History books

Robert Massie’s Peter the Great is one of the most readable works of biography I’ve ever read. While this is a biography rather than strictly a “history” it’s still a very good book.

I’ve read chunks of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and it’s surprisingly readable.

My suggestion: pick a period you’re interested in, go to the library and dive in.

Read Spengler with a gallon of salt. Not that he isn’t *worth[/reading], per se, but you just need to be painfully aware of his own historical context as you read the Decline.

My own specialization is in medieval and ancient history, so I can’t exactly give you too much good material on modern.

But one book jumps to mind. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller is probably one of the most interesting recent historical works. It is eminently readable by nonspecialists, yet does not fall into many of the narrative pitfalls of “popular history.” It is about a sixteenth century heretic on trial for his religious beliefs. Some love it, some hate it…but most everyone finds it interesting.


Please forgive my farkled vB there. I hate it when I do that.


I hated it, and found it boring as all-get-out. :smiley:

If you’re looking for comprehensive history I again recomend Eric J. Hobsbawm. I mispelled his name the first time, so felt compelled to repost.

Here are his four best known western history books, really good an in depth

The Age of Revolution : 1789-1848
The Age of Capital : 1848-1875
The Age of Empire 1875-1914
The Age of Extremes : A History of the World, 1914-1991

here is what some people have said about the books.
*“A virtuoso performance…Few, if any, present practitioners of the historian’s craft can equal the astonishing range and
dazzling craft of Mr. Hobsbawm’s scholarship.” --The New York Times Book Review

                       "A splendid answer to those critics who complain that academic historians no longer write readable prose...The great
                       strength of this book is the way in which what seems in so many ways a wholly vanished epoch is related to our
                       situation today."--The New York Review of Books *

Anyway, go and start with the first one and read through it all. Hobsbawm’s knowledge is really impressive, and all the books are quite readable.

I agree with the Hobsbawm. Solid, solid stuff. When you are done with him, try Benedict Anderson, especially Imaginary Communities.

*Green Bean, sorry to hear you didn’t like Ginzburg.


Ginzburg? Benedict Anderson? 'Fess up Maeglin. You’re a lit crit type, aren’t you?

If you are interested in a ideologically conservative survey history of the 20th Century, I’m told Paul Johnston’s Modern Times is quite good.

Green Bean:

You don’t like Shenkman because he doesn’t give information? I don’t understand. His books have virtual Forests of footnotes at the back.

I’ve always aken his books to be brief surveys, providing useful references, as is the case for my frequently-cited Flying Circus of Physics by Jearl Walker. You don’t learn physics from Walker – but it does tell you where to find the more detailed explanations, and he’s thought-provoking. Ditto for Shenkman – you read him to find out about gaps and misconceptions in your knowledge of history – but if you want the details you go to the articles he cites. Most of these are in professional publications that the average reader won’t happen across, so his books serve a useful purpose in spreading this informaion. When Shenkman has found himself in the wrong he has corrected it in a later book. I find all his books interesting, but his last (Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of World History) seems too rushed an too flip. I suspect he finished it as a contractual obligation.

I, too, love Larry Gonick’s books (check out his many other Cartoon books, too – Genetics, Computers, Physics, and a LOT more), but Gonck’s interpretations are frequently his own. His Bibliography is nowhere near as dense as Shenkman’s. If I were warning readers to tread carefully, it would be through Gonick rather than Shenkman.

University book stores are good places to buy history books; as Green Bean pointed out there is a real danger of picking a crackpot and no real way of telling a crack pot from an exprert until you’ve spent a few years studing a specific era. University professors tend to pick books that have been well recieved, and you certainly dont have to worry about history being bowderized on the university level–people in the academy bend over backwards thes days to prove how white men have ruined utopia. If you are interested in a particular broad period go find a junior/senior/graduate level course on that period, buy the books, read them, and then use their bibliographies for more refrences.

For someone becoming seriously interested in history I would recomend the book Salem Possesed by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, not so much because of the subject matter (the Salem Witch craft trials) but because the book illustrates beatifully where history comes from–how historians slog through thousands of pages of the most boring material–tax records, town meetng minutes, maps, journals, what have you, to come up with a narritive of what happened. The book gives one a good foundation for understanding how it is two historians can have such different interpretaions from the same material, and gives you a slight edge on judging which interpretation is more sound. The big question to ask yourself when reading history books is “How do we know that?”.

I also have to echo Green Bean on the “Lies my teacher told me”. It is generally no mpore reliable than your average high school text, merely more interesting. Both should be avioded in favor of a solid university survey book.

You might also want to look at “The First Salute”, by Barbara Tuchman. It examines the American Revolution in the greater context of contemporary Anglo-French struggles in Europe. It’s interesting to see where else the British and French were fighting during the Revolution. I also recommend her “A Distant Mirror”, which is an overview of Europe in the 14th century. Tuchman is very readable; she writes with a crisp lucidity.

Manda Jo:

I’ve read Salem Possessed, and found it interesting (The book is one of thoe upon which the movie “Three Sovereigns for Sarah” is based. This is made painfully obvious at the end when they pull out what is essentially one of Boyer and Nissenbaum’s maps – a clar anachronism, although it’s hard to see how they could make the point they wanted to otherwise.

My favorite book on Salem witchcraft is Chadwick W. Hansen’s “Witchcraft at Salem”, which I think receives too little mention (one very brief footnote) in B&N. One board on the 'Net actually called Hansen “biased” because it didn’t cite B&N – but Hansen came out BEFORE Boyer and Nissenbaum. Well worth the reading, and a good antidote to Upham’s Salem Witchcraft.

I’ve found everything by William H. MacNeil to be simply great. “Plagues and Peoples” though outdated, was one of the first explorations of this topic. And since you’re interested in how western civ got where it is today, I highly recommend his “The Rise of the West”, one of the best single volume history of the world I’ve ever read.

I’ll also weigh in on “Lies my Teacher told Me”. Take it with a grain of salt. It may be more interesting, but that doesn’t make it better.

For an economic history of the world, “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations; Why some are so Rich and Some So Poor” by David S. Landes. It’s opinionated and acerbic and asks some very uncomfortable questions. A good read.

For history of science and/or technology, try just about anything James Burke has written, from “Connections” to “The day the Universe changed” to “the Pinball effect”. Fun.

I may write some more when I get home and have a chance to look over my collection…

I suspect that both the proponents and the opponents of Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me have somewhat missed the point of his book.

That book is surely not a good text of U.S. History. On the other hand, it was not intended to be a survey of U.S. History. It is a criticism of the typical high school history book (that is equally valid as a criticism of the sort of survey history found in freshman or sophomore college classes). In this he does an excellent job of showing the meager offerings of the texts by highlighting specific events or personalities and contrasting the typical textbook with original sources.

He does have errors (or, at least, points on which his countervailing overemphasis is as bad as the original texts’ lack of emphasis). However, the specific point of his book is to indicate the need for original sources–or, at least, the use of actual historical research rather than the pablum of the textbooks.

As an example of his errors, he does a pretty good number on Woodrow Wilson. Now I had been contemptuous of the “good” image of Wilson for over 20 years prior to my encounter with Loewen. On the other hand, he quotes the purported Wilson response to Birth of a Nation (“truth written in lightning” or whatever that was) without noting that the first publication of the alleged statement occurred over 12 years after Wilson’s death and is not recorded in the diary of the person who allegedly heard Wilson say it.

I would still give Loewen credit for accomplishing his stated goal of demonstrating the paucity of valid history in the texts that are poured, pablum-like, into our high school and college students.

Thanks tomndebb, saved me from having to say it. No, it’s not really a history book, but rather a criticism of the way history is taught. Still, an interesting read.


No, I’m not really a lit-crit type. I am a medievalist, which is why I found Ginzburg so interesting, if only for his style alone. I believe he tries to make good historical work readable by a nonspecialist without watering his subject down, formulating an unsupportable (but entertaining) narrative, or presenting his work in a way too fragmented by theory to be readable.

As for Anderson, I think he has a pretty good handle on modern nationalism, despite his generalizations outside his areas of expertise (especially Russia). I am much more lang than lit, so I found his discussions of national and truth languages to be extremely interesting.

I do not recommend Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. If you are insterested in books on medieval history of more value, I could send you reams of bibliographies…but somehow I doubt it.


Maeglin: Uncle! You’re quite correct about both Ginzburg and Anderson.

And just for the record, I my primary criticism was directed at Shenkman, not Loewen. Here is what I said:

<blushes> No joke…that comment’s going to get me out of bed in the morning for the rest of the week. :slight_smile:

And I have read neither Shenkman nor Loewen, hence I did not comment.


I didn’t really like Lies my Teacher Told Me

When I read it, i was hoping for some Cecilesque debunking of popular notions of history. What I got was a discussion of why high school text books are so bad. Is there an easier target to go after? And besides, I’d already read similar (and better) criticisms from Feynman and Gould.

There were some interesting parts, and he was pretty comprehensive in the texts he chose to survey, so I can’t fault him there. Just not what I was hoping for I guess.

Anyway, some other history books I really liked:

I’ll second (fifth?) The Cartoon History of the Universe vols. I and II. Anyone know when the third volume is due out?

John Keegan writes excellent and insightful military history. My favorites of his are The Face of Battle and The First World War (side note to mrblue92: every book I’ve read on WWI could have used more maps. You may want to check for a WWI atlas that you can refer to alongside the book)

I’ve read two books by Barbara Ehrenreich that were very good, but I’m not sure how much is history, and how much is speculation. They were Hearts of Men about how James Bond and Playboy laid the groundwork for the feminist movement in the 60s, and Blood Rites, about why humans fight wars. Intriguing ideas, and clear writing.

I’ll have more once I get home…

Just a note about Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe: He’s been updating it. It started out as a series of standard-sized comic books. The first six or so of these were collected and printed as a “real” book in 1982, which is when I first picked it up. I was looking for the other volumes ever since, and found some of them in comic-book form. Around 1987 or so he printed a ew edition of Volume I that included more material. I also noted that some of the old stuff had been re-done. Gonick would remove an entire age and re-draw it to incorporate new material, so I have two somewhat different copies of Volume I. I have Volume II, and have been waiting for more material. I check Million Year Picnic (The comic-book emporium in Harvard Square) regularly for new stuff, but haven’t seen a new comic addition to Gonick’s magnum opus in years.

If you like Gonick’s Cartoon History of the U.S. you might like Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies version of the American Revolution.