50 History Books Worth Reading

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

In Bryson’s biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand — and, if possible, answer — the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.

2. Migrations and Cultures: A World View by Thomas Sowell

Most commentators look at the issue of immigration from the viewpoint of immediate politics. In doing so, they focus on only a piece of the issue and lose touch with the larger picture. Now Thomas Sowell offers a sweeping historical and global look at a large number of migrations over a long period of time. Migrations and Cultures: shows the persistence of cultural traits, in particular racial and ethnic groups, and the role these groups’ relocations play in redistributing skills, knowledge, and other forms of human capital.” answers the question: What are the effects of disseminating the patterns of the particular set of skills, attitudes, and lifestyles each ethnic group has carried forth,both for the immigrants and for the host countries, in social as well as economic terms?

3. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

  • “You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
  • “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.”
  • “Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”

4. Conquests and Cultures: An International History by Thomas Sowell

This book is the culmination of 15 years of research and travels that have taken the author completely around the world twice, as well as on other travels in the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and around the Pacific rim. Its purpose has been to try to understand the role of cultural differences within nations and between nations, today and over centuries of history, in shaping the economic and social fates of peoples and of whole civilizations. Focusing on four major cultural areas(that of the British, the Africans (including the African diaspora), the Slavs of Eastern Europe, and the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere — Conquests and Cultures reveals patterns that encompass not only these peoples but others and help explain the role of cultural evolution in economic, social, and political development.

5. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Demick, Barbara ( 2009)

A National Book Award finalist and deserving of all the accolades it’s received. Demick was a Los Angeles Times reporter assigned to the Seoul bureau who spent most of her time interviewing a wide variety of North Korean defectors about their lives in the country, and how/why they left. If Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aids, and Reform is the macro-level view of post-Cold War North Korean society, this is the micro-level view. Haggard and Noland will tell you decreasing fertilizer imports that killed North Korean agriculture: Demick will tell you about the hungry kid who lined up multiple times to “mourn” Kim il-Sung because the authorities were handing out free rice balls to mourners.

6. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Life isn’t fair — here’s why: Since 1500, Europeans have, for better & worse, called the tune that the world has danced to. In Guns, Germs & Steel, Jared Diamond explains the reasons why things worked out that way. It’s an elemental question. Diamond is certainly not the 1st to ask it. However, he performs a singular service by relying on scientific fact rather than specious theories of European genetic superiority. Diamond, a UCLA physiologist, suggests that the geography of Eurasia was best suited to farming, the domestication of animals & the free flow of information. The more populous cultures that developed as a result had more complex forms of government & communication, & increased resistance to disease. Finally, fragmented Europe harnessed the power of competitive innovation in ways that China didn’t. (For example, the Europeans used the Chinese invention of gunpowder to create guns & subjugate the New World.) Diamond’s book is complex & a bit overwhelming. But the thesis he methodically puts forth — examining the “positive feedback loop” of farming, then domestication, then population density, then innovation etc. — makes sense. Written without bias, Guns, Germs & Steel is good global history.

7. Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen

Americans have lost touch with their history, and in this thought-provoking book, Professor James Loewen shows why. After surveying twelve leading high school American history texts, he has concluded that “not one” does a decent job of making history interesting or memorable. Marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies, these books omit almost all the ambiguity, passion, conflict, and drama from our past.

8. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail and Succeed by Jared Diamond

In his runaway bestseller “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond brilliantly examined the circumstances that allowed Western civilizations to dominate much of the world. Now he probes the other side of the equation: What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to fall into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates? Using a vast historical and geographical perspective ranging from Easter Island and the Maya to Viking Greenland and modern Montana, Diamond traces a fundamental pattern of environmental catastrophe?one whose warning signs can be seen in our modern world and that we ignore at our peril. Blending the most recent scientific advances into a narrative that is impossible to put down, “Collapse” exposes the deepest mysteries of the past even as it offers hope for the future.

9. Modern Times: World from the Twenties to the Nineties by Paul Johnson

The classic world history of the events, ideas, and personalities of the twentieth century.

10. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism as I understand it’. Thus wrote Orwell following his experiences as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War, chronicled in Homage to Catalonia. Here he brings to bear all the force of his humanity, passion and clarity, describing with bitter intensity the bright hopes and cynical betrayals of that chaotic episode: the revolutionary euphoria of Barcelona, the courage of ordinary Spanish men and women he fought alongside, the terror and confusion of the front, his near-fatal bullet wound and the vicious treachery of his supposed allies.A firsthand account of the brutal conditions of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia includes an introduction by Julian Symons in Penguin Modern Classics.

11. King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Details the motivations of Leopold II of the Belgians to establish a massive personal colony in Central Africa, the abusive system of rubber manufacture, and the campaign of the Congo Reform Association to expose these colonial atrocities.

12. What Is History? by Carr, Edward Hallett ( 1967)

Read this for the same reason you would read Gibbon’s . Its extremely eloquent and flat out beautiful in its prose at times. E H Carr was a leading man in the historical field in the mid 20th century. He treads a middle line between empiricism and idealism. To quote from a review ‘Arguably the central ideas in the book constitute today’s mainstream thinking on British historical practice’.

13. The Search For Modern China by Spence, Jonathan D. ( 1990)

It’s a pretty good overview that starts with the Ming and goes through the late 1980s. Covers all the bases. Nothing is covered in exceptional depth (with a subject like China it rarely can be in a single book) but for a general idea of recent Chinese history it’s more than adequate. Also, a very readable book.

14. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Sobel, Dava ( 1995)

This book details how the world figured to procedure of finding longitudinal coordinates in the world. Great Britain offered a huge cash prize to anyone able to work out a way to find longitude. Without a way to track longitude reliably, ships had been getting lost and running aground.

15. Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490–1700 by MacCulloch, Diarmaid ( 2003)

A magisterial take on the Reformation across the world, from late medieval Wittenberg to Puritan New England. In contrast to historians who seem to sideline religion to highlight social and political motivations, MacCulluch lovingly builds a case that the Reformation was a time when thought and belief changed the world forever.

16. The Cold War: A New History by Gaddis, John Lewis ( 2005)

An excellent introductory book for new readers; clear, precise, great analysis and a must read for those who want to familiarize themselves with the Cold War. The most updated of the Gaddis Cold War series.

17. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by Asbridge, Thomas ( 2010)

Asbridge is one of the leading modern scholars of the crusades, and this books is not only expansive in its scope, covering the crusading movement from genesis to the aftermath of the fall of Acre, but it is also quite readable. Plus it’s quite inexpensive for a scholarly work. Heavily focused on the Third Crusade, particularly on Saladin and Richard.

18.Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945 by Hastings, Max ( 2011)

Max Hastings was a disciple of John Keegan and it shows. Hasting’s book is the traditional, military focused narrative of World War Two. Hasting’s book is worth a read if you are a casual historian, but if you are already familiar with the Second World War, you can skip this one. Its a great well written book, but being that it is a general history, it can only go so indepth.

19. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Philbrick, Nathaniel ( 1999)

A light reading account of the loss of the whaling ship Essex. She was rammed by a sperm whale and her crew took to the life boats for thousands of miles falling into madness and cannibalism. One of the inspirations behind Moby Dick.

20. 1776 by David McCullough

In this masterful book, David McCullough tells the intensely human story of those who marched with General George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence — when the whole American cause was riding on their success, without which all hope for independence would have been dashed and the noble ideals of the Declaration would have amounted to little more than words on paper.

21. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Snyder, Timothy ( 2010)

Very readable account of the events in countries caught between the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany during the beginnings of WWII, starting with Ukraine’s Holodomor and the political tensions that rose from Stalin’s paranoia of outside influence during those events. Really gives you a sense of the suffering of the people.

22. Inventing Japan: 1853–1964 by Buruma, Ian ( 2003)

This is essentially an extremely succinct look at the changes and developments Japan went through, and its metamorphosis as a nation as it moved from the 19th century into the 20th. This book is seriously tiny, a slip of a book and you could breeze through it in one sitting but its depth of content is surprising for its deceptively small size. I highly recommend this book as a solid introduction, a way to get your foot in the door of the maze that is early modern Japanese history.

23. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943 by Antony Beevor

A good reading account of the Battle of Stalingrad during WW2. Beevor does a great job describing in detail the way Stalingrad was won by the Red Army, and what they had to go through to achieve that victory.

24.Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland Christopher R. Browning ( 1992)

This focused case study investigates the nature of German killers in the Holocaust, and concludes that the majority, at least in the unit surveyed, were “ordinary” guys without any particular ideological commitment to Nazism or antisemitism. To be compared to “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Daniel Goldhagen, as the two use the same data for different conclusions.

25. The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chan

In December 1937, the Japanese army swept into the ancient city of Nanking. Within weeks, more than 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were systematically raped, tortured, and murdered,a death toll exceeding that of the atomic blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Using extensive interviews with survivors and newly discovered documents, Iris Chang has written the definitive history of this horrifying episode.

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

An nice introduction, entertaining, interesting and good for history geeks and the general population. However there are some misrepresentations that the author makes, so follow it up by reading some criticism to see what he got wrong e.g. bad translation. However the main issue is in placing so much emphasis on the positive aspects of the Mongols, partly as a counter to their usual bad press, the reader risks coming away with a somewhat distorted impression of the Mongol Empire.

27. Salt: A World History by Kurlansky, Mark ( 2002)

Somewhat obscure but still fascinating subject matter to narrate the rise of America (among other things). His work is very readable.

28. Napoleon by Andrew Roberts

The definitive biography of the great soldier-statesman by the New York Times bestselling author of The Storm of War — winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography and the Grand Prix of the Fondation Napoleon

29. Gulag: A History by Applebaum, Anne ( 2003)

A harrowing book about one of the worst aspects of Soviet society; the prison work camps known as the Gulag. Applebaum seeks to clear the untruths and reveals the more vivid account of the Gulag’s inner workings.

30. How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Goldsworthy, Adrian ( 2009)

Goldsworthy is the author of numerous works of popular history and is very familiar with the form. He provides and excellent and detailed narrative, as well as an analysis focused on political systems.

31. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by Remnick, David ( 1993)

The tome for the fall of the Soviet Union. This New York Times reporter goes into detail about the collapse of USSR with depth, but also with a human aspect. A must read.

32. The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia by Overy, Richard ( 2004)

This is not quite a readable as Snyder, but a very well-written and well-documented comparative history of the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, highly recommended for the enthusiast already familiar with the general details of each regime’s history and wanting to really gain an understanding of their similarities and differences.

33. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Herrin, Judith ( 2006)

A very well-written introduction to Byzantium that approached the topic thematically rather than chronologically. High recommended for newcomers to Byzantine history!

34. A History of the Arab Peoples by Hourani, Albert ( 1991)

A classic in the discipline.

35. The Story of Art by Leonie Gombrich ( 1950)

Probably the best introductory text for art history and art theory that exists. Originally published in 1950, but subsequent editions (it’s up to the 16th now) have been broadened to include key modern artists, works, and ideas. Clearly written and explained in Gombrich’s no-nonsense style. It does stick largely to the Western art history canon, but for an introduction to the subject, it’s a go-to.

36. The Peloponnesian War by Kagan, Donald ( 2003)

Written by one of the top experts on the war, this intelligent account is a condensed version of his four-volume history first published in the 1960s.

37. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Barzun, Jacques ( 2000)

A magisterial work of cultural history, an end-of-life summa penned by one of the most civilized men ever to exist. It’s both scholarly and accessible, narrated in gorgeous prose, and deserves a place on your bookshelf next to Thucydides, Tacitus, Gucciardini, Gibbon, Macaulay, and Burckhardt.

38.The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Wright, Lawrence ( 2006)

Excellent narrative history of the birth and rise of al-Qaeda, told mainly through multiple biographies of the key players.

39. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891–1924 by Figes, Orlando ( 1996)

An incredibly broad, well-researched and well-written book covering almost every facet of the Russian Revolution from its roots in the late empire to the Bolsheviks’ attempt to create a new communist society. It’s also extremely long due to the amount of content and detail it covers.

40. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbusby by Mann, Charles C. ( 2005)

A popular history book that covers the general history of Native Americans until European contact. It discusses both North and South America. Although Mann is not a professional historian, his work is very thought-provoking and approachable for a lay-audience. He also has a follow-up book, 1493, which covers interactions between Europeans and Native Americans post-contact.

41. Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Oren, Michael B. ( 2001)

A fantastic overview of the 1967 war, with great insights into both sides of the conflict and their preparations. A very well-researched and respected book, it provides all the essentials to anyone looking to begin studying the 1967 conflict in depth. It is slightly Israel-biased, as most books on the subject of 1967 are, but it is easily the best way to get into the war’s history as one can find.

42. The Campaigns of Napoleon by Chandler, David G. ( 1966)

If there must be a Bible about the Napoleonic Wars, it is this. Well written, easy to read, and balanced around a difficult figure, Chandler gives a campaign history of Napoleon as a commander as well as giving the understanding of the tactics and style of war during the time period. Writing in the 70s, Chandler gives a proper history of Napoleon as a commander that has yet to be matched. Note: This is a campaign history of Napoleon as a commander, so wars such as the Peninsular Wars get only a light detailing during Napoleon’s involvement due to the focus on Napoleon.

43. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn (1962)

This is one of the major methodological texts in the field, attempting to outline how scientific change occurs, what the role of the historian is in talking about it, and how history is used as a resource in these scientific revolutions. While not all historians of science agree with Kuhn’s model, it is considered a bedrock text that anyone who talks about the history of science must be familiar with.

44. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947 by Clark, Christopher Munro ( 2006)

One of the few comprehensive accounts of Prussian history in English, written in exquisite quality. This book is by all means one of the best books to pickup for anyone interested in learning more about Prussian history, and is an essential read on the time period. The book gives a detailed overview of Prussian history all the way from its roots as Brandenburg, all the way up to the states dissolution by the Allied powers in 1947. Clark is notably kind to Prussia in his writings, providing a fresh, new perspective on the country and its history. Though the book is large at around 776 pages, it is by no means hard, tedious, or slow to read, and is captivating all the way through.

45. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by Myers, B.R. ( 2010)

An exhaustive examination of the history of postwar North Korean propaganda, and how it’s developed and changed to reflect the Kim regime’s priorities and politics.

46. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra by Wilkinson, Toby ( 2010)

It’s very well written with a superb narrative style and from an academic perspective its predominantly spot on. It tends to gloss over some of the debates which are still ongoing but only to maintain a cohesive narrative.

47. A Little History of the World by Gombrich, E.H. ( 1936)

It is essentially a summary of human history to around the 1930s. It’s aimed perfectly at interested children, and manages to be accessible and entertaining without being condescending.

48. The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by McGregor, Richard ( 2010)

Never before has there been such an amazing in depth look at the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) before the publishing of this book. McGregor’s work was cut out for him because the CCP is probably one of the most secretive political regimes ever. Most Chinese people don’t even know how many departments and adminstrative bodies there are, or which ones belong to the ‘government’ and which belong to the Party. McGregor dives deep and brings up a treasure trove of knowledge about the mechanics of the strange political system where the Party is the government while pretending not to be, putting faces to names and names to faces, and the corruption that runs to the very core of the system. He provides history and analysis while his masterful writing prevents it all from burying the reader.

49. India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Guha, Ramachandra ( 2007)

One of the few histories of post-independence India, this gives a vivid account of India’s “tryst with destiny” and the problems/challenges it faced as a newly independent country.

50. The Discovery Of The Unconscious : The History And Evolution Of Dynamic Psychiatry by Henri F. Ellenberger

This classic work is a monumental, integrated view of man’s search for an understanding of the inner reaches of the mind. In an account that is both exhaustive and exciting, the distinguished psychiatrist and author demonstrates the long chain of development,through the exorcists, magnetists, and hypnotists,that led to the fruition of dynamic psychiatry in the psychological systems of Janet, Freud, Adler, and Jung.



Categories: Literature & Fiction

%d bloggers like this: