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Five Great Books About History

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If you’ve read any of my articles on history over on Medium, you know I love debunking myths and calling out revisionist history. As important as this is, it’s even more important to know the facts first so you can recognize the myths and revisions even more quickly. For example, back before we had fancy counterfeit-detecting pens, the way you learned to identify a fake bill was by handling real currency so much you could tell a fake simply by touch.

It’s the same with history. While we obviously need to correct myths, revisions, and outright lies we absolutely need to spend time learning true history. One of the best ways to do this is by reading good books on history. So today I want to offer five titles you should definitely add to your reading list. The books listed here cover a wide range of historical eras, so at least one (and hopefully more) should pique your interest.

1. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. This is the best book ever written on the causes and early days of World War I, by the preeminent historical writer of the 20th century. The Guns of August is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that reads like a fast-paced novel. If you want to learn about the later years of the war you’ll obviously need to read other books, but Tuchman covers some of the most important and least understood aspects of the Great War and does it in a way that holds your attention from the very first page through the last.

2. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson. By some estimates, more books have been written about the Civil War than any other conflict in American history. This is no small feat, given the broad scope of World War II or the formative importance of the Revolutionary War. I first read Battle Cry of Freedom more than 20 years ago and in my opinion it remains by far the best one-volume history of the Civil War. Shelby Foote’s account may be a close second, but he took three volumes. This is a hefty book but well worth the time, as it covers not only the major battles and the key players but also looks at the politics of the war, it’s causes, and the aftermath. If you’re not interested in the Civil War now, you will be after reading this book.

3. Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie. This is one I read back in college, and Massie knows his stuff when it comes to Russian history. His biography of Catherine the Great is probably better known, but for me his biography of Peter is his crowning achievement. It’s another big book, but Peter was a big guy (6’8” at a time when the average height for a man was 5’7”) and as Massie shows, Peter towered over both his contemporaries and Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The book gives not only a full history of Russia at the time but also of its relationship with the West, and how Peter dragged his then-backward nation into the modern age. It’s a crucial book for understanding not only a giant of world history but of grasping Russia and its worldview today.

4. Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War 1936–1939 by Adam Hochschild. I put this book on the list not just because it’s gripping history; it also covers one of the least-known and least-understood conflicts in modern times, the effects of which are still felt in Spain to this day. The beauty of Hochschild’s book is that while covering all the confusing aspects of the war — it can sometimes be hard to keep track of who was on which side, and when — he makes it accessible, especially to American readers. He does this by describing the roles and views of people involved who we do know, from Ernest Hemingway to George Orwell to John Dos Passos. It’s a captivating account of a conflict that, beyond its impact on Spain, was in effect a dress rehearsal for World War II with Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin all sending both troops and new cutting-edge weapons into the fray. Unlike many books about history, Hochschild handles the human aspect of the conflict, the people involved, in a moving and memorable way.

5. Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II by George Weigel. No matter what your religious persuasion, or total lack thereof, if you study history you cannot deny the impact Pope John Paul II had on the world in the 20th century. Though he himself dismissed such claims, he is widely seen as the catalyst for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, a view Weigel shares. This biography is no mere hagiography, however, and Weigel deftly weaves John Paul’s personal history as a Pole under both Nazi and communist occupation with a fine history of the time itself. We get the politics of the era as well, something that John Paul had to navigate as he led the 2,000-year-old Church into the 21st century. Knowing him and his time is critical for us today.

I highly recommend all five of these books, but if I was forced to choose just one it would be The Guns of August. If you’re unsure which one to pick, Tuchman’s classic is a great place to start.

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Book Reviews