(Your) Recommended History Reading (List)

I’m looking for recommendations and I need your help. I’m looking for two types of books: one type for me and one for my 24 year old daughter.

For my daughter some explanation is order. She has a self confessed ‘mental block’ regarding history. It bores her to death, at least the history she’s read so far in school. She knows who George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were. She’s heard of FDR but can’t can’t quite place him. She can do calculus, but she’s always confused about when events happened; WWI was, umm, when? Was Hitler in WWI or WWII or Vietnam? So, I’m looking for a book on American history that is sweeping yet engaging. History as a story. Light on detail yet touching on all the important points. Something she’ll enjoy. Recommendations?

I’m looking for a history of the revolutionary war. Something well written and engaging. Any favorites?

Any history books that don’t fall into the above categories that you’d still recommend reading?

26 thoughts on “(Your) Recommended History Reading (List)”

  1. Haven’t read it myself, but Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton bio has received great reviews, across a wide spectrum of political viewpoints.

  2. Marge Piercy’s “Gone to Soldiers” is a great WWII epic novel with a large cast of characters, includes the best novelization I have ever read of the concentration camp experience (but there are enjoyable parts of the novel too and some happy endings).

  3. Check out the Calvert School’s curriculum. It and others are used by many homeschoolers who don’t settle for dry-as-dust academic treatment of the subject which is really the collected adventures of the whole human race and which should be taught that way!

    Or talk to some homeschoolers for tips. Do a do-it-yourself unit study on whatever fascinates your student. If it’s ancient Egypt, raid the library; reread every old National Geographic you can get your hands on with anything on Egypt; immerse the child in ancient Egypt. Mummify a bug. Go to a good museum. Get some videos. Be creative. Meet some modern Egyptians! If you live in a big metropolitan area visit a Coptic Orthodox church and make friends with some Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians. They are great people.

  4. The first two suggestions are based on the “indirect approach”, where you don’t go directly for the change but use smaller changes to provoke a “This isn’t so bad after all.” reaction.

    Have you considered Buckley’s Fall of the Berlin Wall, Jonh Wiley & Sons 2004? It’s short (192 5×8 pages), has lots of interesting anecdotes and happened in her lifetime.

    How about something on math or technology? I like Derbyshire’s Prime Obsession, Joseph Henry Press 2003 quite a lot. It has alternate chapters of number theory and historical / biographical information on the mathematicians involved. So you never have to spend too much time on history… Or any of Werner Heisenberg’s books on the development of quantum mechanics: Physics and Beyond, Harper & Row 1971, Physics and Philosophy, or Across the Frontiers? I enjoyed Physics and Beyond the best. Who was thinking what and when, how they made progress, what it means to “do science”, it’s a pretty amazing book.

    For straight US history with flair, how about Boorstin’s trilogy The Americans, Vintage 1967? It’s as much about ideas as about dates, and so may stick a bit better.

    Share and enjoy,
    Matya no baka

  5. The best “story” history book I’ve ever read is Peter the Great by Robert Massie. It’s 928 pages, but the shortest 928 pages I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down. It’s the authority on Peter the Great, and does a phenomenal job.

    Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor is another engaging one.

  6. I had a minor success recently in the ‘history as a story’ genre with Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. She loved it. Still, I’m looking for something that covers the entire sweep of American history. I can’t seem to put my finger on it, try as I might.

    Prime Obsession sounds good. Might order that for me. :)

  7. American history wise, Band of Brothers, Citizen soldiers, and D-Day by Ambrose are good choices. Very American, very patriotic. Ambrose tends to recycle material among his books however, so for example The Victors, is basically a shortened version of the three put together. But these three will cover pretty much Ambrose’s viewpoint on the U.S. in Western Europe from D-Day to V-Day.

  8. If you are going to read one book about the Revolution, the Founding Fathers, and the early Republic, Chernow’s book about Hamilton most certainly ISN’T that book. It reads as a piece of 18th century Federalist party propaganda. It’s angelic protrayal of Alexander Hamilton is almost comical if you know anything about him from any other source and his portrayals of Jefferson and Madison are downright distortions.

    Chernow makes it clear that this is revisionist history and he sets out to correct what he thinks are misinterpretations of him, but in my mind ends up doing just the opposite. Hamilton is the father of the idea of “implied powers” in the Constitution that were later used by Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR to trample the sacred document under their feet. He was a monarchist who detested democracy and the masses, and while he wasn’t a British spy he was consistently duplicitous in his dealings with them, particularly during the negotiations of the Jay treaty, in which Chernow ignores (he doesn’t even try to refute)the well established historical events of his going behind John Jay’s back and telling the British that Washington had no intention of siding with the French (his only leverage).

    While Jefferson and Madison are portrayed as ignorant slave owners who weren’t worldy enough to understand Hamilton’s economic program(Jefferson was the only one of the three who had actually been to Europe and had seen the results of British mercantilism in person) Hamilton’s mercantilist system of government granted monopolies, protective tariffs and government knowledge replacing market knowledge was actually abandoned by the British in the 1820’s. Jefferson rightly saw the poverty and deprivation (with his own eyes)that a monarchy running a mercantilist empire can cause. While Jefferson’s own physiocratic economic theories were outdated and backward looking, his critiques of Hamilton’s plans were right on the money, and are largely accepted by free market economists today.

    To be fair Alexander Hamilton has had a great revisionist revival of late mainly because if you like the kind of big government we have now and worship at the feet of Lincoln and FDR, then Hamilton is the founding father who set the stage. He is probably the only Founding Father who would look at today’s federal government and be happy about it.

    In order to adequately cover the Revolution, the Founding and the early reublic I know of no single book which adequately teaches it. “The Federalist Papers” are very interesting but they were really a piece of political propaganda, written predominantly by somebody who had little input into the actual writing of the Constitution (Hamilton) and Madison’s views (he WAS intimately involved in the writing of the Constitution) changed some over the years as he realized some of the ramifications of the original document, like it’s lack of a Bill of Rights, which he helped amend. The Fed. Papers argues for a Constitution without a Bill of Rights, sometimes forcefully, exposing some of Hamilton’s disdain for democracy itself. That being said, it is a document that is constantly being referred to in any attempt to interpret the Constitution, so it is very influential.

    “The Anti-Federalist Papers” by Ralph Ketchum (who also wrote a good biograohy of Madison)is a first hand account of the Constitutional Convention and gives a good insight into what happened there, how the document ended up in the form it did, and most importantly you get to read the dissenting views of those like Patrick Henry, etc. who thought it consolodated too much power in the federal government. Some of their predictions made over 200 hundred years ago are pretty accurate.

    But both of these books are dry reads, especially the Federalist Papers, because they are written the English of the late 1700’s with flowery language and extreme verbosity.

    Another book I read and have dog-eared and highlight is Jim Powell’s “FDR’s Folly”. It thoroughly reviews the New Deal and it’s non-sensical economic policies which most crtainly didn’t end the great depression (there were as many unemployed in 1940 as in 1932) and the permanent consolodation of government power which was the real goal of his policies.

    In short, reading most things written by those in the academic history establishment will give you a view of history written almost exclusively from the “great man” point of view, a “great man” of course being any president who concentrated and consolidated government power in Washington.

  9. Nothing about the Revolution but I can recommend these: the trilogy by Jan Morris on the rise and decline of the British Empire. About the people and their lives.

    Also, A world lit only by fire, by William Manchester. What life was like for ordinary people in medieval times.

  10. Perhaps your daughter might read the graphic novel “Maus” by Art Spiegleman. It is the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Art’s parents’ experiences in Nazi-occupied Europe and in German concentration camps. But it is drawn using mice as Jews and cats as Germans, which permits one to withstand the horrifying content.

  11. Another excellent read is “Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography” by William Lee Miller. It reviews Lincoln’s ethics amidst his battles to stay in politics. Not a typical date history book at all, but more of a “this was a real person, and in the end a great man, but here’s how he got there, warts and all”.

  12. American Heritage magazine published a series of well-written and well-illustrated histories – “The American Revolution” (written by Bruce Lancaster) “The Civil War” (written by Bruce Catton) “The Great West” (written by David Lavender) – about forty years ago. I used to browse through these as a kid. One doesn’t have to read from cover-to-cover to learn from them – the captions alone convey a lot. A curious reader inevitably stops to read the text.

    For a serious reader, Francis Parkman’s multi-volume “France and England in North America” remains the greatest American narrative history.
    Well-written, comprehensive, monumental, remarkably fresh.

  13. I enjoyed James Burke’s style of teaching history. The Day the Universe Changed in particular. It’s more of a history of technology, but makes plenty of room for personalities, even discusses how these change as technologies change.

  14. For American history, Paul Johnson’s one volume book is good. She may like that.

    For the American Revolution, Gordon S. Wood recently did a short one volume history. There is Robert Middlekaupf’s one volume history, too. I have both but have only glanced at them. David Hackett Fischer’s two books, Paul Revere’s ride and Washington’s Crossing are both superb.

  15. I’m not a historian, so this may not help much. Edmund Morgan writes so clearly and his works have clear theses so while you don’t get what he considers the underbrush you can see where he wants to take you. Pre-revolutionary war: the biography by Marsden of Jonathan Edwards is wonderful – it gives us a sense of pre-revolutionary war culture, is a sympathetic portrait of a complex person in a really bizarre family (great-uncle an ax murderer, grandson Aaron Burr) and in a complex time (he is born in 1703, Franklin in 1706 – think about that in terms of the revolution). Seeing Ellis’ Adams and Morgan’s Franklin makes clear how history is never settled and we always have our, well, people we like, identify with.

    I’ve started Paul Johnson’s history; it is written in a quite accessible manner and seems to cover a lot of territory. I hate to recommend it becaue it has two what seem to me huge disadvantages for your daughter: A) Its size makes it look more boring than the style makes it; still, I suspect I’ll never get through it. (about 1000 pages). Size is going to be a problem with any comprehensive study; B)It is pretty quirky and my impression (not a scholarly one) was that the history establishment didn’t welcome it with open arms. But it is comprehensive and cheap (I picked it up several years ago to use as a lit reference because it was only $5.) And the style is full of detail but lucid.

    By the way, I have a lot of trouble finding works that interest my children. Do we ever stop being parents and start being, well, someone with similar/different interests? Sometimes it seems we aren’t communicating at all; then, I’ll be amazed that something that is really quirky grabs them and they go off with it and sometimes literally change the way they look at their intellectual lives (like they start having an intellectual life prompted by some mysterious interaction). If you find out how to know which person or book will do that, please let me me know. You need to bottle it. And I’d like it –my children have roads to go that I’d like to make happier and easier for them. They’ll find enough dead ends on their own – at least that has been my experience.

  16. At 24, she can find her own way …let her browse in a good bookstore or library…if she doesn’t l;ike history, why force feed your taste upon her? Bh the simple notion that all things in life have a history…give her a topic (say Trail of Tears on American Indians, or Holocaust etc) and let her begin plowing into stuff on selected topic…she will love it or turn to the history of women in this or that or whatever… Bwegin with a decent popularizer and then let her wander.

  17. Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States : 1492-Present (Perennial Classics). History for adults, both young and old.

  18. DSpears, you really crack me up. Any historical figure who provokes a hysterical reaction must be worth reading about.

    Yes, biographies tend to support the great man approach to history. And the problem with autobiographies is that they’re so self-centered.

  19. Maybe the practical approach is through fiction. Consider the alternate histories common in SciFi, like Eric Flint’s “1632” et seq., where there are lots of details about the 30 Years War and the who’s who of historical figures of the time … It was quite a period, you know … Gustav Adolphus, Cardinal Richelieu, the Spanish Inquisition, ….

  20. For the Revolution, I’d recommend The Cousins’ Wars by Kevin Phillips. It’s not just a history of the Revolution but a history of the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the Civil War and their relationships, social, religious, economic, etc. It deals in the broad sweep of history, its implications for the world we live in today and should stimulate thinking and curiosity for more if the spark is there.

  21. Concur with the Paul Johnson recommendations. He didn’t get a warm welcome from American academic historians because he’s not a leftist and not an American. Foreigners who actually admire the U.S. Constitution are of course completely beyond the pale.

    Slightly off topic, you might also get her Johnson’s book Intellectuals although it has hardly any American content. It’s highly entertaining and works in a lot of European history.

  22. Forget Howard Zinn unless you’re a Michael Moore fan.

    Fernand Braudel might be worth a look. I also like Barbara Tuchman in addition to the other excellent recommendations that have been made here.

    For short bits with lots of pictures, how about “The Good Old Days – They were Terrible!” by Otto Bettmann.

    I would think that history could be an easy sell to anyone. It’s an ongoing mystery, a soap opera, a chess game, trivia, scandals, adventure… It can be just as shallow or just as deep as you want.

    You just have to find the right hook – what’s she interested in now? Find a history book that takes advantage of that.

  23. Howard Zinn (born December 7, 1922 in Brooklyn, New York) is an influential historian. Zinn is retired from a professorship at Boston University. He has received the Thomas Merton Award, the Eugene V. Debs Award, the Upton Sinclair Award, and the Lannan Literary Award. He lives in Auburndale, Massachusetts, U.S. He is perhaps best known for A People’s History of the United States, which presents American history through the eyes of those he feels are outside of the political and economic establishment: Native Americans, slaves, women, blacks, Populists, etc

    That sounds like scarey stuff for an adult to read. Especially a woman! .

    Moore is not a historian. He’s a movie director and book writer of popular culture. I’ve never seen his movies or read his books and don’t care to. I am always surprised by how closed minded or small minded some so called educated people can be.

  24. The previous comment is in error in this respect: Howard Zinn was born August 24, 1922.
    His birthdate has been confused with Noam Chomsky who was born December 7, 1922.

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