If you have a passion for history and want to pursue a degree in this field of study, you will undoubtedly want access to information that can expand your knowledge. From magazines to books to films and movies, there are many forms of information that you should take advantage of. As far as books go, though, let’s take a look at a few must-reads for anyone interested in history.
1. The Little Red Guard by Wenguang Huang
This book depicts an ordinary family as they live their life in a Communist society. It clearly outlines and portrays how political ups and downs have a major impact on those who are helpless in terms of controlling their situations. The book follows a single family, yet this family represents multiple generations. It is through reading about these generations that you gain an understanding of how China changed so much in such a small amount of time. The book discusses how Huang’s grandmother was a victim of the old imperial system, yet she had a great passion for its traditions. She goes on to make the request that she be buried according to a traditional ceremony and in a coffin. While Huang’s parents think this notion is foolish, they do not want to hurt her feelings. As they go about filling her request, each step they take is enveloped with fear and paranoia. You will gain much more than a tour through history as you read this book. In addition, you will view how ordinary families experience and adapt to political upheaval.
2. Stalin’s Englishman by Andrew Lownie
Stalin’s Englishman is a biography of the Cambridge Spy, Guy Burgess. Burgess was recruited back in the 1930s and he used his talent to pass intelligence to Soviet Russia. The biography is extensively researched and provides great detail about the culture during the time period it reflects.
3. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman
Tuchman is a master of style and has a special way of ushering graceful images into her writings. She is also prone to giving readers insightful quotes that you will want to memorize and share with your fellow history lovers. One of her most famous quotes is “To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states.” While this quote does not come from the book title above — it comes from another must read by Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century — it is a direct reflection of the perfect thesis statement for The March of Folly. This book takes you through history allowing you to examine “one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” Tuchman gives you an insightful view of Renaissance popes who had major greed and through their works demoted the church from being something that was viewed by society as something divine into something that in its own way stood in the way of divinity.
4. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
Although the book does not provide an objective view of history, it does convey the author’s purpose of stripping Nazism from its glamour. Arendt uses the book to point out why she thinks the Holocaust was perpetrated. The book has a lot of controversy surrounding it because it is believed to provoke ire toward the Jewish community. As you read it you will see how the author criticizes some of the Jewish people for their actions during the Holocaust; it is these criticisms that have some readers angered toward Arendt.
5. Magna Carta by David Starkey
A popular historian created a TV show out of the same name as the title of this book. The book itself has been adapted into an easy to read piece of content, providing readers with an easy way to follow the political happenings that majorly shaped the course of history around 1215.
6. The Tudors by G.J. Meyer
This book outlines the furious history behind one of the earth’s most famously-known royal lines. Meyer’s gives you a clear depiction of the legend of the Tudor dynasty. Not all readers of the book agree with the way Meyer’s depicts the main characters, but it definitely gives you an unusual viewpoint of how history actually took place.
7. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
You have probably heard of this book from the famous movie Good Will Hunting, and if you have ever asked a librarian for a good book on history, then a politically-minded librarian will undoubtedly suggest this reading. Why is it that this book is so famous? Well, mostly it is because of the reputation it holds. You will need a deep-thinking mind to get into this book as it is known for being one of the hardest to read. It is extremely dense and long, and for the most part, incredibly depressing. Throughout the book you will learn about a long list of people who have been crushed by unjustness. The book itself is not meant to be depressing. Instead, it is meant to examine the nation’s (USA) social progress and leave readers with a viewpoint that the progress is left wanting, not reaching its full potential.
8. Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics by Rob Baker
The collection found in this book can also be found on the author’s website, Another Nickel in the Machine. Celebrating both the history and culture of the 20th Century, Baker covers everything from the era’s criminals to its finest socialites.
9. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
Giving you a fresh, clear perspective of Ancient Rome, this book outlines one of the world’s most notorious superpowers in terms of political and economic bigfoots. You skip through more than 1000 years of civilization when reading this book and the knowledge you receive is extremely rewarding.
10. Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary
The game referred to in this title is known as buzkashi. If you have never heard of this game, you will likely think it is very weird. Players in a game of buzhashi spend their time — sometimes for days on end — dragging a goat carcass to a goal. There are many different conditions in which the game can be played, and being that it is conducted according to basically no official rules, it has gained the nickname of being “the game without rules.” Truth is, though, there are rules that the game is to be played by, and as Ansary states in the book, if you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t be playing. This is an accurate metaphor for the history of Afghanistan. As you read the book you will gain an in-depth understanding of the ways in which Afghanistan has been attempted to be modernized with no success. You will also learn how modern attempts to steer the country in certain directions have failed miserably and backfired. If you have a preference for diplomacy over military action, then this is definitely a book you will want to read.
11. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine
Taking you back to pre-Columbus travel, this book gives you a view of the history of the world explained by a man and his relationship to the sea. You will gain a beautiful view of how seafaring has impacted globalization as well as how water isn’t used merely for just the trade of goods.
12. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford
When most people think of the Mongol Empire, they envision a bunch of horsemen riding into town, causing havoc and ruining everything in their path. This book, though, takes a deeper look at the Mongol Empire and the truth behind its history. It was not a plot of land simply controlled by a bunch of horsemen. The empire itself had a huge impact on government, especially in Europe and China. And not only did its impact spread on a political basis, but as well as on a cultural and economic basis too. As you read this book you will also learn about the balance that was sustained between the religions of Christianity and Islam in Eurasia. Please note that reading this book will require you to have a strong stomach as lots of warfare is explained in great detail.
13. Headstrong – 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World by Rachel Swaby
This is an absolute must-read book that outlines 52 impressive Women who are known for being scientific pioneers. Although many of them have slipped under the radar during much of the past, this book brings them to light and shows you just how much they have contributed to our societies.
14. The English and Their History by Robert Tombs
You’ll read more than a 1,000 pages if you finish this book, so you may find it as a surprise that readers often describe the literature as being a condensed piece outlining the history of England. The epic voyage explained in the book gives you a clear picture of what it means to be truly English.
15. A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich
An Austrian art historian wrote this book, giving you proof that your history degree can be put to good use by becoming an author. The book was written in only a few weeks’ time and was originally meant to be a children’s book. Published in 1936, A Little History of the World became an immediate success within German-speaking countries and was eventually translated into multiple languages. Why is this book so special? Because it gives you a clear perception of history from the viewpoint of German-speaking people. The language found throughout the book is a bit old-fashioned, which gives you a clear indication of how history changes over time. One of the most treasured aspects of the book is that it is easy to understand, providing “gentle, simple, and lyrical” language throughout.
16. Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us about Conflict, from the Iliad to Catch-22 by Christopher Coker
Known for being one of LSE’s best professors, Coker combines a study of war myths with fiction. He delivers a detailed masterpiece of archetypes, what they depict and what we can learn from them.
17. Night Walking by Matthew Beaumont
This is a weighty academic piece and provides a good view of life in London once the lights go out. Many readers say the journey they go on when reading this book is a bit dark as the author shows you exactly what happens when the dispossessed take to the streets. Still yet, the readers also say the journey they go on while finishing the book is very enlightening and illuminating, making it a must-read book for history lovers.
18. Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts
Sure, many people might find it a bit of a struggle to title a man who was responsible for millions of deaths as “great,” Roberts delivers an inspiring proposal as to why Napoleon deserves this name. Napoleon was a genius who strived to conquer the world and was considered a major over-achiever. If you are interested in learning about him, then this a book you will greatly enjoy.
19. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich
Book reviews don’t often go viral, but the New York Time’s review of this book most certainly did, and for a very good reason. One of the most notable aspects of the book is that the author never draws a direct connection to Hitler with today’s modern-day politics. Instead, he simply outlines “how the rise of the fascist leader came to pass.” The book is extremely detailed and helps readers gain a better understanding of the myths behind how Hitler came into his power.
20. Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick
There are very few characters found through American history that have been so misunderstood as Benedict Arnold, a Revolutionary War figure. Philbrick, however, uses his book, Valiant Ambition, to give you a true depiction of Benedict Arnold. He states, “Although it later became convenient to portray Arnold as a conniving Satan from the start, the truth is more complex and, ultimately, more disturbing.” Philbrick also goes on to point out that if it hadn’t been for the uncovering of his treason, Americans may have never discovered the truth — that their real threats to freedom weren’t coming from an outside source. Instead, they were coming from within.
21. Histories by Herodotus
This book is believed to be among the first pieces of historical literature in the Western hemisphere. It offers a detailed glimpse regarding lives and customs of those who were living in Herodotus’ time. When reading the book, you’ll definitely want to take advantage of the translated version provided by Penguin Classics as it does a great amount of justice to the author’s original content. As you’re reading, you’ll be provided with a plethora of endnotes and helpful annotations that help you decipher truth from fiction.
22. D-Day Through German Eyes by Holger Eckhertz
Many history books that you have likely read probably give an account of D-Day through the perspectives of allies. With D-Day through German Eyes, though, you get a fresh look at the conflict that arose during this period of time through an entirely different lens. You’ll see as you read the book that it humanizes the German soldier and allows you to understand what they experienced when stationed in Normandy. Do be prepared, however, to read sections of the book that are extremely detailed and graphics.
23. Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
There has always been a bit of debate over the rise and fall of post-Renaissance powers, but with the Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Paul Kennedy, you get an up-close-and-personal look at 500 years of history. You’ll learn about the economic strength of Portugal as well as its military power, both of which played a vital role in the decline of the nation. Readers constantly rave about this book and its presentation of so much historical data.
24. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
You’ll study over 13,000 years of history when reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book strives to detail how geography combined with differentials in the environment played such a large role in the technological prominence of Eurasian civilizations. In regards to the divergence between Eurasia and other civilizations, the book presents strong refutations that buck up to outdated theories of genetics.
25. Stalingrad by Antony Beevor
New York Times raves about Stalingrad, boasting “The colossal scale of Stalingrad, the megalomania, the utter absurdity, the sheer magnitude of the carnage … are marvelously captured in Antony Beevor’s new history, ”Stalingrad.” This Wolfson History Prize-winning book easily became one of Beevor’s best sellers thanks to its detailed narrative regarding the Stalingrad battle that took place between the Germans and Soviets. Nearly two million lives were lost during the battle and while reading the book, you’ll enjoy skillful storytelling that makes you feel as if you are actually a part of the battle yourself. You’ll learn all about the brutal details of the battle and you may even find yourself shedding a tear from time to time. One thing that is for sure is that your interest will be captured from the very first page to the very last word of the book.
26. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
Another book authored by the renowned Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August is a classic that definitely earns its Pulitzer award. Throughout the book, you’ll learn about the many grim events that took place and led up to World War I. You’ll be wowed with Tuchman’s amount of knowledge regarding the war and how she uses her amazing writing skills to deliver a piece that transforms history into a piece of fine literature. Not only will you learn about the details leading up to the war, but you’ll also get an insightful view of what could have happened to prevent the war from ever taking place.
27. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
This book gives you a detailed overview of Western Europe and how it eventually became a global hegemon. It provides extensive data outlining why some nations failed and were never developed and why some rose to such prominence and acquired great power. As you’re reading the book, you’ll see an underlying theme that promotes the theory that institutions have had a large impact on individual nations’ trajectories. An amazing 15 years of research are combined in the book and by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll feel confident in being able to answer the always-debatable question of why do some nations fail?
28. Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood
For anyone interested in the history of the queens who made the 16th Century all that it was, the book Game of Queens by Sarah Gristwood is a must-read. From Anne Boleyn to Isabella of Castile to other Queens and Tudors, this book not only provides great insights into the powers these women held but also provides an outline of how they rose to such power.
29. Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman
Not every book to do with history has to be about queens and kings and battles and wars. With Paul Freedman’s book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, you’ll learn how the culinary culture of the United States has been shaped and how the restaurants of the nation constantly conform to the nation’s identity. Over the course of the book, you’ll study 10 restaurants that are believed to have been extremely influential in the food industry in America. This is a must-read for all of you foodies.
Must Read History Books
Whether you are pursuing a degree in history or not, buffering your knowledge of history is an excellent way to expand your knowledge for any career. As you learn about mistakes and failures made throughout history, you can use them to propel yourself to success in any line of work.
Even though we’ve outlined several must-read history books above, it’s important to note that there are literally millions of other history-related books that are worth reading. There are also a ton of blogs and articles you can find all across the Internet that gives you detailed glimpses into past societies. And sometimes, one of the best ways to understand history books is to read through reviews.
The Internet is a go-to source for learning about history, but don’t forget about the numerous libraries all across the globe that are home to some of the world’s best history books.