289 Xmas22 After Sappho

Reading Sappho’s poetry is at once wonderful and frustrating: so much has been lost to history. The same, this book argues, might be said of all women’s stories. In frequently beautiful prose, it fills in some gaps.

The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome, by Harry Sidebottom

Books 289 Xmas222 copy

This is a biography of a debauched emperor who fed his guests blue food and was carted about in a wheelbarrow pulled by naked women. Allegedly. Like all bad people, he makes for great history. Excellent fun.

Andrew Roberts is a historian whose latest book is The Chief (Simon & Schuster, 2022)

Books 289 Xmas221 Andrew Roberts

A History of Britain in 100 Maps, by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black’s A History of Britain in 100 Maps is a beautifully produced and very well-written exposition of what the gems of the British Library’s hugely extensive map collection can tell us about our history over the past thousand years. The range of charts covered goes from before the Mappa Mundi – the vast map of the then-known world created in the 13th century and now held in Hereford Cathedral – all the way up to the current Covid-19 pandemic. Black takes us through scores of maps, all sumptuously illustrated, showing how useful they are in helping us understand the past.

Conspiracy on Cato Street, by Vic Gatrell

Conspiracy on Cato Street explores in gripping detail the plot of February 1820 to assassinate the whole cabinet and start a revolution the year after the Peterloo massacre. Gatrell sympathises as much as possible with the desperation the doomed plotters felt that drove them to such a decision. The plot was the most murderous for over two centuries – since the gunpowder plot – and here finds its perfect historian.

Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine, by Owen Matthews

Owen Matthews’ superb book Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine explores how Vladimir Putin came to the near-insane decision to invade Ukraine . He explains it largely in terms of the growth in power of ultra-nationalist ideologues around the dictator, just as Putin himself embraced an appallingly skewed view of Russian history. It is a true page-turner that has clearly cost the author friends, and will be used by all serious writers on the current Russo-Ukrainian War as the first draft of its history.

Olivette Otele is a historian and the author of African Europeans (Hurst, 2020)

Books 289 Xmas221 Olivette Otele

Lourenço da Silva Mendonça and the Black Atlantic Abolitionist Movement in the Seventeenth Century, by José Lingna Nafafé

For centuries, volumes about the history of the transatlantic slave trade focused on European abolitionism. But this has changed in recent decades, with scholarship concentrating on American and Caribbean emancipation movements and key figures. In Lourenço da Silva Mendonça and the Black Atlantic Abolitionist Movement in the Seventeenth Century , José Lingna Nafafé examines the trajectory of an abolitionist prince who spearheaded the legal battle and debates about emancipating Jewish people, indigenous Americans and black Christians in the 17th century.

Legacy of Violence, by Caroline Elkins

Books 289 Xmas22 Legacy of violence

Nafafé’s outstanding volume underlines a long history of brutality that echoes Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence . Elkins’ sharp analysis explores how violence became a useful tool for the British empire. The book successfully examines how physical, cultural and even archival violence were practices that have been carefully curated and transmitted from one generation to another.

  • On the podcast | Caroline Elkins talking about Legacy of Violence on the HistoryExtra podcast

The Last Colony, by Philippe Sands

The price paid by those who resisted the British empire was exemplified by the controversial decision to expel islanders from the Chagos Archipelago, a British Overseas Territory in the Indian Ocean, from the late 1960s. In The Last Colony human rights lawyer Philippe Sands shares a troubling and profoundly humane account of the islanders’ battle to return. It highlights the difficulties faced by those who simply wished to live in a peaceful manner, in a world where the legacies of Britain’s colonial past are still highly disputed.

Helen Carr is a historian, writer and producer. Her latest book is The Red Prince (Oneworld, 2021)

Books 289 Xmas22 Helen Carr

Heaven on Earth, by Emma J Wells

The imposing cathedrals that pepper Europe are treasure troves of history, but they are also crucibles of human stories. In Heaven on Earth, Emma J Wells flexes her scholarly expertise by shining a light on the histories of 16 great European cathedrals and the people who built them.

Essex Dogs, by Dan Jones

I greatly enjoyed Dan Jones’ Essex Dogs . This is his first foray into novels – and he’s taken the move in his stride, producing an epic piece of unputdownable historical fiction. The book encapsulates the lesser-known guerrilla-style warfare that took place during the first stage of the Hundred Years’ War . The story is told through the eyes of the “Essex Dogs”, a mercenary band of brothers who took part in the 1346 campaign under Edward III that culminated in the battle of Crécy . You feel the filth on your skin and the fear of the sword in this first instalment of Jones’ hotly anticipated trilogy.

  • On the podcast | Dan Jones discusses Essex Dogs on the HistoryExtra podcast

Fierce Appetites, by Elizabeth Boyle

Finally, I’d nominate Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle. This raw, revealing and frequently laugh-out-loud funny memoir artfully weaves Boyle’s own darkest experiences with her scholarship on early medieval Irish prose. She speaks candidly of addiction and motherhood, and explores how these human experiences appear in Irish mythology; ancient and dark but also utterly dazzling.

  • On the podcast | Elizabeth Boyle discusses Fierce Appetites on the HistoryExtra podcast

Nick Rennison is the author of 1922: Scenes from a Turbulent Year (Oldcastle Books, 2021)

Books 289 Xmas22 Nick Rennison

Booth, Karen Joy Fowler

Books 289 Xmas224

Few historical novels this year are as ambitious and as absorbing as Booth by American writer Karen Joy Fowler, rightly longlisted for the Booker Prize. This saga of the dynasty that produced both America’s greatest 19th-century actor and a presidential assassin builds slowly towards the climactic moment when John Wilkes Booth shoots Abraham Lincoln . In a work of great depth and imagination, Fowler provides an epic depiction of a nation and a family divided.

That Bonesetter Woman, by Frances Quinn

Books 289 Xmas223

Frances Quinn’s That Bonesetter Woman is much lighter than Fowler’s book but no less engaging. Quinn’s unlikely heroine, Endurance “Durie” Proudfoot, arrives in Georgian London intent on making her way as a bonesetter. Despite the obstacles put in her way by male doctors envious of her skill, and distractions provided by an unscrupulous seducer out to defraud her, she refuses to be beaten in an uplifting, thoroughly enjoyable tale of an underdog biting back.

Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris

Books 289 Xmas222

The arrival of a new novel by Robert Harris is always worth celebrating, and Act of Oblivion is no exception. Set in the 1660s and 1670s, it follows the fortunes of two regicides, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, both signatories to Charles I’s death warrant in 1649. In flight from the dubious justice of the restored Charles II , they exile themselves to colonial America – but one dogged investigator is determined to track them down. Harris’s historical thriller summons up a convincing past with his usual skill and inventiveness.

  • On the podcast | Robert Harris discusses Act of Oblivion on the HistoryExtra podcast

These selections first appeared in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

best history books reviews

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.

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Review: The Best Books for Understanding the Israel-Hamas War

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The Best Books for Understanding the Israel-Hamas War

Ten reads that offer insight into the origins of today’s conflict—and what may come next.

  • Middle East and North Africa

After Hamas’s brutal assault on Israel and amid Israel’s “ complete siege ” and bombardment of Gaza, we found ourselves revisiting books that offer unique insights into the history and politics of Israel-Palestine. Below, Foreign Policy staff and contributors recommend books that examine, among other subjects, the rise of Hamas, the innerworkings of Israeli intelligence, and the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The books’ authors represent a wide range of perspectives, from a renowned Palestinian American historian to the former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977

Gershom Gorenberg (Holt Paperbacks, 480 pp., $29.99, March 2007, paperback)

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Gershom Gorenberg’s history of the early settler movement was published in 2006—one year after then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” from Gaza and the year that Hamas won a Palestinian legislative election, eventually leading to intra-Palestinian violence and Hamas’s seizure of the strip. Since that time, settlements in the West Bank have ballooned as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successive governments have indulged the right-wing settler movement and brought its leaders into the inner sanctum of power.

Gorenberg, an Israeli historian and journalist, takes readers back much further, to the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel seized massive amounts of territory from Jordan, Egypt, and Syria but refrained from formally annexing most of it. In captivating and engaging prose, he details how the Israeli left played a central role in the expansion of settlements after the war—even if, as he argues, it was the absence of a coherent policy rather than overt decisions that allowed religious settlers to build on occupied Palestinian land while Washington mostly looked the other way. When the right came to power, led by Menachem Begin in 1977, the settlement enterprise was turbocharged by an explicitly ideological religious-nationalist agenda—increasing the settler population from 4,000 to more than 100,000 by the time of the Oslo peace process in 1993.

Thirty years ago there was still some hope for a two-state solution; but in the years since the book was published the settler population has doubled from roughly 250,000 in 2007 to more than 500,000 today while Hamas grows more violent and senior members of the Israeli government ignore Palestinian aspirations for a sovereign state and unapologetically advocate annexation. To understand when and how many of today’s problems began, The Accidental Empire is essential reading.

— Sasha Polakow-Suransky, FP deputy editor

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy

Nathan Thrall (Metropolitan Books, 272 pp., $29.99, October 2023)

best history books reviews

Nathan Thrall’s A Day in the Life of Abed Salama paints an intricate picture of life under Israeli occupation through the prism of a horrid 2012 traffic accident on the outskirts of Jerusalem that left a permanent scar on the Palestinian psyche.

Thrall, a journalist and former director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group, reconstructs the day that a bus carrying Palestinian kindergarteners collided with a truck and burst into flames, leaving six children and one teacher dead. Due to the geography of occupation, emergency services were late to arrive—Israeli responders from the illegal settlements in the West Bank nearby took a while to locate the site of the accident, while Palestinian responders were stuck at bottlenecks due to Israeli checkpoints.

The narrative centers on Abed Salama as he spends the day looking for his 5-year-old son, Milad, one of the children taken to different hospitals, and eventually learns that Milad has died. But Thrall, who has also written a 2017 book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also highlights how the structural inequality and oppression Palestinians have long faced at the hands of the Israeli military contributed to the scale of the calamity. He weaves analysis, history, and personal stories of individuals on both sides of the Green Line to explain the greater tragedy of the holy land.

— Dalia Hatuqa, FP contributor

Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

Sara Roy (Pluto Press, 408 pp., $37, October 2006, paperback)

best history books reviews

To understand the deeper origins of the brutal violence claiming the lives of Israelis as well as Palestinians in Gaza, I can think of no better place to start than Sara Roy’s Failing Peace . In careful but compassionate prose, Roy, a political economist, chronicles the systematic immiseration of Gaza, the devastating consequences on the people trapped there, and the failed peace process that has enabled Hamas to endure and attract support.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Roy writes with a keen sensitivity to the plight of people suffering under oppression and with a powerful moral commitment to finding justice for Palestinians and Israelis alike. The tale she tells is a bleak one, and it is even more troubling to reflect on how much the situation in Gaza has deteriorated in the years since her book was published.

— Stephen M. Walt, FP columnist

Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid

Jimmy Carter (Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $16, September 2007, paperback)

best history books reviews

Decades before some of the world’s leading human rights organizations began to label Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “ apartheid ,” former U.S. President Jimmy Carter made the same assessment in a landmark 2006 book. Carter, who helped broker the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, has long been committed to the idea that all people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea deserve to live with dignity.

Palestine is equal parts a memoir of Carter’s involvement in the Middle East peace process and a history of why it has failed. Carter places most of the blame on Israel and its leadership, committed more to furthering a ballooning settlement enterprise than negotiating in good faith with Palestinians. Though much has transpired since the book’s publication—Gaza, most notably, has been taken over by Hamas and strangled by a 16-year Israeli blockade—it remains an accessible and foundational text on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

—Allison Meakem, FP associate editor

Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, From Balfour to Trump

Khaled Elgindy (Brookings Institution Press, 345 pp., $28, April 2019)

best history books reviews

So much analysis of the failures of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process understandably focuses on how Washington’s close relationship with Israel has influenced negotiations and U.S. policy over the years. Yet there’s another critical element to the story that gets less attention: the U.S. relationship with and approach toward the Palestinians and their leaders.

Khaled Elgindy’s book, Blind Spot , seeks to fill that gap. Elgindy served as an advisor to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on permanent status negotiations with Israel from 2004 to 2009 and thus had a front-row seat to Washington’s peacemaking efforts. His book provides a deeply researched historical examination of how U.S.-Palestinian relations shaped the peace process over the decades and contributed to the crisis of Palestinian leadership we see today.  

—Jennifer Williams, FP deputy editor

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

Ronen Bergman (Random House, 784 pp., $35, January 2018)

best history books reviews

The gruesome Hamas attacks on Israel that sparked the current war punched a giant hole in the reputation of Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence services. How could one of the world’s most capable national security apparatuses be caught by surprise? We’re still piecing together the answers, but there’s important context in the past. In Rise and Kill First , veteran Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman sheds a spotlight on the dark corners of Israeli intelligence, including its targeted assassination programs aimed at keeping Hamas and other enemies of Israel on the backfoot.

Bergman looks at Israeli intelligence’s historic triumphs and botched operations and examines how Israeli policymakers came to rely on assassinations as a “quick fix” for complex strategic problems—with predictably mixed results, including helping to embolden and foster more extreme militant groups. He doesn’t lose sight of the grim moral quandaries or human toll of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, either, and the result is a book that offers foreboding insights into how the current war may play out.

— Robbie Gramer, FP’s diplomacy and national security reporter  

Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination

Adam Shatz (Verso, 368 pp., $34.95, May 2023)

best history books reviews

A recent collection of essays by the excellent writer Adam Shatz doesn’t center specifically on Israel and the Palestinians but does include several profiles related to the region that are unusually insightful. Writers and Missionaries focuses on intellectuals across a broad spectrum, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Richard Wright to Jacques Derrida. But it’s the four opening pieces that touch on the Middle East and set the tone for the rest of the book.

The most impressive of them is a deeply reported work about the life and death of the actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, whose hybrid identity (his mother was Israeli and his father Palestinian) made him a personification of the conflict—and eventually a target for people on both sides. That one alone is worth the price of the book.

— Dan Ephron, FP executive editor, podcasts

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Michael B. Oren (Oxford University Press, 480 pp., $54, June 2002)

best history books reviews

Michael B. Oren, a U.S.-born historian who later became Israel’s ambassador in Washington, wrote arguably the best one-volume history of the Six-Day War in 1967 that planted many of the seeds of the current conflict in Israel and the broader region. “Rarely in modern times has so short and localized a conflict had such prolonged, global consequences,” he writes in Six Days of War . He offers an hour-by-hour, riveting account of what created the climate ahead of the war, the dramatic opening hours, and its seismic impact on the shape of Israel and the region today.

— Keith Johnson, FP deputy editor

The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017

Rashid Khalidi (Metropolitan Books, 336 pp., $30, January 2020)

best history books reviews

Rashid Khalidi approaches Palestine’s history from a unique perspective: He is not only one of the foremost historians of the Middle East but also the descendant of a mayor of Ottoman-era Jerusalem. In his provocative, beautifully written The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine , Khalidi leans on both archival research and personal experience to “help recover some of what has thus far been airbrushed out of the history.” What unfolds is part scholarly narrative, part family history—a deeply personal yet sweeping account of the past century from a Palestinian American point of view that reassesses the roots of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

— Chloe Hadavas, FP associate editor

Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel

Dan Ephron (W. W. Norton & Company, 320 pp., $16.95, October 2016, paperback)

best history books reviews

FP’s Dan Ephron has written one of the best books on the rise of the Israeli far right. In Killing a King , Ephron traces the radicalization of Yigal Amir, the right-wing extremist who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a 1995 pro-peace rally in support of the Oslo Accords. Ephron also recounts Rabin’s personal and political machinations during the Oslo years.

Ephron’s interwoven tale covers many critical paradigm shifts in Israel, Palestine, and the world in the post-Oslo period, including the rise of now-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the decline of the Israeli left. The book is a chilling page-turner—and required reading for anyone interested in understanding how Israel ended up with its most extremist, right-wing government to date.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. FP earns an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to on this page.

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Dylan’s Back Pages, and Then Some

This collection of archival treasures at the Bob Dylan Center includes fan mail from Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen.

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The central figure in this photo is a young man seated at a table, with long curly brown hair and dark glasses. A photographer and another man are on the left and a woman is seated on the right.

By Rob Sheffield

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BOB DYLAN: Mixing Up the Medicine, written and edited by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel

In 2016, the world learned that a new Bob Dylan Center was coming to Tulsa, Okla. Dylan said, “I’m glad that my archives, which have been collected all these years, have finally found a home and are to be included with the works of Woody Guthrie and especially alongside all the valuable artifacts from the Native American Nations.” “Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine” is the center’s official publication, a lavishly illustrated collection of archival treasures, edited by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel. It also has new essays by a host of Dylan scholars, from artists like Ed Ruscha, Richard Hell and Lee Ranaldo to writers like Greil Marcus, Joy Harjo, Michael Ondaatje and Amanda Petrusich.

As the editors note in their preface, archives are incomplete by nature. But Dylan has always set out to make incompletable music, full of stories that go on telling themselves long after he’s moved on and left them behind. Archives or not, Dylan remains the drifter who gave his name as Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” He never sits still long enough for anyone to pin him down. At 82, currently barnstorming through America, he refuses to be an oldies act, playing his newer songs (mostly from his 2020 album “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” one of his best) and ignoring nearly all his hits.

The artifacts here are full of history. There’s Dylan’s scuffed-up copy of the 1960 anthology “Blues Fell This Morning,” with songs by Bukka White, Blind Boy Fuller, Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie. On the back cover, he’s scrawled, “Made for and about Bob Dylan.” Under the liner notes, he writes, “Hand read by Bob Dylan.” The book has an early draft of his Oscar-winning 2000 song “Things Have Changed” — he wrote it on the back of a fax from Leonard Cohen, who’d sent him the lyrics to “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” There’s a talismanic poignancy in a business card he got from Otis Redding, the one time they met.

The archive has many letters to Dylan, though hardly any from him. He gets fan mail from Paul McCartney (“All the best you lovely boy”) and Bruce Springsteen. There’s a fond George Harrison letter to “Dear Bobbie,” after a 1968 visit to Woodstock. He addresses the envelope to “Tiny Montgomery” (a character from “The Basement Tapes”) and signs off, “Keep your rocks on.” This letter was postmarked in December 1968, a few weeks before Harrison led the Beatles through a gloriously surly “Positively 4th Street” at the “Get Back” sessions. There’s another Harrison letter from 20 years later, after they’d collaborated in the Traveling Wilburys, telling him, “Who knows — maybe we will meet again someday on the avenue.”

Some of the essayists stick to specific archival artifacts; others recount myths, legends, rumors, wild guesses or social media hoaxes. (At one point we are solemnly informed that “‘Murder Most Foul’ was his first #1 hit.” It never even reached the Hot 100, much less topped it.) Quite a few indulge their amiably fanciful interpretive theories of the “You can believe what you want, Abe, but…” variety. Lucy Sante contributes a luminous essay on a tattered pocket notebook from 1963-64, labeled “A Daily Reminder of Important Matters,” which has lyrical fragments alongside phone numbers for Lenny Bruce, City Lights Books and Nico, two years before she met the Velvet Underground. Greil Marcus, both the Herman Melville and the Captain Ahab of the Dylan quest, breaks down a 1960 home recording, with the teenage folkie trying on his Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie masks. As Marcus writes, “That’s the attitude: Songs are a way to get from one place to another, in the course of the night, across a life, and who knows what they’re really about?”

The late great Greg Tate discusses the connection between Dylan and Jimi Hendrix — we see Hendrix’s copy of the 1967 “Greatest Hits” LP, with his psychedelic drawings on the back cover. Tate connects Dylan to the hip-hop legacy, in how “Like a Rolling Stone,” with “six and a half minutes of proto-rap wordiness, presaged the breakthrough 14 years later of the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight.’” The poet laureate Joy Harjo recalls hearing “Tangled Up in Blue” in downtown Tulsa, just down the road from her girlhood Indian school where she used to copy his lyrics into her notebook. Richard Hell has a marvelously vandalistic meditation on “You’re a Big Girl Now,” the “Blood on the Tracks” deep cut, noting, “The audience creates the work as much as the artist does.”

There’s a handwritten draft of the lyrics to “Tight Connection to My Heart,” yet this ostensibly raw artifact is full of the Jokerman’s sleight-of-hand tricks. I’d loved that 1985 song my whole life before I happened to catch the 1967 “Star Trek” episode where Mr. Sulu and Captain Kirk recite dialogue from the lyrics. You’d never guess from the manuscript that he was slipping in quotes from the Starship Enterprise. Yet every Dylan fanatic has stories like this. He loves to make fools of us.

But even in his own archives, he won’t get caught coming clean. As he sang in “Things Have Changed,” don’t get up, he’s only passing through. That’s the most fascinating mystery about Dylan and his music — the stubbornly mischievous refusal to fade into the past. In a way, the book enshrines a history that Dylan has already slipped away from, a history where he’s determined not to get trapped. It’s a road map of places he has left behind. But then, that’s how Bob Dylan stories usually go. While everybody kneels to pray, the drifter escapes.

Rob Sheffield is a senior writer at Rolling Stone. His latest book is “Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World.”

BOB DYLAN: Mixing Up the Medicine | Written and edited by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel | Callaway | 607 pp. | $100

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Dann McDorman, the executive producer of “The Beat With Ari Melber,” gave up writing fiction in his 20s. Now, he’s publishing his first novel at age 47 .

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More From Forbes

The sports bra story: only a beginning.

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PASADENA, : The US won 5-4 on penalties. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/HECTOR MATA (Photo credit ... [+] should read HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images)

Now the photo is iconic: Brandi Chastain, victorious female athlete, celebrating the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team World Cup final win over China without her jersey on, revealing her sports bra — unheard of at the time. Not so these days. Just check out the New York City Marathon on Sunday. Even in the November chill, you might see several sports bras. Even if you don’t see them, they will be on virtually every woman runner.

Inventing the sports bra was just the beginning. Wellness, entrepreneurship, relationships, personal growth, spiritual expansion, feminism and other cultural influences are all threads that wove this history, brought us to today and will pop up here.

Life is laced with irony. Even though I invented the sports bra I have never considered myself an athlete, though many since have assumed that to be the case. Who else would conceive of such a thing?

An artist and craftswoman, earning a meager living back in the 1970s as a secretary, the only business experience I’d had was selling my creations at local craft fairs. My love of running was for psychological, physiological and eventually spiritual reasons, not for competition — except, as it turned out, a stiff competition with myself. Starting and running a business was the furthest thing from my mind the summer I conceived of a bra specifically designed for jogging, as we called the activity then.

So how is it that indeed I did invent the first sports bra? In my mid-twenties, sitting at a desk most every day, I began to grieve the loss of my girlish figure. It was the mid 1970s and the fitness revolution was booming. Awareness of the importance of physical fitness was trending big time. A friend told me that if I just ran a mile and a quarter three times a week I would get into shape and lose any extra pounds. That sounded doable, right?. Little did I know!

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Working at the University of Vermont at the time afforded me use of the indoor track — but it covered only a tenth of a mile. When I began my new regime it was a struggle to get around it even just once. Shocked and ashamed at my inability, determination blossomed: I would complete a mile, impossible as that seemed. The day, months later, when I completed that 10 th lap I was elated. The competition between couch potato me and determined me had been won. I was reinventing myself. And I set the bar higher, a lap at a time.

Fast forward to what became my routine: outdoors, running 5-6 miles a day, almost every day, even in Vermont winters. It changed everything. I was stronger, more energetic, and my creative juices were overflowing. It was no longer only about physical fitness, but had become a spiritual practice. Running connected me. For the first time I felt my body was my friend, my ally – not the tricky mechanism that could betray and endanger me at any moment, for as a person with epilepsy I have seizures and can have convulsions. Growing up I’d learned over the years that my body was not always my friend, but could be unpredictable and dangerous. Running changed that. More about that aspect later.

The only unpleasant aspect of my new discipline was the discomfort and annoyance of my bouncing breasts. Regular bras were not adequately supportive, to say the least. Shoulder straps fell down, fabrics exacerbated sweat and chafing, hardware dug in. Then the day came when I jokingly asked “Why isn’t there a jockstrap for women?” Different part of the anatomy, same job: ameliorate the bouncing of certain body parts. The idea was born. And yes, the first working prototype was two jockstraps cut in half and sewed back together to support breasts instead of balls.

re-creation of the first sports bra made by sewing two jockstraps together (currently in the ... [+] Smithsonian archives).

Little did I know all those years ago how great the impact of the invention of the sports bra would be. The rest of the story has become feminist and athletic history, some true, some not so much. But it is most definitely a tale of personal as well as feminist and cultural evolution.

This is my first contribution to Forbes and while the genesis story of the very first sports bra is always popular, there are so many other tales to tell. The sports bra and the business I built around it turned out to birth a multi-billion dollar industry and significantly impact women’s sports. But it turned out to only be the start. Women’s wellness, entrepreneurship, relationships, personal growth, spiritual expansion, feminism and other cultural influences intervened. This twisty and counterintuitive path eventually led me to my true passion and its purpose, one that is important for us all. Stay tuned.

Lisa Lindahl

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    by Lily Ebert. This is the moving story of Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert, written with her great-grandson Dov. When Lily was liberated at the end of the Second World War, a Jewish-American soldier handed her a banknote with the words 'the start to a new life, good luck and happiness!' written on it. Decades later, when Lily was 96, Dov ...

  12. The best history books to transport yourself to the past

    Publisher's Weekly said Susan Wise Bauer's book The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome "guides readers on a fast-paced yet thorough tour of the ancient ...

  13. 45 Best History Books of All Time

    Ansary discusses the history of the Islamic world from the time of Mohammed, through the various empires that have ruled the Middle Eastern region and beyond, right up to contemporary conflicts and the status of Islam in a modern, globalizing world. 7. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. Buy on Amazon.

  14. The best history books

    History books also provide a deep insight into key historical figures, from Genghis Khan to Ulysses Grant and Winston Churchill. World history is vast, and these 30 books are the tip of the iceberg. Our list of the best history books includes bestsellers, Pulitzer Prize winners and editor's picks from distinguished historians and biographers.

  15. History books + Reviews

    A spry story of art's interplay with power; Philippa Gregory charts 900 years of weavers, nuns and housewives; and Ross Gay waxes lyrical in a rambling collection of essays

  16. The 60 Best History Books of All Time (to Read at Any Age)

    Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday. Best History Books About Climate Change & Population Growth. 48. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. 49. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. 50. Empty Planet by Darrell Bricker & John Ibbitson. Best History Books With a Self-Help Angle.

  17. History books

    Fascism in America: a long history that predates Trump. A new book examines the history of far-right authoritarian US groups - and ways the public has chosen to look away. 6:00 AM. About 6,276 ...

  18. Best History Book Reviews

    The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC. "No Roman or Carthaginian could have dreamed in 264 that their states were about to embark on a twenty-four-year struggle which would involve huge casualties, still less that it would be the first of three wars between the two peoples" (65... Book Review ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ by Jan van der ...

  19. The Best History Books of All Time

    From the author of Empire of Pain — a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to ...

  20. Book Reviews / Historian / Historical Association

    One of its regular features is book reviews. The reviews cover everything from the popular new history books to some of the more obscure, specialist books that make you proud that publishers still value history books. ... Europe's 100 Best Cathedrals, Simon Jenkins, Penguin Books Ltd, 2021, 360pp., £30, ISBN: 978--241452-63-9. Ever leafed ...

  21. 21 best books for history lovers: BBC History Magazine's Books of the

    A History of Britain in 100 Maps, by Jeremy Black. Jeremy Black's A History of Britain in 100 Maps is a beautifully produced and very well-written exposition of what the gems of the British Library's hugely extensive map collection can tell us about our history over the past thousand years. The range of charts covered goes from before the Mappa Mundi - the vast map of the then-known ...

  22. The Best Books of 2021

    When We Cease to Understand the World. By Benjamín Labatut. Translated by Adrian Nathan West. Labatut expertly stitches together the stories of the 20th century's greatest thinkers to explore ...

  23. Readers Pick the Best Book of the Past 125 Years

    In October, as we marked the Book Review's 125th anniversary, we invited readers to nominate the best book published during that time. This was a nod to our history: In its first few decades ...

  24. The Best Books for Understanding the Israel-Hamas War

    Michael B. Oren, a U.S.-born historian who later became Israel's ambassador in Washington, wrote arguably the best one-volume history of the Six-Day War in 1967 that planted many of the seeds of ...

  25. Book Review: 'Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine,' edited by Mark

    The artifacts here are full of history. There's Dylan's scuffed-up copy of the 1960 anthology "Blues Fell This Morning," with songs by Bukka White, Blind Boy Fuller, Kansas Joe and Memphis ...

  26. The Sports Bra Story

    Fast forward to what became my routine: outdoors, running 5-6 miles a day, almost every day, even in Vermont winters. It changed everything. I was stronger, more energetic, and my creative juices ...