History Books That Read Like Novels
If there are two things a decent man loves, they are history and literature. (And his family, a cold glass of beer, chopping wood, mountains, a fine pair of shoes, and a cold glass of beer.)
The study of history lets a gentleman better understand his own place and time by bringing clarity and context to past events. For indeed, when truly appreciated, past events most always prove relevant to the present. After all, every man who has ever lived — from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Richard the Lionheart to Abraham Lincoln — was but one man; that which he did, so too can you do. Well, maybe not you. Or me, probably. But someone. Probably.
And then we come to literature! I posit that there is no better way to pass the hours of the day then in the grasp of a great book. A fine novel deepens a reader’s sense of empathy, broadens his horizons to new concepts, and introduces him to people and places that might never otherwise have passed anywhere near his thinking. With Tolstoy, Miller, or Wallace in your hands, you are off on a wondrous journey with no need to ever rise from your armchair. Save for that whole bodily function whatnot.
But there are only so many hours in the day, so many days in the year, and so many years in a man’s life; how then is he to choose whether to delve into a tome heavy history or a novel rich in prose? Why, simply choose a history book that reads like a novel. Like the title of this article hinted at, see? And surprise, surprise, surprise… I have some recommendations.
AN ARMY AT DAWN by Rick Atkinson
Really, I should just advise you to purchase the entire Liberation Trilogy at the same time. This is book one of said set, the latter two works being The Day of Battle and The Guns at Last Light. This first volume, which won a Pulitzer Prize, tells of the first years of American involvement in the European theater of World War II, focused almost exclusively on the campaign in Northern Africa. Atkinson is a close and careful historian who zeros in on illustrative details when merited (noting the type of wine Eisenhower and Churchill shared at a dinner, for example) and pulling back to show the larger picture of the conflict at other times. He quotes generals, captains, and sergeants alike, giving equal measure to men of all stripes, as it were, and letting his reader experience the war through many different lenses. Atkinson’s own prose is taught and well-paced, showing his journalistic background and deep understanding of the conflict.
THE CRUSADES by Thomas Asbridge
Trying to cover the entire Crusading era in one volume is no easy feat. But Thomas Asbridge is no easy man. Or… wait, that makes no sense. Rather, Mr. Asbridge is the official “Reader in Medieval History at Queen Mary, University of London” and one of the most accomplished historians specializing in studies of the Middle Ages writing today. Reading this book will not make you an expert on Pope Urban II’s papacy nor will it render you a scholar of medieval Muslim culture. What it will do is offer you a measured view of each major military campaign of the Crusades (which spanned roughly 1095 to 1290) seen from both sides of the many conflicts. Asbridge does not takes sides here, he simply relates the events and colors the characters. Another thing the book will do is entertain, as the writing itself is often as rich as the events of which it speaks.
SEVEN LEAGUE BOOTS by Richard Halliburton
Richard Halliburton had a pretty good and goddamned interesting life before being lost at sea during a Pacific typhoon in early 1939. And the content and style in which this unique book is written bears out the decidedly unusual life this man led. Seven League Boots is partially a travelogue, partially a memoir, partially a book of humor, and partially a book of history. Halliburton was commissioned to travel the globe and write about his experiences, whatever he chose those experiences to be. Pretty awesome, right? Some guys have all the luck… except for the dying young in a shipwreck thing. So he chose to set out for places like Haiti, Moscow, Jerusalem, and beyond. He shares with his reader not only his own experiences in each location, but also he takes us back into the rich history of each place he visits, showing that he was no mere humorist, but was capable of thorough research and deep understanding of people, place, and event.
THE COLD WAR: A NEW HISTORY by John Lewis Gaddis
Give John Lewis Gaddis 266 pages and he will give you the Cold War, more or less. This relatively slender volume can’t explain every cause of or repercussion of the Cold War era (that’s post WWII through the early 1990s, FYI), nor will it inform you in any meaningful way about the wars in Korea or Vietnam, and it’s not a biography of Kennedy, Khrushchev, Reagan, or anyone else. This book is, essentially, a survey. It is a primer, even, intended to place the Cold War in context and to highlight the major players and plot points, if you will. And it does so with aplomb thanks to Gaddis’ concise prose and sage selection of the events and people he covers.
BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM by James McPherson
Everything you have read about the crisp, compelling narrative tone of Battle Cry of Freedom is accurate. This book manages not only to cover many of the major battles and events of the American Civil War, but also takes the reader through the two decades preceding the conflict, offering grounding context that helps explain how the charnel house of war came to be. Indeed the subtitle of the book is “The Civil War Era” and McPherson admirably paints a picture of those years. If you’re not sure whether or not you are actually all that interested in the Civil War, don’t start with a laser-focused book covering one battle or read a biography of one general; instead read this briskly-penned book that remains as fresh and relevant today as when it was first published in the late 1980s.