Sometimes, the most riveting stories aren’t fictional at all. Indeed, reading about history can be just as thrilling as watching an action film or drama!
Most importantly, though, understanding the past can help us to avoid some of the same mistakes in our present and future. One excellent way to learn about the past is by reading outstanding books about history, written by the experts who have dedicated their lives to its study.
The Best Books about History
There’s nothing dull about these history lessons! Experience these fascinating and dramatic true tales of our past.
1. The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer
Nearing 900 pages, you might not consider this a light beach read, but when you think about its subject matter, The History of the Ancient World suddenly seems quite condensed.
Bauer manages to provide both sweeping scope and vivid attention to the individual lives that shaped human history in a way that’s anything but dull. Dozens of maps and timelines put the passage of years into perspective and illustrate the cultural interconnections that were built in each new era.
2. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
Why is the study of ancient Rome still important? For one, its debates about citizenship, security, and the rights of individuals still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. Its myths and stories, rise and fall still strike a chord in so many of us.
Covering 1,000 years of history, SPQR sheds light on democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility, and exploitation in the empire—issues which, interestingly, remain relevant in the world over a millennium later.
3. Caesar and Christ by Will Durant
This 3rd installation in Pullitzer Prize-winning The Story of Civilization series explores Roman civilization and Christianity from their beginnings up until A.D. 325.
Durant dives into everything from the empire’s government to its culture, wars, leaders, and finally religion, which played a major part in its fall.
4. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
It’s hard to believe that something you can buy at the grocery store with just a few coins once had the power to provoke and finance wars, and even influence the developments of trade routes and cities.
Salt tells the story of how this household item was once among the most powerful of trade items and actually shaped civilization and the history of mankind.
5. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Recommended by Bill Gates, Guns, Germs, and Steel is a fascinating read that debunks the racially based theories of human history, instead arguing that the luck of having the right geographical and environmental factors gave certain societies a head start in food production.
The societies that advanced past the hunter-gatherer era soon developed religion, as well as deadly germs and later weapons of war, which they used to conquer and decimate preliterate cultures. This book will certainly challenge what many of us have been told about the advancement of human societies.
6. 1491 by Charles C. Mann
This groundbreaking book explores what the Americas were really like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. And here’s a hint: it’s probably quite different from the picture you were given in grade school.
For one, pre-Columbian Indians weren’t just roaming the wide, empty plains. Rather, booming civilizations like those of the Aztecs had running water, immaculate streets, and specialized breeding processes for corn that have been recognized as the first feat of genetic engineering.
Read this for everything you should have learned (but didn’t) in school.
7. 1776 by David McCullough
David McCullough captures all the drama and the intensely human stories that were the backdrop for 1776, the year America gained its independence from Great Britain.
Uncover the stories of George Washington and the brave men who marched behind him, and see the highly-disciplined and courageous side of the redcoats that is rarely conveyed in history books.
8. Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan
In 1919, following the end of WWI, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, and French premier George Clemenceau met for 6 months in Paris to design a “lasting peace.”
While that peace would ultimately be short-lived, those 6 months no doubt changed the world, with the borders of the modern world being redrawn and new states emerging, including Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Palestine.
9. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
You’re likely already familiar with Anne Frank’s story, and it might have been assigned reading back in middle school, but even so, this one is always worth another read.
Anne’s poignant observations, as told through her personal diary entries, are thoughtful, moving, and at times humorous, always reminding us of the frailty of life and the courage that persists even in the face of evil.
10. Truman by David Mccullough
In this riveting biography, David McCullough once again shines as he captures Harry Truman and the turbulent times in which he rose to meet unprecedented challenges, from the atomic bombing of Japan to the outbreak of the Cold War and Korean War.
Once a hat salesman, Truman’s story serves as an example of all the possibilities that America can offer. With simple common sense, Truman exhibited some of the best leadership in the country’s history, even without the best communication skills or outspoken personality.
11. The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw
In The Greatest Generation, renowned journalist Tom Brokaw tells the stories of the young men and women who served their country in its time of need, then transformed it once the war was over.
From Martha Settle Putney, one of the first black women to serve in the WACs, to a young navy pilot named George H.W. Bush, this book captures the true stories of everyday heroes living in extraordinary times.
Looking Back, Moving Forward
It’s always good to look back on the past to appreciate how far we’ve come, and to understand the progress we still need to strive for.
Check out one of these 11 great books about history to learn something new and experience the thrill of true stories that changed the world.
What’s your favorite historical period to read about? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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