Not too far from where we live in Madrid the city holds the Feria de Otoño del Libros (Autumn Book Fair) every September. I absolutely love old books so even though my language skills are still not quite up to par I end up taking home a few every year. Sigh. But this got me thinking that it would be good to do a series of occasional posts on my favorite non fiction books. So I thought I would start it off today with a round up of my favorite history books.
Favorite History Books
These suggestions lean heavily towards the big picture in world history, rather than chronicles of specific histories. I have read so many wonderful individual history books that I wouldn’t know where to begin such a list.
The Histories by Herodotus. The first attempt at History–and Geography/Anthropology/Sociology for that matter–is still one of the best. Everybody should check it out. There are passages in there that I still reflect on to this day.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. This amazing book is more properly thought of as a science history book, but it is so jam packed with facts and fascinating anecdotes that it should be a must read for all. (Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life is also a great read about how we all used to live. A bit Anglo-centric, but full of fun facts. Similarly, National Geographic’s An Uncommon History of Common Things also has its share of eye openers)
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. This book inspired me to quit my job and go back to school. If you want to understand why the world looks the way it does today then you must read this book.
A History of Knowledge; Past, Present, and Future by Charles Van Doran. The former disgraced quiz show champion went on to edit the eminent Encyclopedia Britannic for many years before writing this wonderful synopsis that has served me well for decades.
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler. Simply the most amazing history book I have read. Mr. Ostler is a true polymath that delivers a linguistic history of mankind that floored me with its depth and erudition.
The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers by Will Durant. Mr. Durant and his wife Ariel’s seminal multi-volume Story of Civilization, consumed many hours of my young adulthood. This short book is a wonderful read on the ideas of man and the people who thought them.
Connections by James Burke. I was completely transfixed by Mr. Burke’s PBS Documentaries as a kid, and I think this is a fantastic device for telling history. Through following the connections in technological history Mr. Burke opens a lens onto our social and political histories as well.
1491 and 1493, by Charles Mann. Fascinating accounts of the Americas before and after Columbus, and how the Columbian Exchange reshaped the entire world, politically, economically, and culturally. 1491 blew my mind and completely changed the way I look at history. (1493 built on the earlier masterpiece Ecological Imperialism by Alfred Crosby).
The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi. The rise of the market society. A bit dry at times, but if you are into economic history I cannot recommend it more.
The City in History: It’s origins, It’s Transformations, and It’s Prospects by Lewis Mumford. Mr. Mumford is a hero of mine, his clarity of mind and prose are an inspiration. Although, to be fair, Ms. Jacobs The Economy of Cities is a more important theoretical work (although less impactful than her earlier The Death and Life of American Cities.
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Failed by James Scott. Simply Masterful. A very big picture analysis by a Political Anthropologist. Stunning.
Well, I am going to leave it there for now. Looking over it, I see it’s a little light on traditional historical texts. I haven’t mentioned so many other important works, from Thucydides seminal masterpiece to Jonathan Spence’s wonderful works on China, the list goes on and on. Not to mention numerous works in specific subfields. Look for future posts!
Update: This list, by listmuse.com, is quite good, there are several here I fully agree with, but many I haven’t even heard of, much less read. The learning is never done!