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Blog – Posted on Friday, May 21
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 Ten Best History Books of 2020
Our favorite titles of the year resurrect forgotten histories and help explain how the country got to where it is today
Associate Editor, History
In a year marked by a devastating pandemic, a vitriolic presidential race and an ongoing reckoning with systemic racism in the United States, these ten titles served a dual purpose. Some offered a respite from reality, transporting readers to such varied locales as Tudor England, colonial America and ancient Jerusalem; others reflected on the fraught nature of the current moment, detailing how the nation’s past informs its present and future. From an irreverent biography of George Washington to a sweeping overview of 20th-century American immigration , these were some of our favorite history books of 2020.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
In this “ Oprah’s Book Club” pick , Isabel Wilkerson presents a compelling argument for shifting the language used to describe how black Americans are treated by their country. As the Pulitzer Prize–winning author tells NPR , “racism” is an insufficient term for the country’s ingrained inequality. A more accurate characterization is “ caste system ”—a phrase that better encapsulates the hierarchical nature of American society.
Drawing parallels between the United States, India and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson identifies the “ eight pillars ” that uphold caste systems: Among others, the list includes divine will, heredity, dehumanization, terror-derived enforcement and occupational hierarchies. Dividing people into categories ensures that those in the middle rung have an “inferior” group to compare themselves to, the author writes, and maintains a status quo with tangible ramifications for public health, culture and politics. “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Wilkerson explains. “It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”
The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster that Launched the War on Cancer
When the Nazis bombed Bari, a Mediterranean port city central to the Allied war effort, on December 2, 1943, hundreds of sailors sustained horrific injuries. Within days of the attack, writes Jennet Conant in The Great Secret , the wounded started exhibiting unexpected symptoms , including blisters “as big as balloons and heavy with fluid,” in the words of British nurse Gwladys Rees, and intense eye pain. “We began to realize that most of our patients had been contaminated by something beyond all imagination,” Rees later recalled.
American medical officer Stewart Francis Alexander, who’d been called in to investigate the mysterious maladies, soon realized that the sailors had been exposed to mustard gas. Allied leaders were quick to place the blame on the Germans, but Alexander found concrete evidence sourcing the contamination to an Allied shipment of mustard gas struck during the bombing. Though the military covered up its role in the disaster for decades, the attack had at least one positive outcome: While treating patients, Alexander learned that mustard gas rapidly destroyed victims’ blood cells and lymph nodes—a phenomenon with wide-ranging ramifications for cancer treatment. The first chemotherapy based on nitrogen mustard was approved in 1949, and several drugs based on Alexander’s research remain in use today.
Read an excerpt from The Great Secret that ran in the September 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazine .
Uncrowned Queen: The Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors
Though she never officially held the title of queen, Margaret Beaufort , Countess of Richmond, fulfilled the role in all but name, orchestrating the Tudor family’s rise to power and overseeing the machinations of government upon her son Henry VII ’s ascension. In Uncrowned Queen , Nicola Tallis charts the complex web of operations behind Margaret’s unlikely victory, detailing her role in the Wars of the Roses —a dynastic clash between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal Plantagenet family—and efforts to win Henry, then in exile as one of the last Lancastrian heirs, the throne. Ultimately, Margaret emerges as a more well-rounded figure, highly ambitious and determined but not, as she’s commonly characterized, to the point of being a power-hungry religious zealot.
You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington
Accounts of George Washington’s life tend to lionize the Founding Father, depicting him as a “marble Adonis … rather than as a flawed, but still impressive, human being,” according to Karin Wulf of Smithsonian magazine . You Never Forget Your First adopts a different approach: As historian Alexis Coe told Wulf earlier this year, “I don’t feel a need to protect Washington; he doesn’t need me to come to his defense, and I don’t think he needed his past biographers to, either, but they’re so worried about him. I’m not worried about him. He’s everywhere. He’s just fine.” Treating the first president’s masculinity as a “foregone conclusion,” Coe explores lesser-known aspects of Washington’s life, from his interest in animal husbandry to his role as a father figure . Her pithy, 304-page biography also interrogates Washington’s status as a slaveholder, pointing out that his much-publicized efforts to pave the way for emancipation were “mostly legacy building,” not the result of strongly held convictions.
Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife
Nine years after Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularized the theory that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, Harvard historian Karen L. King announced the discovery of a 1,600-year-old papyrus that seemingly supported the novel’s much-maligned premise. The 2012 find was an instant sensation, dividing scholars, the press and the public into camps of non-believers who dismissed it as a forgery and defenders who interpreted it as a refutation of longstanding ideals of Christian celibacy. For a time, the debate appeared to be at an impasse. Then, journalist Ariel Sabar —who’d previously reported on the fragment for Smithsonian —published a piece in the Atlantic that called the authenticity of King’s “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” into question. Shortly after, King publicly stated that the papyrus was probably a forgery .
Veritas presents the full story of Sabar’s seven-year investigation for the first time, drawing on more than 450 interviews, thousands of documents, and trips around the world to reveal the fascinating figures behind the forgery: an amateur Egyptologist–turned–pornographer and a scholar whose “ideological commitments” guided her practice of history. Ultimately, Sabar concludes, King viewed the papyrus “as a fiction that advanced a truth”: namely, that women and sexuality played a larger role in early Christianity than previously acknowledged.
The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President's Black Family
Bettye Kearse ’s mother had long viewed her family’s ties to President James Madison as a point of pride. “Always remember—you’re a Madison,” she told her daughter. “You come from African slaves and a president.” (According to family tradition, as passed down by generations of griot oral historians, Madison raped his enslaved half-sister, Coreen, who gave birth to a son—Kearse’s great-great-great-grandfather—around 1792.) Kearse, however, was unable to separate her DNA from the “humiliation, uncertainty, and physical and emotional harm” experienced by her enslaved ancestor.
To come to terms with this violent past, the retired pediatrician spent 30 years investigating both her own family history and that of other enslaved and free African Americans whose voices have been silenced over the centuries. Though Kearse lacks conclusive DNA or documentary evidence proving her links to Madison, she hasn’t let this upend her sense of identity. “The problem is not DNA,” the author writes on her website . “... [T]he problem is the Constitution,” which “set the precedent for the exclusion of [enslaved individuals] from historical records.”
The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West
While Union forces fought to end slavery in the American South, a smaller cadre of soldiers waged war in the West, battling pro-secessionist troops for control of the resource-rich Arizona and New Mexico Territories . The campaign essentially ended in late 1862, when the U.S. Army pushed Confederate forces back into Texas, but as Megan Kate Nelson writes in The Three-Cornered War , another battle—this time, between the United States and the region’s Apache and Navajo communities—was just beginning. Told through the lens of nine key players, including Apache leader Mangas Coloradas, Texas legislator John R. Baylor and Navajo weaver Juanita, Nelson’s account underscores the brutal nature of westward expansion, from the U.S. Army’s scorched-earth strategy to its unsavory treatment of defeated soldiers . Per Publishers Weekly , Nelson deftly argues that the United States’ priorities were twofold, including “both the emancipation of [slavery] and the elimination of indigenous tribes.”
One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965
In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act , a eugenics-inspired measure that drastically limited immigration into the U.S. Controversial from its inception, the law favored immigrants from northern and Western Europe while essentially cutting off all immigration from Asia. Decisive legislation reversing the act only arrived in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson (no relation), capitalizing on a brief moment of national unity sparked by predecessor John F. Kennedy’s assassination, signed the Hart-Celler Act —a measure that eliminated quotas and prioritized family unification—into law.
Jia Lynn Yang ’s One Mighty and Irresistible Tide artfully examines the impact of decades of xenophobic policy, spotlighting the politicians who celebrated America’s status as a nation of immigrants and fought for a more open and inclusive immigration policy. As Yang, a deputy national editor at the New York Times , told Smithsonian ’s Anna Diamond earlier this year, “The really interesting political turn in the '50s is to bring immigrants into this idea of American nationalism. It’s not that immigrants make America less special. It’s that immigrants are what make America special.”
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
When Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Les Payne died of a heart attack in 2018, his daughter, Tamara, stepped in to complete his unfinished biography of civil rights leader Malcolm X. Upon its release two years later, the 500-page tome garnered an array of accolades, including a spot on the 2020 National Book Awards shortlist. Based on 28 years of research, including hundreds of interviews with Malcolm’s friends, family acquaintances, allies and enemies, The Dead Are Arising reflects the elder Payne’s dedication to tirelessly teasing out the truth behind what he described as the much-mythologized figure’s journey “from street criminal to devoted moralist and revolutionary.” The result, writes Publishers Weekly in its review, is a “richly detailed account” that paints “an extraordinary and essential portrait of the man behind the icon.”
The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom
In this dual biography, H.W. Brands seeks to address an age-old question : “What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil?” Drawing on two prominent figures in Civil War history as case studies, the historian outlines differing approaches to the abolition of slavery, juxtaposing John Brown’s “violent extremism” with Abraham Lincoln’s “coolheaded incrementalism,” as Alexis Coe writes in the Washington Post ’s review of The Zealot and the Emancipator . Ultimately, Brands tells NPR , lasting change requires both “the conscience of people like John Brown” (ideally with an understanding that one can take these convictions too far) and “the pragmatism and the steady hand of the politician—the pragmatists like Lincoln.”
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Meilan Solly | | READ MORE
Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history.
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.
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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..
Four Hundred Souls
By ibram x. kendi and keisha n. blain, paperback $20.00, buy from other retailers:.
The Forgotten 500
By gregory a. freeman, paperback $17.00.
By juan villoro, hardcover $32.50.
The Spy and the Traitor
By ben macintyre, paperback $18.00.
Against All Odds
By alex kershaw, large print $32.00.
Empress Dowager Cixi
By jung chang, paperback $23.00.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
By david treuer.
The Splendid and the Vile
By erik larson.
Twilight of Democracy
By anne applebaum, paperback $16.00.
A Little Devil in America
By hanif abdurraqib.
By harriet a. washington.
The Warmth of Other Suns
By isabel wilkerson.
The Power Broker
By robert a. caro, paperback $27.00.
Unbroken (Movie Tie-in Edition)
By laura hillenbrand, paperback $19.00.
A Woman of No Importance
By sonia purnell.
by Adam Makos
Dreams in a Time of War
By ngugi wa thiong'o.
The Devil in the White City
Killers of the Flower Moon (Movie Tie-in Edition)
By david grann.
By chester nez and judith schiess avila.
The Life of Elizabeth I
By alison weir.
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