Nominations for top history books

Gift-giving time beckons. Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan, Samhain, New Year’s Day — with a few exceptions, we will find ourselves looking for gifts for people we know and love, or people we know and work with, over the next few weeks. If you were to give a rather timeless gift, a book of history for the ages, what would it be?

I’m stealing ideas again, this time from Discover, the magazine that recently published its list of the 25 greatest science books of all time (that is a link to the introduction, written by Nobelist Kary Mullis; here is the list itself). (Tip of the old scrub brush to Larry Moran at Sandwalk, too.)

If you were to pick from a list of the greatest history books ever written, what would those books be? I hope you’ll share nominations for the top history books in the comments. Enlighten us to your reasons for picking the book, too.

Thinking out loud here: There would be a mix of old and new. Some books might be very short, some would be thousands of pages, perhaps in several volumes. I think a long-enough list would include some of these:

Well, any list I assemble solo would be a bit quirky.

What sort of criteria should be used to judge the books? Must they all be well-written? Should their effects on history and policy makers be considered? Should they be lyrical? I wonder, for example, about something like Homer’s Iliad. If effect on policy makers is a criterion, does the Bible qualify for a spot? Caesar’s diaries of the campaign in Gaul are famous, but who reads them any more? Do some books, or sets, make the list on the legs of the massive sales they racked up, partly because of a book club promotion (think Will and Ariel Durant)?

Make a nomination, please.

18 Responses to Nominations for top history books

  1. T K Johnson says:

    My first preference goes to the Study of History, a voluminous and empirical work by Arnold Toynbee. A.G. Frank’s ReOrient is a good work on world history.These two books have demolished my misconception about Eurocentrist writing of history.


  2. Fawad says:

    i give a damn to history


  3. […] Remember to nominate your favorite history books for the list of all-time great history books. You can do it most easily here, at the original post. Explore posts in the same categories: General, Books, History, Current History, Capturing history […]


  4. bernarda says:

    Deborah C. “Devil in the White City”.

    Wow, I have met someone else who has read this book. I loved it. A well-written and fascinating story.


  5. Connie Acton says:

    edmund morris The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
    john toland’s Adolf Hitler
    zoe oldenburg’s The Crusades
    churchill’s history of the english speaking people
    The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956 by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
    Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World
    Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

    Want suggestions for history of Ottoman Empire


  6. Deborah C. says:

    How the Irish Saved Civilization (Hinges of History) by Thomas Cahill;
    Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson


  7. Rich C. says:

    Child of the Revolution — Wolfgang Leonhard
    I love first person accounts.


  8. […] Still looking for nominations for your favorite history books of all time.  You can leave nominations in the comments to this post, or here. […]


  9. bernarda says:

    The Bible is not a history book, it is a book of mythology.

    There are so many good history books, but I will just mention two concerned with American history because Americans are so ignorant of it.

    A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

    A People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael.

    Well, a couple more general ones:

    The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy.

    Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

    Here is a video lecture by Diamond.


  10. Perry Packard says:

    The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand.
    I haven’t read many books dealing strictly with history, especially recently, but this is one I have read and enjoyed. It’s set in New England in the late 19th century, and then Chicago in the early 20th. Menand traces certain strands of uniquely American thinking, in particular certain influential ideas related to education, law, philosophy and psychology, by following the lives of four prominent Americans who crossed paths to varying degrees and in interesting ways. They are Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Pierce and John Dewey. It’s a Pulizer Prize winning book, which I recommend.


  11. […] Scouring sources for good history books for the list of all-time great history books, I was looking at the New York Times reviews, of course. […]


  12. […] Looking for books to put on my ad hoc list of top history books, for giving or getting, I took at look at the list of Pulitzer Prize winners in the history category, a list of books that dates back to 1917. (You may make nominations for the list here — please do!) Prizes for the past dozen or so years are all books I liked and have found useful. Some of the books, like Acheson’s winner from 1970, grew to be classics in some circles. But I was struck by how many of the books seem to have sunk from view. […]


  13. RobW says:

    The only criterion I applied is that they’re personal favourites, with all their idiosyncracies:

    Barbara Tuchman – A Distant Mirror
    Dee Brown – Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
    David Day – Claiming a Continent
    Modris Eksteins – The Rites of Spring
    Henry Reynolds – Fate of a Free People
    Robert Gottfried – The Black Death
    Philip Knightley – The First Casualty
    Paul Fussell – Wartime
    Claude Cockburn – The Devil’s Decade


  14. Ellie says:

    Interesting question. Off the top of my head, I’d nominate Karen Armstrong’s “A Short History of Myth,” because mankind’s myths are important for understanding mankind’s history. For a favorite American history book/s — I used to own “Annals of America,” published by Encyclopaedia Britannica. Included in those books were letters, newspaper articles and music from colonization to the modern era. I found those fascinating because newspaper articles and music are rarely included in traditional history books.


  15. J. L. Bell says:

    The Armada, by Garrett Mattingly. A classic that examines Spain’s attempted invasion of England in 1588 from many perspectives, linking it to developments all over Europe and breaking down some myths.

    Paul Revere’s Ride, by David H. Fischer. Narrative history that doesn’t neglect analysis, with a long historiographical appendix about how this 1775 event has been told and retold over the centuries.


  16. Eric Koenig says:

    My nomination goes to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. It documents one of the most painful and yet fascinating periods of 20th Century history and is a constant reminder of what happens when people allow themselves to forget the past.


  17. Pat Frank says:

    A-number-1 to give an understanding of historical forces all too often ignored: “Rats, Lice, and History” by Hans Zinsser. Zinsser was a famous and widely-travelled epidemiologist. Another such book, more global in scope but providing a less entertaining read, is “Armies of Pestilence” by R. S. Bray. Couple these with invasions caused by climate-induced movements of peoples and the destruction of civilizations by “earthquake-storms” in the near east, and you have a picture of history that radically departs from the usual “great man” and ‘trade-and-conquest’ models.


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