I seem to be dumping lately here on the blog. It's just a dumping phase
of my life, I guess.
So here are some of my favorite history books.
1. Herodotus — The Histories
Herodotus was kind of an "everything and the kitchen sink too" type of
historian, compiling not only history but geography, anthropology, and
folklore. Thucydides objected to his method and said he was a liar. Not
very many people in history have shared that opinion.
2. Tacitus — Annals of Imperial Rome
Also titled, "The Idiot's Guide to losing your glorious 500 year-old
Republic to a despot within ten years." Also, proof positive that when
it comes to despots that succeeding ones are usually even worse than
the first one was. The Annals blew my mind when I read it back
in 1987. I haven't looked at either history or politics in the same
I think that if all American high-school students were required to
read this, we might see a little better outcome from our government.
3. Henry Steele Commager — The Empire of Reason
An analysis of the foundation of American government as an outcome of
the Enlightenment. A magnificent clarity runs through this book.
"The Bill of Rights was not written to protect governments from
trouble. It was written precisely to give the people the constitutional
means to cause trouble for governments they no longer trusted."
— H. S. Commager, 1971.
4. John Toland — The Rising Sun
This book is the most complete history of the war in the Pacific theater
in WWII that I have come across. In its broad course it also covers the
history of Japanese politics from about 1930 all the way to the crazy
internal attempt to assassinate the Emperor at the end of the war —
even as American phosphorous bombs were falling in Tokyo. This book drew
harsh criticism when it came out from those who thought that Toland was
taking the "Japanese side" in his view of events. America is so used to
thinking of itself as the victim via Pearl Harbor that it is difficult
for many to conceive that our own poor foreign policy might not have
helped matters any. You can read the book and decide for yourself.
5. Arnaldo Momigliano — Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization
A top-notch classical scholar, Momigliano in this book takes a look at
the attitudes of the rather xenophobic Greeks towards the cultures
around them and which they mixed with — to some extent mixed, that is.
"Anything can be significant where nothing is certain."
6. Barbara Tuchman — A Distant Mirror
If you think the 20th century sucked, it might be some consolation that
the 14th century and the 100 Years War were almost as bad.
7. Shelby Foote — The Civil War: A Narrative
There's not much I can add that hasn't already been said about Foote's
three volume work on the American Civil War. It is a magnificent
achievement. And at times it will tear your guts out.
8. Simon Schama — Citizens
Perhaps the first great revisionist history of the French Revolution.
I only thought I knew stuff about the French Revolution until I read this
book. If you want to know about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, don't
read the crappy recent biographies — read this for a truly illuminating
view of the matter. And Schama is a wonderful writer, too.
9. Paul Johnson — The Birth of the Modern
This book is a social history of England, Scotland, and (to some extent)
America from approximately 1815-1830. It covers an incredibly wide range
of topics, from the development of the first narrow gauge railroads to
middle class housewives becoming hooked on tincture of opium for their
"headaches." And it seems that Sir Humphrey Davy and his friends had
some fun developing laughing gas, too.
10. Marzieh Gail — Avignon in Flower
This one is listed out of order, because I wanted to save it for last. I
picked this book up at at a used book shop in Denton, Texas in 1984. It
is essentially a social history of the age of the Papacy when it transferred
from Rome to Avignon. But it also covers the culture of the time as well —
dealing especially with the poet Petrarch, his one-sided love for the famous
Laura, his climbing of Mt. Ventoux with his brother simply because it was
there (the symbolic beginning of the Renaissance?), and his devotion to
libraries and to scholarship.
There is also some interesting stuff dealing with the selling of
indulgences. "Whoever would wish to buy in advance absolution for any
accidental murder that he might commit in the future shall pay 178
pounds, 15 sous."
Yeah, better to just take care of the paper work for those "accidental
murders" way ahead of time.