Looking back on the centuries of conflict, plague, famine, imperial collapse, and the rise and fall of civilizations, it’s a wonder we made it here at all. Even more of a wonder is that beyond surviving, we came up with democracy and literature, sailed across thousands of miles of open ocean and into the unknown, underwent a Renaissance and an Enlightenment and a Jazz Age, and got guys on the moon.
History is messy stuff, but much of it is in fact not ugly. And the more you know about it, the more the messes makes sense, both historically speaking and today. Here are some great history books that are a pleasure to read and drop brilliant knowledge bombs page after page. Our top picks stretch across time and the globe, but you can see many of our favorites are about Western civilization, recent history, the United States.
The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer
Publisher’s Weekly said of Susan Wise Bauer’s book, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, that it “guides readers on a fast-paced yet thorough tour of the ancient worlds of Sumer, Egypt, India, China, Greece, Mesopotamia, and Rome,” and I’d call that a fine summation. When you close this sweeping, nearly 900-page tome, you won’t know the blow-by-blow of the Battle of Thermopylae or the intimate details of the plot leading up to Caesar’s assassination, but you will have a keen sense of how each early civilization developed, grew, and ultimately fell (or at least changed or merged with another) and how they impacted one another.
A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester
In A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age, historian William Manchester humanizes many of our centuries-old forebears, bringing to life those people we know only from paintings wrought in odd profile with expressionless gaze, tapestries faded by the years, or from etched visages staring down sternly at us from stained glass windows. He vilifies those deserving of harsh treatment, illuminating the cruel absurdity of torture and death meted out in the name of religion, the centuries that saw civilization fail to advance, and the savagery of Medieval warfare. The book spans from the collapse of Rome through the Dark Ages and up until the Renaissance.
The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge
I have read Thomas Asbridge’s magisterial work, The Crusades, three times, and after each reading I come away with more knowledge of and insight about the years spanning from the late 11th century to the late 13th. (Three times. Seriously.) The single volume book is equally impressive for the amount of doggedly researched information the author packed into it as for its easy readability. Asbridge not only covers all of the major campaigns and battles of the Crusade era, and not only paints vivid portraits of all the major players involved (Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, and the Sultan Baybars being notable examples), he also places the Crusades in context, both elucidating what led up to the many clashes and how their legacy changed the face of the world, with their echoes reverberating even today.
Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen
For the record, I’m not saying crazy as insane, I mean it as wild, amazing, horrifying, hilarious, and a plethora of other words that are far from hyperbole when discussing a three-year sailing trip through parts largely unknown that commenced back in 1519. In many ways, it’s crazy that Magellan set out to sail around the world in and of itself. It’s nuts the way he died. It’s a shock that a number of his men actually made it back again. Beyond the gripping narrative of the actual journey, an account made possible thanks to a crewman’s journal, Bergreen sets the voyage into the larger story of the Age of Exploration, an era that also, of course, had revealed this so-called New World across the Atlantic.
1491 by Charles C. Mann
As we all learned in school, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. But FYI, there was history happening in the Americas before that year. If you want to learn about pre-Columbian history, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is a good place to start. Charles Mann reveals civilizations far more advanced than most are given credit, a fact caused by the near-complete obliteration of the communities contacted by the European “explorers” of the 16th century. He brings to life the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, a city larger than any in Europe at the time the Europeans reached it. He reveals a complex social organization and advanced agricultural prowess. And he is clear-eyed that the many cultures of ancient South, Central, and North America could be every bit as violent as any other civilization that developed elsewhere.
1776 by David McCullough
Ah, David McCullough, dropping knowledge on us for decades. As usual with his books, 1776 unpacks just about everything you need to know about its subject, which in this case is the formation of the United States of America, a nation forged in the fires of war but crafted by ideals and led by a handful of truly remarkable men. In these pages, General George Washington is no mythic figure, he is flesh and blood, but no less impressive for it. And British commander Sir William Howe is no villain, either, but a formidable and worthy adversary.
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
It’s important that you note the subtitle of James McPherson’s book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. For while this celebrated tome covers all the major battles and features all the major officers on both sides of the war, it also spreads wider, looking at the politics of the war years and examining both the events that preceded the outbreak of hostilities in 1861 and the ramifications of America’s deadliest war.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
The horrific cataclysm that was once known as The Great War, now World War I, left scars so deep they are still hardly healed today. It shattered empires and nations, it ripped apart the land, and it left some 17 million people dead and tens of millions with life-changing injuries. And it’s ridiculous that the damn thing happened. The title refers to August 1914, the month in which active hostilities commenced.
The Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson
Rick Atkinson didn’t write the book about World War II, he wrote the books. His three-volume series, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, The Day of the Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, and The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, is about the best resource you could ask for when it comes to a comprehensive telling of America’s role in the entirety of the Western Theater of WWII. In reading the books, it’s shocking to learn at first how ill-prepared America was for war and amazing just how good we got at waging it in less than half a decade.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies isn’t the history of one particular place, people, or period; it is rather an examination of what happened to a range of peoples in a host of places and times based on agriculture, disease, and other factors, like luck. History happened the way it happened not because one group of people was innately better than any other, but simply because some folks first developed better weapons or learned how to grow more food than the next culture over.