History books

The other day when I was browsing the local Borders I bought “From Dawn to Decadence” by Jacques Barzun. It looked like a cool book, I was in the mood for lighter reading than software methodology tomes, and it was 30% off to boot. Honestly it’s the first history book I’ve read since college, but I can’t stop reading it. It’s addictive, and well thought and very insightful.

Has anyone else read this book? Do you enjoy it?

Plus, if you’re a history buff, do you know of similar books that I may enjoy?

Try Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W Loewen. It paints a disturbing, yet accurate portrait of U.S. history including all the parts your school textbooks either glossed over or flat-out lied about. The BS that is spewed upon our children in the name of patriotism is disgusting and this book does its best to set the record straight.

I am a recent Columbia grad in history, still somewhat influenced by Barzun’s work. Do you want more suggestions for books by Barzun or marterial on modern intellectual history?


“A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn. A classic elitist history (in the sense that we should all strive to be elite) in showing how far we have fallen short, and how we can improve our future attempts. Great stuff (I particularly found the section on the abuse of power under the Sedition Act during WWI to fascinating).

Try these:

“Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of World History”
“Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History”
“I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not”
all by Richard Shenkman

“History Laid Bare: Love, Sex, and Perversity from the Ancient Etruscans to Warren G. Harding”
by Richard Zacks

Anything by Eric Hobswam is good. Especially his history of the industrial revolution.

I’ll second the nomination of Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. And since I personally find military history fascinating, I’d also have to recommend A History of Warfare by John Keegan. (I am currently about 1/3 through his book on WWI, which really needs more maps…) The caveat on reading Keegan is that his writing style is, well, highly concentrated.

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson.

Did you know that the Franklin Stove was invented by a mouse? That the bifocal lens was conceptualized by a mouse? That the discovery of lightning being electrical in nature was due to the experimentation of a mouse? That a mouse was behind post-revolutionary French/American international diplomacy?

Ben and Me totally blows the lid off the anti-rodent revisionist histories compiled by the speciesist Benjamin Franklin toadies.

Check out Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. It’s part history and part journalism, but fascinating from beginning to end. The movie was good, too, but the book is really excellent.

neutron star recommended: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W Loewen.

Ooooo yeah, that’s a good book, James. I also recommend Kenneth C. Davis’ series of “Don’t Know Much About” books, including:
[li]Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned[/li][li]Don’t Know Much About the Civil War: Everything You Need to Know About America’s Greatest Conflict but Never Learned[/ul][/li]There are others not directly about history, that I also recommend (particular his “Don’t Know Much About the Bible”, which provides WONDERFUL context as to WHY the things in the bible are what they are.)

With all due respect to the above posters, the Shenkman and Loewen books are as suspect as the history teachers that they love to criticize. Shenkman is particularly bad in this regard. He criticizes historians’ work, saying “it wasn’t really that way. It was this way!” But he offers no evidence to support his version of the story. He has a shallow and spotty understanding of historiography, too. All in all, Shenkman isn’t “fighting ignorance.” He is spreading it.

I’d give you a specific example, but I am rearranging my office at the moment, so all of my books are in boxes!

I second Baglady’s recommendations.

I must agree with the disparaging of “Lies my teacher told me,” a little too fluffy for solid history. Most interesting history book I’ve read recently: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Diamond. Thats some good shit.

Oh yeah, having been named after Ben Franklin, I was cursed with relatives giving me Franklin related gifts throughout childhood (no $100 bills tho.) Ben and Me, while good, led to much grief when my childhood hero turned out to be a fraud directed by a rodent.
Its all about the Benjamins, yo.

Zero…are you looking for light reading that is based on history (such as the Shenkman books), or good survey histories?

I have copies of the following books that were previously mentioned and I add my recommendation that you read them.

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W Loewen.
Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis
Don’t Know Much About The Bible by Kenneth C. Davis
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

I have also heard good things about A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn but haven’t read it yet.
The posters here are steering you down some interesting paths.

I will third the nomination of “Guns , Germs, and Steel” …good stuff. I too am reading the 30% off Barzun book…it was in the staff recommended section of my Barnes and Nobles. I also enjoyed the Daniel Boorstin trilogy “The Discoverers”, “The Creators”, and “The Seekers”. And, of course, the “Cartoon History of the Universe” Vols I and II is divine.

I’ve read the Davis book about the Civil War and I DEFINITELY recommend it. (I also have the Davis Bible book, but haven’t yet had a chance to read it).

I very much enjoy Issac Asimov’s History of the World.

First of all, thanks for all suggestions.

To clarify to those who asked, I’m particularly interested in comprehensive books. Ultimately I’d like to read a few good overviews from different perspectives of how western society evolved. Then, I’d like to get a more thorough understanding of specific niches, like U.S. history, and eventually the connections between the east and west. But ultimately I’m looking for a critical, comprehensive analysis of western history. Also, something challenging to digest but interesting enough to keep me coming back for more would be nice.

I think I enjoy the Barzun book because he focuses on the individuals and events and their repercussions. It’s interesting to see the parallels he makes between different periods. As I’m reading I can see relationships between, say a revolutionary idea in the 16th century and its remnants today. Although he usually paints a very superficial picture of the people and events, he focuses on the connections, contrasts and dynamics between them, and I think that’s very enjoyable. Plus, it ‘s a challenging read for me because of its concise structure, but it’s also enjoyable because Barzun doesn’t obscure his focus with verbosity. His themes are right out in the open.

Several people recommended “Guns, Germs and Steel”, and I read that and liked it too. But I think I prefer the Barzun book because it focuses on specific events and individuals rather than a high-level overview. Of course I love the analysis of “Guns, Germs and Steel”, but I felt it was a more of a remedy for current social tension. I’d like to read something more “out of the box”.

Have you tried Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West?

(I’m serious, now. Sorry about that little thing before. Go over to Amazon and take a peek at what people think about it. Or check out this link:)


If you are going to start reading history, my advice would be to choose your books carefully. There are a lot of poorly conceived, poorly researched, poorly written books out there masquerading as “history.” It makes me sad when a self-proclaimed “history buff” spews out a bunch of nonsense based on books that he has read which are outdated, have been superseded, or were so badly done as to have been worthless in the first place. There are many reputable historians, for example, who discount Boorstein as a crackpot. (I’ve never read him, so I dunno.) If you are going to bother to read, read well.

Davis manages to present American History in a lighthearted way without being inaccurate. Admittedly, he sometimes “skims over” stuff, or gives explanations which are a bit too pat, but it is still a wonderful book. It is among the 3 reference works I turn to first when I have a quick question about something in American history. (The other two are The Readers Companion to American History edited by Eric Foner and the Encyclopaedia Britannica online)

In my experience, the narrative history that the “civilians” like the best is the Howard Zinn. They find it quite engaging and interesting. My primary criticism of that book is that in his valiant effort to write a history that does not unduly privilege the role of the white man, he goes a bit too far in the opposite direction and ends up presenting the story as: “women, blacks, Amerindians–Good, white men–Bad.” But with that in mind, I would recommend you read it. It synthesizes a lot of seminal work in social, womens’, and African-American history.

As LocalLoop said, Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe is great, as is his Cartoon History of the Untied States.

I have not read Diamond yet, but I am anxious to!

As soon as I un-box my books, I’ll be happy to make some recommendations. What areas of history are you interested in?