June 08, 2004

History Recommendations

Jester asked me for some history recommendations after reading my post below about the decline in teaching of history in schools. After some thought, and after looking through my book shelves, I decided to make the following recommendations. It was fun to take a tour back through the book shelves. I have a lot of books, most of them I love. I eliminated some of the more obscure things, like The Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire (Regents Studies in Medieval Culture), and tried to think of a good selection of well written works which did not require a lot of background to enjoy. I could put up many more books and I realize, as I review this that I am leaving many of my favorites out. Perhaps I'll revisit the subject if people find it interesting but I must call a halt to this post now. I hope you enjoy this post, it took me a rather long time to put up.

I include not just straight history, but biography and historical fiction as well. Biography is history and should be thought of as such, it seems to me. Biographers always put their subjects into historical context and, by concentrating on one key figure, provide a good focal point to view an era. I also like historical fiction because much of the good stuff is based on fairly rigorous research and can be a great entree into an area for someone who is seeking an introduction. But, more below.


Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950, by Martin Russ. This is riveting, can't put it down kind of stuff. 12,000 U.S. Marines were trapped during the Korean War by 60,000 Chinese troops and conducted a fighting retreat. It's a brilliant book.

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. Anybody read Kim, by Kipling? Fabulous book and it got me interested in this period. The struggle between Russia and Great Britain for India, played out all over the region. This is a great book about this period. This topic has become more relevant considering how much strife in the world is currently traceable to this region. I also, in the same vein, recommend: Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia.

The First World War, by Keegan. Keegan is one of the foremost military historians writing today. This is a great book which takes you from the start to the end. This was one of the most important world events of the last century and gives the reader a greater understanding of what followed.

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943, by Antony Beevor. This reads like fiction, it's so well written. This was the ultimate armed conflict between two morally corrupt ideologies, fought in the streets and gutters of a destroyed city. Also great information about the cult of the sniper. Highly readable.

Six Days of War : June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael Oren. The author had access to archives in Egypt, the US, and Russia. He interviewed former Israeli and Egyptian soldiers. This is riveting, can't put it down history. It also helps explain the roots of the current situation in the Middle East. This is very topical.

Patronage in Renaissance Italy: From 1400 to the Early Sixteenth Century, by Mary Hollingsworth. This was a great read, although it may be out of print. Basically, it suggests that the role of patronage was under-credited with respect to the Renaissance. The painters and sculptors needed patrons who could afford the art and were willing to collaborate in the creative process. Esoteric but enjoyable.

Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Enigma Re-Examined, by John Prevas. Where did Hannibal cross the Alps to strike at Italy and Rome? How did he do it? Prevas claims to have figured it out. It's a terrific little book.

John Julius Norwich is one of my favorite authors and I'd send you out to check out at least two of his works. A History of Venice was originally two volumes when published in England but one volume here in the States. Another great read. The history of the rise of the Republic is fascinating and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I think that study is what led Norwich to write the three volume series on the Byzantine Empire. This is another great contribution to a poorly understood, at least by me, era.

The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933, by Amos Elon. I never realized the incredible contributions the Jews made to German society and culture before I read this book. Jewish integration makes what followed all the more incomprehensible. A sad but fascinating book.

Carnage and Culture : Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, by Victor Davis Hanson. This is a very interesting and timely book about what makes the West special in terms of civic virtues and economics. It details the critical battles and gives terrific historical background in chapters devoted to each battle. A wonderful survey.

Now, a little lighter history. The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn. When baseball was an art and writing about it a game. This is about the mid-20th-century Brooklyn Dodgers and how Kahn grew up while following them around and writing about it.


Cicero, by Anthony Everitt. I read this one over Christmas vacation last year by the pool. Another terrific read. Gives a lot of detail about the history of the Republic and the rise of Caesar and Marc Antony. Cicero was considered Rome's greatest orator.

Lafayette, by Unger was a very readable biography of an important figure in both the American and French Revolutions. Not too many people spanned both. One of the things from this I was surprised by was learning how close a thing the American Revolution really was to failure. They don't teach you that in school.

John Adams, by David McCullough is another revolutionary war figure biography. This was a long book but it never dragged. It won a Pulitzer Prize. Adams was an American hero and I recommend the book.

A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, by Witold Rybczynski. Olmsted was the first great landscape architect in the US and this is a terrific read. A little obscure for some, but a good look at the building of Central Park in NY. I enjoyed it a lot.


The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, details the battle of Gettysburg and specifically Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, whose 20th Maine regiment of volunteers held the Union's left flank on the second day of the battle at Little Round Top.

Gates of Fire : An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, by Steven Pressfield is a novel about the battle where 300 Spartan knights and their allies kept some 10,000 Persian invaders at bay. This is hard to put down.

Sharpe's Eagle, by Cornwell. This is the first of the series. I've read them all. They deal with the exploits of an officer in the 95th Rifles during the Napoleonic Wars. Sharpe was raised from the ranks. Cornwell ends each book with a nice historical essay about the events which inspired the book. Warning: highly addictive series.

Master and Commander is the first of the Patrick O'Brian series about the Napoleonic War and the Royal Navy. These are the equivalent of literary crack. Don't pick these up unless you are prepared to lose a lot of time. My wife hates it when I re-read this series, which I've done about five times. All twenty books. It may be time again soon, come to think of it.

Dark Star, by Alan Furst is gripping. Most of Furst's work is set in the period just before the start of WW II and he evokes a time now long gone and made more poignant by knowing that it was on the edge of extinction. All of his book are fantastic and I await the next one with keen anticipation.

Happy reading, Jester (and anyone else who might enjoy the above)!

Posted by Random Penseur at June 8, 2004 09:31 AM
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