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Blog – Posted on Friday, May 21
45 best history books of all time.
If the mere mention of ‘history books’ is enough to conjure up memories of fighting back yawns in your middle school classroom, then chances are you haven’t been looking in the right places. But fear not — this list is here to bring you some of the most well-researched, entertaining, and readable works by the most preeminent historians of today and generations past.
On this list, you not only find some of the best American history books, on topics spanning slavery and empire, Civil War, and Indigenous histories, but also stories ranging from Asia to Africa, and everywhere in between. This list traverses continents, historical eras, the rise and fall of once-great empires, while occasionally stopping off to hone in on specific, localized events that you might never have heard of.
Whether you’re a history buff looking to flex your muscles, or you struggle to distinguish your Nelson from your Nefertiti, there’ll be something suitable for you. So what are you waiting for? Let’s dive into our 45 best history books of all time.
If you’re looking for history books that give the broader picture as well as the finer details, let us introduce you to some of the most seminal texts on global history. These reads cover the moments and events that form the connective tissue between continents, cultures, and eras. Whether you’re looking for more abstract, theoretical writing on what ‘history’ is and does, or just a broader volume that pans out, rather than in, there’ll be something for you.
1. What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr
Famous for his hefty History of Soviet Russia , E. H. Carr’s foray into historiography (that is, the study of written history) was panned by critics at first. Initially written off as ‘dangerous relativism’, it is now considered a foundational text for historians, one which probes at the very seams of the discipline. By asking what exactly historical knowledge is and what constitutes history as we have come to understand it, Carr provides a compelling and masterful critique of the biases of historians and their moralized narratives of history. This groundbreaking text also interrogates such notions as fact, science, morality, individualism, and society. Carr’s masterpiece is referenced in countless college applications for a reason — it’s a formidable dive into history as a discipline, and laid the foundations for the subject as it exists in the modern world.
2. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
Though first and foremost considered a political theorist, much of Marxist thought can be a means to understand history with attention to economic systems and principles. In this seminal text, Marx argues that all of history has been defined by the struggles between the proletariat working-class and the capital-owning bourgeoisie. According to Marx, economic structures have been defined by class relations, and the various revolutions that have occurred throughout history have been instigated by antagonism between these two forces. As Marx famously opined in his 1852 essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”, and he lays out those repetitions with striking clarity here. As an added bonus, since this was originally intended as a pamphlet, the manifesto comes in at under 100 pages, so you have no reason not to prime yourself on one of modern history’s greatest thinkers.
3. Orientalism by Edward W. Said
A titan of Middle Eastern political and historical study, Edward Said coined the titular phrase ‘Orientalism’ to describe the West's often reductive and derisive depiction and portrayal of "The East." This book is an explanation of this concept and the application of this framework to understand the global power dynamics between the East and the West. Orientalism is considered by many a challenging read, but don’t let its formidable reputation put you off — it’ll all be worth it when you find yourself thinking about global history in ways you haven’t before.
4. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
It’s no big secret that the US school curriculum is more than a little biased — governments have a tendency to rewrite history textbooks in their favour, and the US government is no exception, keeping quiet on the grizzly, harrowing details and episodes which made the USA the country it is today. With particular focus on the American Civil War, Native Americans and the Atlantic Slave Trade, Loewen tries to interrogate and override simplistic, recountings of these events that portray White settlers as heroes and everybody else as uncivilized and barbarous. This is essential reading for anybody wanting to challenge their own preconceptions about American history and challenge the elevated status of American ‘heroes’.
5. Democracy: A Life by Paul Cartledge
From its birth in the city-state of Ancient Athens to contemporary times, democracy’s definition, application, and practice have been fiercely discussed and debated. With this book, Cartledge presents a biography of a political system that has been alternately lauded as the only means to govern a liberal society and derided as doomed to ineffectiveness.
Based on a near-legendary course of lectures Cartledge taught at Cambridge University, this book charts the social, cultural, and political dimensions of democracy, displaying a mastery of the scholarship to brilliant effect. For those that want to know more about democracy beyond ‘governance for the masses’.
6. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary
When history is so often focalized through a Western lens, reading from alternative positions is essential to challenge these normative understandings of the past. Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted does exactly this. By centering on an Islamic recounting of historical events, it challenges preconceived ideas about Western dominance, colonialism, and stereotyped depictions of Islamic culture and custom. Ansary discusses the history of the Islamic world from the time of Mohammed, through the various empires that have ruled the Middle Eastern region and beyond, right up to contemporary conflicts and the status of Islam in a modern, globalizing world.
7. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
If you think salt is a substance useful for not much more than topping fries, let journalist Mark Kurlansky prove otherwise. In this book, Kurlansky charts the origins of civilization using a surprising narrative throughline — salt. Many early settlements were established near natural sources of salt because of its many beneficial properties, and this surprisingly precious mineral has continued to play an important role in societies ever since. From its use as a medium of exchange in ancient times to its preservative properties (which allowed ancient civilizations to store essential food throughout the winter), this innocuous substance has been fundamental to the health and wealth of societies across the globe.
8. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
With his collective bibliography having sold over 16 million copies, you’re probably already familiar with Bryson’s work documenting his travels around the world, or his meditations on the brilliant diversity of global culture. Though primarily a travel writer, he’s also turned his hand to history, and A Short History of Nearly Everything specifically focuses on the scientific discoveries of yore that have defined human society. From quantum theory to mass extinction, Bryson recounts these miraculous, unplanned, sometimes ill-fated marvels of human achievement with humor and insight. If there’s a book that’ll have you repeatedly saying “can you believe this?” to random passers-by, this’ll be it!
9. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine
A nation's ability to conquer the seas has always been a mark of prestige and greatness, especially for empires looking to expand beyond their borders and nations wanting to trade and connect with other peoples. Paine discusses how many societies managed to transform the murky depths of the ocean from natural obstacle to a means of transporting goods, people, and ideas — from the Mesopotamians wanting to trade with their neighbors in ancient Aegea and Egypt, to those in East Asia who fine-tuned their shipbuilding techniques to conquer foreign lands.
10. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Here’s another book that frequents the reading lists of politics and history majors the world over! Many have theorized on why certain human societies have failed while others have thrived — but perhaps none have done it as astutely as Jared Diamond has in Guns, Germs, and Steel . The three things featured in the book’s title make up the nexus that Diamond presents as being fundamental to the development (or lack thereof) of human society. Though Diamond's thesis has as many detractors as it has supporters, it’s worth reading to see which side of the debate you fall on.
11. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity by Amartya Sen
In this collection of sixteen essays, esteemed economist Amartya Sen explores the Indian subcontinent, with particular focus on the rich history and culture that has made it the country it is today. The title refers to what Sen believes is inherent to the Indian disposition: argument and constructive criticism as a means to further progress. In his essays, Sen presents careful and considered analysis on a range of subjects that other academics have often tiptoe around, from the nature of Hindu traditions to the major economic disparities existing in certain regions today (and what their roots might be). Whether you’re an expert or new to the topic, you’ll be sure to learn something from Sen’s incisive commentary.
Ancient kingdoms are shrouded in mystery — a lot of what we know has been painstakingly pieced together by brilliant archaeologists and historians who have uncovered ancient artifacts, documents, and remains, and dedicated their working lives to understanding their significance to ancient people. Aren’t the rest of us lucky they’ve done the hard work for us?
12. Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend
The pre-colonial Central America ruled by the Aztecs was one characterized by remarkable innovation and progressiveness. Western historians, however, often failed to acknowledge this or pay the region and its ancient empires much academic attention. Moreover, the history of the Mexican people as recounted by the Spanish has often leaned into stereotyped, whitewashed versions of events. Townsend’s Fifth Sun changes this by presenting a history of the Aztecs solely using sources and documents written by the Aztec people themselves in their native Nahuatl language. What results is an empathetic and invigorating interpretation of Aztec history for newbies and long-time enthusiasts alike.
13. When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara Cooney
When you think of Ancient Egyptian queens, Cleopatra probably comes to mind — but did you know that the various Egyptian dynasties boasted a whole host of prominent women? Cooney’s When Women Ruled The World shifts the spotlight away from the more frequently discussed Egyptian pharaohs, placing attention on the likes of Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra, all of whom commanded great armies, oversaw the conquering of new lands, and implemented innovative economic systems. In this captivating read, Cooney reveals more about these complex characters and explores why accounts of ancient empires have been so prone to placing powerful women on the margins of historical narratives.
14. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by Edward Gibbon
If you’re a fan of serious, in-depth scholarship on ancient history, then this first volume of Gibbon's classic treatise on the Roman Empire is a perfect fit for you. Despite being published in 1776, Gibbon’s work on the Roman Empire is still revered by historians today. Along with five other volumes of this monumental work, this text is considered one of the most comprehensive and pre-eminent accounts in the field. Gibbon offers theories on exactly how and why the Roman Empire fell, arguing controversially that it succumbed to barbarian attacks mainly due to the decline of “civic virtue” within Roman culture. If this thesis has piqued your interest, then we naturally suggest you start with Volume I to understand what exactly Gibbon considers “virtue” to be, and how it was lost.
15. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer
Historians are often wont to focus on a particular historical era or location when producing historical nonfiction — but Susan Wise Bauer had grander ambitions. In this text, Bauer weaves together events that spanned continents and eras, from the East to the Americas. This book, described as an “engrossing tapestry,” primarily aims to connect tales of rulers to the everyday lives of those they ruled in vivid detail. With an eloquently explained model, she reveals how the ancient world shaped, and was shaped by, its peoples.
16. Foundations of Chinese Civilization: The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty by Jing Liu
Believe it or not, history doesn’t always mean slogging through page after page of dense, footnoted text. This comic by Beijing native Jing Liu turns history on its head by presenting it in a fun, digestible manner for anybody that has an interest in Chinese history (but isn’t quite ready to tackle an 800-page book on the subject yet). Spanning nearly 3,000 years of ancient history, this comic covers the Silk Road, the birth of Confucianism and Daoism, China's numerous internal wars, and finally the process of modern unification.
Middle Ages and renaissance
Some of the most fearsome and formidable characters in history had their heyday during the Middle Ages and renaissance periods — though it’s hard to know whether their larger-than-life reputations are owed to actual attributes they had, or from their mythologizing during a time where fewer reliable sources exist. Either way, we think they’re great fun to read about — as are their various exploits and conquests. From Genghis Khan to Cosimo de Medici, we’ve got you covered.
17. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
The Silk Road, an artery of commerce running from Europe through Russia to Asia (and a vital means of connecting the West with the East), has long been of interest to historians of the old world. In this book, Frankopan goes one step further, to claim that there has been more than one silk road throughout history — and that the region stretching from the Mediterranean to China (modern-day Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan) remains the crossroads of civilization and the center of global affairs. Frankopan argues compellingly that this region should be afforded more attention when historians theorize on centers of power and how they have shifted across time. It’s a convincing argument, and one that is expertly executed by Frankopan’s engaging writing and scrupulous research.
18. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
Genghis Khan is perhaps one of the most formidable figures in global history. Many recognize his iconic topknot-and-horseback image despite not knowing all too much about his life or the military successes he oversaw as leader of the Mongolian empire. Weatherford’s book takes a deep dive into this complex character and explores new dimensions of the society and culture he imposed upon the many peoples he conquered. As a civilization, Khan's was more keenly progressive than its European counterparts — having abolished torture, granted religious freedoms, and deposed the feudal systems that subordinated so many to so few. If you’re in the mood for an epic tale that’ll challenge your understanding of the global past, you’ll want to pick this book up.
19. Precolonial Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop
Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian, anthropologist, physicist, and politician, dedicated his working life to the study of pre-colonial African culture and the origins of human civilization itself. This book, arguably his most influential text, draws out comparisons between European empires and societies with the often overlooked African civilizations. Diop carefully shows that Africa contributed far more to the world’s development than just its exploited labor and natural resources. Precolonial Black Africa thus sets out to reorient our knowledge of a period that is so often derided by non-African thinkers as “uncivilized” and “barbarous” with brilliant attention to detail.
20. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge
In the 11th century, a vast Christian army was summoned and ordered by the Pope to march across Europe. Their aim was to seize Jerusalem and claim back the city considered the holy seat of Christianity. As it happened, Jerusalem was also a land strongly associated with the Prophets of Islam. The Christian mission thus manifested in the Crusaders’ rampage through the Muslim world, devastating many parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Asbridge’s innovative recounting of this momentous event is unique in the way it even-handedly unpacks the perspective of both the Christian and Muslim experiences and their memorializing of the Holy Wars. With rich and detailed scholarship, this book reveals how the Crusades shaped the Medieval world and continue to impact the present day.
21. The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert
Renaissance Florence is perhaps most famous as the cradle of revered art, sculpture, and architecture by the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo — but in the 15th century, it was also home to the Medicis, one of the most powerful banking dynasties in Europe. Starting with enterprising Cosimo de Medici in the 1430s, Hibbert chronicles the impressive rise of a family that dominated a city where mercantile families jostled for political and social influence, often to bloody ends. And — spoiler alert, if you can spoil history — as with every great period, the rise of the Medicis naturally involves a spectacular fall. It’s the kind of stuff soap operas are made of: an unmissable tale of family intrigue and the corrupting influence of money.
In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.
22. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
Mainstream history has too often made it seem as though the Americas was all but a vacant wasteland before Columbus and other European conquerors drifted upon its shores in the 15th century. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth — from the Aztecs to the Incas to the tribes of Northern America, many complex social and cultural structures existed prior to the arrival of Europeans. Southern American peoples in particular had sophisticated societies and infrastructures (including running water!) that have unfortunately been obliviated from the popular (or at least white Western) consciousness. A classic book that challenges the victor’s story, Charles C. Mann’s 1491 provides exciting new information on civilizations that have more to teach us than we have previously acknowledged.
23. The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones
Is there a more abiding emblem of British history than that of Medieval England’s monarchy and the Wars of the Roses? Though its historical figures and events have often been portrayed in television dramas, plays, and books, little is commonly known about the House of Plantagenets, who ruled from the 12th to the 15th century — an era packed with royal drama, intrigue, and internal division. For a witty, acerbic account of the whole ordeal, visit Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets . He approaches the subject with dazzling storytelling skills and charm that it will feel like you’re reading a novel, not a nonfiction book.
Enlightenment, empire, and revolution
You can’t make sense of the present without understanding the forces that got us here. The mechanized and globalized, mass-producing and mass-consuming world we live in today was forged in the fiery hearth of the Industrial Revolution, on the decks of ships setting out in search of uncharted territory, and in battles that were fought over supposedly ‘undiscovered’ lands. A lot changed for the common man in this period, and a lot has been written about it too — here are some of the best works.
24. The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective by Robert C. Allen
The Industrial Revolution is perhaps the most important phenomenon in modern history. It started in 18th-century Britain, where inventions like the mechanical loom and the steam engine were introduced, changing the nature of work and production. But why did this happen in Britain and not elsewhere in the world, and how precisely did it change things? These questions are answered lucidly in Robert C. Allen’s informative book. From the preconditions for growth to the industries and trades that grew out of them, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspectives has it all covered. Though it leans a bit on the academic side, it provides valuable knowledge that will vastly improve your understanding of today’s mass-producing, mass-consuming world.
25. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
For an overview of the history of the US, try this impressive treatise by historian and political scientist Howard Zinn. There’s a reason why this book is so often assigned as mandatory reading for high school and college history courses — it challenges readers to rethink what they’ve been told about America’s past. Rather than focusing on ‘great’ men and their achievements, A People’s History dives unflinchingly into the societal conditions and changes of the last few centuries. Exploring the motives behind events like the Civil War and US international interventions in the 20th century, Zinn shows that while patriotism and morality have often been used to justify America’s social movements and wars, it’s often been economic growth and wealth accumulation that truly drove leaders’ decisions.
26. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
At Wounded Knee Creek in 1890, the Lakota people confronted the encroaching US Army to protect their homeland and community. What followed was a massacre that for decades was viewed as a heroic victory — exemplifying how history is truly shaped by the victors, unless someone else speaks up. In 2010, Dee Brown did just this, exploring the colonialist treatment that Indigenous Americans suffered throughout the late 19th century in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Using council records and personal accounts from people of various Native American tribes, Brown demonstrates just how destructive the US administration was to these communities: in the name of Manifest Destiny and building new infrastructure, white settlers destroyed the culture and heritage of the Indigenous population. It’s something that's sadly still too familiar now, making this an even more pressing read.
27. Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi
While this isn’t strictly a history book, Four Hundred Souls is certainly an eye-opening volume if you’re looking to explore oft-hidden aspects of history. This collection of essays, personal reflections, and short stories is written by ninety different authors, all providing unique insights into the experiences of Black Americans throughout history. Editors Kendi and Blain do a brilliant job of amalgamating a variety of emotions and perspectives: from the pains of slavery and its legacy to the heartfelt poetry of younger generations. If you’re looking for your fix of African American Literature and nonfiction in one go, consider this your go-to.
Since its U.S. debut a quarter-century ago, this brilliant text has set a new standard for historical scholarship of Latin America. It is also an outstanding political economy, a social and cultural narrative of the highest quality, and perhaps the finest description of primitive capital accumulation since Marx.
Rather than chronology, geography, or political successions, Eduardo Galeano has organized the various facets of Latin American history according to the patterns of five centuries of exploitation. Thus he is concerned with gold and silver, cacao and cotton, rubber and coffee, fruit, hides and wool, petroleum, iron, nickel, manganese, copper, aluminum ore, nitrates, and tin. These are the veins which he traces through the body of the entire continent, up to the Rio Grande and throughout the Caribbean, and all the way to their open ends where they empty into the coffers of wealth in the United States and Europe.
Weaving fact and imagery into a rich tapestry, Galeano fuses scientific analysis with the passions of a plundered and suffering people. An immense gathering of materials is framed with a vigorous style that never falters in its command of themes. All readers interested in great historical, economic, political, and social writing will find a singular analytical achievement, and an overwhelming narrative that makes history speak, unforgettably.
This classic is now further honored by Isabel Allende’s inspiring introduction. Universally recognized as one of the most important writers of our time, Allende once again contributes her talents to literature, to political principles, and to enlightenment.
28. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano
The instabilities of Latin America over the last century have largely stemmed from its turbulent and violent past, its land and people having been exploited by European imperial powers, followed by American interventionism. In Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano passionately and compellingly recounts this history while also keeping it accessible to modern readers. Still on the fence? Let the foreword by Latinx literary giant Isabel Allende convince you: “Galeano denounces exploitation with uncompromising ferocity, yet this book is almost poetic in its description of solidarity and human capacity for survival in the midst of the worst kind of despoliation.”
29. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Illustrated by Olaudah Equiano
Though it was published in the late 18th century, this autobiography is still being reprinted today. It follows the life of Equiano, a slave who was kidnapped from his village in Nigeria and trafficked to Britain. In this foreign land, he was traded like merchandise time and again, struggling against adversity to find his freedom and define his identity. The accuracy of the story has been called into question, which is why reprinted editions have footnotes and additional details to better explain the social context of the situation. Regardless, the narrative style of the book makes it a hypnotizing read, immersing readers in the world of Georgian England and the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The World Wars
We thought the biggest events of the 20th century deserved their own section. The fact that so many people across the globe lived to experience these two momentous, destructive wars is perhaps why so much has been written about them — and how they reinvented life as we know it. The books below, covering a variety of perspectives, will intrigue, surprise, and hopefully teach you a thing or two.
30. Ten Days That Shook The World by John Reed
If you’re interested in firsthand accounts of people who've lived through historical moments, then this is the book for you. Published in 1919, Ten Days that Shook the World is the thrilling political memoir of someone who witnessed the October Revolution unfold in St Petersburg, Russia. Reed was a socialist and a newspaper correspondent who happened to be in close contact with the likes of Lenin and Trotsky, aka the innermost circle of the Bolsheviks. His account of the revolution thus provides a very unique perspective — one of both an insider and an outsider. While Reed couldn’t be as impartial as he intended as a journalist, this book is still a useful insight into one of the most important moments in modern history.
31. The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
If you’re a fan of history books, then you’ve probably heard of Barbara Tuchman: she was a historian and author who twice won the Pulitzer Prize, once for this very book. In The Guns of August , Tuchman uncovers the beginnings of World War I. She starts by examining the alliances and military plans that each country had in case of warfare, demonstrating how delicate this moment was before the declarations and the first battles on various fronts. The militaristic theme of the book could’ve made the tone dry, yet Tuchman lets the stories unravel in a way that intrigues and enthralls. As the granddaughter of the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Tuchman was in Constantinople as the war began, and as a result, her work takes on the gravity of someone who was in the thick of it.,
32. Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie
In the 1930s, when Hitler was making moves to acquire land from neighboring countries, the rest of the Allies pursued a policy they called appeasement. In the book of the same name (previously known as Appeasing Hitler ), the reasoning behind such a policy — despite the Nazis’ blatant antisemitism and aggressive nationalism — reveals how that led to World War II. Spoiler alert: ironically, this was all done with the assumption that if Hitler got what he wanted, there wouldn’t be another large-scale war that would last another four years. As informative as it is, Appeasement is also a valuable reminder that what happened in the past wasn’t a given — at that moment in time, things could have gone any number of ways. What matters, looking back, is what we can learn from it for the future.
33. Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid
From historical fiction novels like Atonement to the somber box office hit Dunkirk , our mainstream knowledge about the Second World War has predominantly featured the French Western Front. Possibly because American forces were much more involved in this side of the war, we tend to overlook the biggest battles, which took place in Eastern Europe.
In Leningrad , Anna Reid sheds a light on one of these epic battles. Breaking Hitler’s vow of non-aggression, German forces poured into the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1941, expecting a quick victory. Little did they know that Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) was not about to go down without a vicious fight. Over the next three years, this massive city was put under a siege that resulted in destruction, famine, and countless deaths, though the Germans were ultimately defeated. What was life like in this prolonged blockade, and was it truly a Soviet victory? You’ll have to read Leningrad to find out.
34. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower
As the only country to have been a victim of nuclear attacks, Japan’s postwar experience has arguably been one of the most unique and difficult of all the countries that took part in the world wars. Prior to and during WW2, Japan was a major power that had annexed much of East Asia by 1941. After the war, Japan was a defeated nation, strong-armed into surrendering by the Soviet army and two American atomic bombs.
Embracing Defeat is about a nation coming to terms with its new reality in the following years, during which the US-occupied Japan and was actively involved in its rebuilding. Shock, devastation, and humiliation were just a few of the emotions that society had to live through. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, MIT professor John Dower explores these sentiments and how they translated into social and cultural changes in Japan.
35. Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century by Konrad H. Jarausch
Over the course of the 20th century, Germany truly experienced all possible transformations. From a key European imperial power to an economically crippled state, to Nazism and the Holocaust, and then to Cold War partition — there’s certainly been no shortage of tumult in Germany over the past hundred years. Collecting stories from over 60 people who lived through these ups and downs, Konrad Jarausch presents a down-to-earth picture of what it was like to undergo these changes in everyday life. While we often see historical changes as a given in hindsight, for the people who lived through the period, these transformations were sometimes far from foreseeable — yet have been formative to their individual and collective identities.
It’s remarkable to consider what humanity has achieved in the last century alone, from the first manned flight to landing people on the moon. But that’s not all: world wars were fought, empires were toppled, living conditions improved for many across the world and human rights were advanced in ways many would not have been able to fathom even a few decades before. To absorb more of our “modern” history, peruse the books below.
36. Stalin's Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring by Andrew Lownie
If you’re a fan of thrilling spy novels , then Stalin’s Englishman is the history book for you: it’s the biography of Guy Burgess, an English-born Soviet spy from the 1930s onward. In a way, Burgess was made for the job — he was born into a wealthy family, attended prestigious schools like Eton and Cambridge, worked at the BBC and then for MI6, making him entirely beyond suspicion in the eyes of his own people. Though little is officially recorded about Burgess’s life, Andrew Lownie has compiled plenty of oral evidence related to this charming spy, weaving together an exciting narrative that will keep you turning the pages.
37. The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith
Since the end of World War II, Africa has seen several waves of independence movements. And while it was once a vision of hope, the effects of colonialism have frequently made post-independence life in Africa unstable and dangerous. Martin Meredith looks into the nuances of this legacy and how it has played out in the post-independence era. Rather than focusing on individual countries, Meredith widens his scope and presents a thorough overview of the continent, making this book an essential read for anyone new to modern African history.
38. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm is a well-known Marxist historian, and so it’s no surprise that his account of 20th-century history leans on the critical side. The Age of Extremes is all about failures: of communism, of state socialism, of market capitalism, and even of nationalism.
Dividing the century into three parts — the Age of Catastrophe, the Golden Age, and the Landslide — Hobsbawm tracks Western powers and their struggles with world wars, economic failures, and new world orders that involved them losing colonies and influence. In their place, new systems rose to prominence, though all exhibited fundamental faults that made it difficult for them to last. The Age of Extremes is not a jovial read, but it provides an interesting perspective on modern world history. If you’re up for some harsh social commentary, you should definitely pick this book up.
39. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Vietnam War, as it is commonly called in the US, still looms large in the American imagination. But while the trauma and camaraderie of American soldiers in the tropical jungles of Vietnam have often been often highlighted, shamefully little has been said about the sufferings of the Vietnamese people — both those who remained in Vietnam and those who eventually left as “boat people.”
The gap in mainstream memory of this heavily politicized war is what Viet Thanh Nguyen addresses in his thought-provoking nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies . Having lived through the tail end of that conflict himself, Nguyen offers a perspective that’s too often swept under the rug. Through his writing, he reminds readers that history as we know it is often selective and subjective; it’s more than what we choose to remember, it’s also about why we choose to remember the things we do, and how sinister political motives that can factor in.
40. Age Of Ambition : Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
History isn’t all about the distant past, and with such rapid changes over the last several decades, the contemporary history of China grows ever more fascinating by the year. Following economic reforms in the 1980s, China has grown exponentially and become one of the biggest economies in the world. But this opening up also meant that the Communist Party could no longer control the people’s discourses as effectively as before. In Age of Ambition , Evan Osnos draws on his firsthand observations as a journalist in China, talking about the recent transformation of Chinese people’s aspirations and plans to reach beyond the border of their country through their studies, their work, their consumption, and their communications.
41. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
If you think history can’t be gripping, then let Patrick Radden Keefe convince you otherwise: in this modern history book, he uses a murder investigation as a window into the bitter ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland. The book begins in 1972, in the middle of the Troubles — a 30-year conflict between the Catholic Irish, who wanted to leave the UK, and the Protestants who wanted to stay. A 38-year-old woman by the name of Jean McConville, married to a Catholic former soldier of the British Army, has disappeared. The suspects are members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), known to have executed people they believed were spying on them for the British. All deny the accusation, of course — some even going as far as to deny their involvement in the IRA altogether. Looking back at the incident and its suspects four decades later, Keefe highlights the atrocities that were committed by all parties during this period, and how they still resonate through NI today.
42. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
An esteemed researcher of African American literature and history, Hartman has produced a trove of work on the practices and legacies of slavery in the US. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is but one of the insightful titles she’s produced, discussing the lives of Black women in late 19th-century New York and Philadelphia. Looking at the concept and understanding of sexuality in these communities, Hartman found that despite the criminalization practiced by the state, there was space for women to own their sexuality and gender identity. It was a small space, and it would have slipped into oblivion if no one cared to explore the nuances of the urbanizing life of the 1890s — but this book ensures that they can never be left in the dust.
43. Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
This book, written to accompany the 4-episode docuseries of the same name, is a must-read for everyone interested in British history. The common understanding of this island nation’s history is usually related to its seaborne conquests and longstanding monarchies. But what of the servants and slaves, the people that actually did the work and fought the battles? What of the people who were moved here through colonial exchanges? Retracing British history with an eye upon the waves of immigration, Olusoga gives a comprehensive overview of the complexity of Black Britishness in the UK, a group whose stories are often obscured. He also shows that these people were and are integral to the nation’s development, and are thus not to be forgotten.
44. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
For those who enjoy storytelling, check out this thrilling novel-style history book on H. H. Holmes, the man considered to be one of the first modern serial killers. Holmes was only ever convicted for one murder but is thought to have had up to 27 victims, many lured to the World’s Fair Hotel that he owned. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is thus the immersive setting of The Devil in the White City , and is written from the point of view of the designers who contributed to the fair. It reads like suspense — think The Alienist — but it also informs on the excitement and uncertainty of the early stages of urbanization, coming together as a marvelous blend of mystery novel and true crime .
45. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger
In 1954, Guatemalan President Árbenz was overthrown. As with many Cold War-era coups in Asia and Latin America, the US was heavily involved in the plot. Even more absurdly, one of the main forces lobbying for this intervention was the United Fruit Company, which has been benefiting from labor exploitation in Guatemala. The result of this was the installation of an undemocratic and oppressive government, supremely heightened political unrest, and ultimately a prolonged civil war. Bitter Fruit dives into the rationales (or rather irrationalities) behind American involvement, highlighting the powerful paranoia that underlay many decisions throughout the Cold War.
Seeking more fodder for your non-fiction shelf? Why not check out the 60 best non-fiction books of the 21st century !
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The best history books
From churchill to the romans, our recommendations offer a tour of world history..
History books make up an important genre in non-fiction. They help us understand the past so we can build a better future. From the American Civil War and two World Wars, to the Cold War and the Vietnam War, there is a vast selection of titles about the conflicts that have shaped our world. History books also provide a deep insight into key historical figures, from Genghis Khan to Ulysses Grant and Winston Churchill. World history is vast, and these 30 books are the tip of the iceberg. Our list of the best history books includes bestsellers, Pulitzer Prize winners and editor's picks from distinguished historians and biographers.
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The Ten Best History Books of 2020
Our favorite titles of the year resurrect forgotten histories and help explain how the country got to where it is today
Associate Editor, History
In a year marked by a devastating pandemic, a vitriolic presidential race and an ongoing reckoning with systemic racism in the United States, these ten titles served a dual purpose. Some offered a respite from reality, transporting readers to such varied locales as Tudor England, colonial America and ancient Jerusalem; others reflected on the fraught nature of the current moment, detailing how the nation’s past informs its present and future. From an irreverent biography of George Washington to a sweeping overview of 20th-century American immigration , these were some of our favorite history books of 2020.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
In this “ Oprah’s Book Club” pick , Isabel Wilkerson presents a compelling argument for shifting the language used to describe how black Americans are treated by their country. As the Pulitzer Prize–winning author tells NPR , “racism” is an insufficient term for the country’s ingrained inequality. A more accurate characterization is “ caste system ”—a phrase that better encapsulates the hierarchical nature of American society.
Drawing parallels between the United States, India and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson identifies the “ eight pillars ” that uphold caste systems: Among others, the list includes divine will, heredity, dehumanization, terror-derived enforcement and occupational hierarchies. Dividing people into categories ensures that those in the middle rung have an “inferior” group to compare themselves to, the author writes, and maintains a status quo with tangible ramifications for public health, culture and politics. “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Wilkerson explains. “It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”
The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster that Launched the War on Cancer
When the Nazis bombed Bari, a Mediterranean port city central to the Allied war effort, on December 2, 1943, hundreds of sailors sustained horrific injuries. Within days of the attack, writes Jennet Conant in The Great Secret , the wounded started exhibiting unexpected symptoms , including blisters “as big as balloons and heavy with fluid,” in the words of British nurse Gwladys Rees, and intense eye pain. “We began to realize that most of our patients had been contaminated by something beyond all imagination,” Rees later recalled.
American medical officer Stewart Francis Alexander, who’d been called in to investigate the mysterious maladies, soon realized that the sailors had been exposed to mustard gas. Allied leaders were quick to place the blame on the Germans, but Alexander found concrete evidence sourcing the contamination to an Allied shipment of mustard gas struck during the bombing. Though the military covered up its role in the disaster for decades, the attack had at least one positive outcome: While treating patients, Alexander learned that mustard gas rapidly destroyed victims’ blood cells and lymph nodes—a phenomenon with wide-ranging ramifications for cancer treatment. The first chemotherapy based on nitrogen mustard was approved in 1949, and several drugs based on Alexander’s research remain in use today.
Read an excerpt from The Great Secret that ran in the September 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazine .
Uncrowned Queen: The Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors
Though she never officially held the title of queen, Margaret Beaufort , Countess of Richmond, fulfilled the role in all but name, orchestrating the Tudor family’s rise to power and overseeing the machinations of government upon her son Henry VII ’s ascension. In Uncrowned Queen , Nicola Tallis charts the complex web of operations behind Margaret’s unlikely victory, detailing her role in the Wars of the Roses —a dynastic clash between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal Plantagenet family—and efforts to win Henry, then in exile as one of the last Lancastrian heirs, the throne. Ultimately, Margaret emerges as a more well-rounded figure, highly ambitious and determined but not, as she’s commonly characterized, to the point of being a power-hungry religious zealot.
You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington
Accounts of George Washington’s life tend to lionize the Founding Father, depicting him as a “marble Adonis … rather than as a flawed, but still impressive, human being,” according to Karin Wulf of Smithsonian magazine . You Never Forget Your First adopts a different approach: As historian Alexis Coe told Wulf earlier this year, “I don’t feel a need to protect Washington; he doesn’t need me to come to his defense, and I don’t think he needed his past biographers to, either, but they’re so worried about him. I’m not worried about him. He’s everywhere. He’s just fine.” Treating the first president’s masculinity as a “foregone conclusion,” Coe explores lesser-known aspects of Washington’s life, from his interest in animal husbandry to his role as a father figure . Her pithy, 304-page biography also interrogates Washington’s status as a slaveholder, pointing out that his much-publicized efforts to pave the way for emancipation were “mostly legacy building,” not the result of strongly held convictions.
Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife
Nine years after Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularized the theory that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, Harvard historian Karen L. King announced the discovery of a 1,600-year-old papyrus that seemingly supported the novel’s much-maligned premise. The 2012 find was an instant sensation, dividing scholars, the press and the public into camps of non-believers who dismissed it as a forgery and defenders who interpreted it as a refutation of longstanding ideals of Christian celibacy. For a time, the debate appeared to be at an impasse. Then, journalist Ariel Sabar —who’d previously reported on the fragment for Smithsonian —published a piece in the Atlantic that called the authenticity of King’s “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” into question. Shortly after, King publicly stated that the papyrus was probably a forgery .
Veritas presents the full story of Sabar’s seven-year investigation for the first time, drawing on more than 450 interviews, thousands of documents, and trips around the world to reveal the fascinating figures behind the forgery: an amateur Egyptologist–turned–pornographer and a scholar whose “ideological commitments” guided her practice of history. Ultimately, Sabar concludes, King viewed the papyrus “as a fiction that advanced a truth”: namely, that women and sexuality played a larger role in early Christianity than previously acknowledged.
The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President's Black Family
Bettye Kearse ’s mother had long viewed her family’s ties to President James Madison as a point of pride. “Always remember—you’re a Madison,” she told her daughter. “You come from African slaves and a president.” (According to family tradition, as passed down by generations of griot oral historians, Madison raped his enslaved half-sister, Coreen, who gave birth to a son—Kearse’s great-great-great-grandfather—around 1792.) Kearse, however, was unable to separate her DNA from the “humiliation, uncertainty, and physical and emotional harm” experienced by her enslaved ancestor.
To come to terms with this violent past, the retired pediatrician spent 30 years investigating both her own family history and that of other enslaved and free African Americans whose voices have been silenced over the centuries. Though Kearse lacks conclusive DNA or documentary evidence proving her links to Madison, she hasn’t let this upend her sense of identity. “The problem is not DNA,” the author writes on her website . “... [T]he problem is the Constitution,” which “set the precedent for the exclusion of [enslaved individuals] from historical records.”
The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West
While Union forces fought to end slavery in the American South, a smaller cadre of soldiers waged war in the West, battling pro-secessionist troops for control of the resource-rich Arizona and New Mexico Territories . The campaign essentially ended in late 1862, when the U.S. Army pushed Confederate forces back into Texas, but as Megan Kate Nelson writes in The Three-Cornered War , another battle—this time, between the United States and the region’s Apache and Navajo communities—was just beginning. Told through the lens of nine key players, including Apache leader Mangas Coloradas, Texas legislator John R. Baylor and Navajo weaver Juanita, Nelson’s account underscores the brutal nature of westward expansion, from the U.S. Army’s scorched-earth strategy to its unsavory treatment of defeated soldiers . Per Publishers Weekly , Nelson deftly argues that the United States’ priorities were twofold, including “both the emancipation of [slavery] and the elimination of indigenous tribes.”
One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965
In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act , a eugenics-inspired measure that drastically limited immigration into the U.S. Controversial from its inception, the law favored immigrants from northern and Western Europe while essentially cutting off all immigration from Asia. Decisive legislation reversing the act only arrived in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson (no relation), capitalizing on a brief moment of national unity sparked by predecessor John F. Kennedy’s assassination, signed the Hart-Celler Act —a measure that eliminated quotas and prioritized family unification—into law.
Jia Lynn Yang ’s One Mighty and Irresistible Tide artfully examines the impact of decades of xenophobic policy, spotlighting the politicians who celebrated America’s status as a nation of immigrants and fought for a more open and inclusive immigration policy. As Yang, a deputy national editor at the New York Times , told Smithsonian ’s Anna Diamond earlier this year, “The really interesting political turn in the '50s is to bring immigrants into this idea of American nationalism. It’s not that immigrants make America less special. It’s that immigrants are what make America special.”
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
When Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Les Payne died of a heart attack in 2018, his daughter, Tamara, stepped in to complete his unfinished biography of civil rights leader Malcolm X. Upon its release two years later, the 500-page tome garnered an array of accolades, including a spot on the 2020 National Book Awards shortlist. Based on 28 years of research, including hundreds of interviews with Malcolm’s friends, family acquaintances, allies and enemies, The Dead Are Arising reflects the elder Payne’s dedication to tirelessly teasing out the truth behind what he described as the much-mythologized figure’s journey “from street criminal to devoted moralist and revolutionary.” The result, writes Publishers Weekly in its review, is a “richly detailed account” that paints “an extraordinary and essential portrait of the man behind the icon.”
The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom
In this dual biography, H.W. Brands seeks to address an age-old question : “What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil?” Drawing on two prominent figures in Civil War history as case studies, the historian outlines differing approaches to the abolition of slavery, juxtaposing John Brown’s “violent extremism” with Abraham Lincoln’s “coolheaded incrementalism,” as Alexis Coe writes in the Washington Post ’s review of The Zealot and the Emancipator . Ultimately, Brands tells NPR , lasting change requires both “the conscience of people like John Brown” (ideally with an understanding that one can take these convictions too far) and “the pragmatism and the steady hand of the politician—the pragmatists like Lincoln.”
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Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history.
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The Best History Books of All Time
Discover real-life stories that are perfect for history buffs from the reign of queen elizabeth i to the cold war, there’s something for everyone on this list..
Four Hundred Souls
By ibram x. kendi and keisha n. blain, paperback $20.00, buy from other retailers:.
The Forgotten 500
By gregory a. freeman, paperback $17.00.
By juan villoro, hardcover $32.50.
The Spy and the Traitor
By ben macintyre, paperback $18.00.
Against All Odds
By alex kershaw, large print $32.00.
Empress Dowager Cixi
By jung chang, paperback $23.00.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
By david treuer.
The Splendid and the Vile
By erik larson.
Twilight of Democracy
By anne applebaum, paperback $16.00.
A Little Devil in America
By hanif abdurraqib.
By harriet a. washington.
The Warmth of Other Suns
By isabel wilkerson.
The Power Broker
By robert a. caro, paperback $27.00.
Unbroken (Movie Tie-in Edition)
By laura hillenbrand, paperback $19.00.
A Woman of No Importance
By sonia purnell.
by Adam Makos
Dreams in a Time of War
By ngugi wa thiong'o.
The Devil in the White City
Killers of the Flower Moon (Movie Tie-in Edition)
By david grann.
By chester nez and judith schiess avila.
The Life of Elizabeth I
By alison weir.
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The Best Historical Fiction of 2021
The year’s most transporting novels have taken us to the past and around the globe.
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By Alida Becker
- Dec. 9, 2021
This has been a great year for historical fiction, which makes choosing a list of the 10 best even harder than usual. What to do? Opt for some personal favorites, arrange them alphabetically and wish the list were twice as long.
THE ART OF LOSING , by Alice Zeniter. Translated by Frank Wynne. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 448 pp., $28.) In this prizewinning French novel, a young Parisian attempts to reconnect with the Algeria that shaped and silenced her paternal grandfather.
CATHEDRAL , by Ben Hopkins. (Europa, 624 pp., $28.) A nimble mesh of intersecting plots that rest on the slow but not so steady, generations-long construction of an enormous church in medieval Alsace.
LIBERTIE , by Kaitlyn Greenidge. (Algonquin, 366 pp., $26.95.) In Reconstruction-era New York, the daughter of a Black female doctor struggles to reconcile her own independence with her mother’s deeply felt vocation, traveling all the way to Haiti before coming to a difficult resolution.
THE MAGICIAN , by Colm Toibin. (Scribner, 512 pp., $28.) A masterly evocation of the life and times of the great German writer Thomas Mann, showcasing his relations with his contentious family and his intensely private sexual yearnings.
MATRIX , by Lauren Groff. (Riverhead, 272 pp., $28.) In this novel inspired by the 12th-century poet Marie de France, an impoverished English nunnery is the setting for a stirring exploration of the many forms of devotion.
NORA , by Nuala O’Connor. (Harper Perennial, 496 pp., paper, $16.99.) A lively fictional rendition of Nora Barnacle, the minimally educated, blue-collar woman who propped up one of literature’s most challenging highbrow writers, James Joyce.
THE PROPHETS , by Robert Jones Jr. (Putnam, 396 pp., $27.) The emotional wounds of the inhabitants of a plantation in antebellum Mississippi are laid bare in a swirl of fiercely poetic prose, impelled by the dangerous bond shared by two enslaved men.
SEND FOR ME , by Lauren Fox. (Vintage, 272 pp., paper, $16.95.) A trove of letters discovered in the American Midwest reveals the agonizing experiences of a German Jewish family separated by the steady rise of Nazism.
THE SINGING FOREST , by Judith McCormack. (Biblioasis, 302 pp., paper, $16.95.) A young lawyer in present-day Toronto grapples with the moral reckoning of war crimes as she probes a mass murder committed by Stalin’s security police in 1930s Belarus.
TENDERNESS, by Alison MacLeod. (Bloomsbury, 640 pp., $29.) This ambitious blend of research, guesswork and fabrication is centered on the creation and reception of D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.
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The best history books to transport yourself to the past
Check out these insightful history books.
Looking for a way to pass time and escape from the present? Diving deep into the pages of books about the past is a great way to go about it. History is messy stuff , but much of it is, in fact, not ugly and not all that hard to process. The more you know about it, the more the messes make sense, both in a historical and modern context. Here are some of the best history books that give you brilliant knowledge in enjoyable prose.
While best is an easy word to throw around, it's harder to pin down. In the case of the best history books ever written, best is a highly subjective distinction that depends on your perspective. What is considered the best by someone born in raised in Los Angeles, for example, is likely very different from someone raised in Tokyo. It is, however, fairly easy to determine the greats that should be included in any true history buff's reading list.
What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr
An outlier on this list in that it doesn't look at any specific period or event in history, Carr's book is nevertheless essential reading in that it teaches you how to read and understand history. Initially criticized for its "dangerous relativism," the book is now considered foundational to the field thanks to its explanation of how perspective and bias can affect the way we interpret historical events. This should arguably be your first book if you're making your initial forays into history.
1491 by Charles C. Mann
As we all know from the schoolroom rhyme, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Then he "discovered" the Americas. This, of course, is an accurate depiction of history only if you're willing to ignore the millions of people who were already living in complex societies when he got there. In this book, Mann not only dispels the myth of Columbus's discovery, but details the various civilizations residing in North, Central, and South America, explaining their customs and cultures, providing a glimpse into a lost way of life, and reminding us that -- for better or worse -- history tends to be told by the victors rather than the vanquished.
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Precolonial Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop
When it comes to the history of Africa, the vast majority of "western" readers receive information solely from "western" historians. Accordingly, they end up with a very one-sided look at the continent's past. Here, the renowned Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop takes readers into the histories of many overlooked African civilizations, illuminating not only their histories, but how they played a key role in the development of the world as we know it today.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
Few events have changed the course of world history as distinctly as World War I, and few people have a clear idea of why and how the war got started in the first place. If World War II had obvious enemies and causes, the origins of the so-called "war to end all wars" were much more obscure. Here, Tuchman looks at the month leading up to the tragic conflict, unraveling its numerous strands and relating the day-to-day developments with clarity and intensity, unlike any book that proceeds it.
Parallel Lives by Plutarch
Now we're getting deep into the classics. Written by the great Greek philosopher and historical Plutarch sometime in first half of the second century AD, Parallel Lives (also often known just as Lives) is made up of 23 side-by-side biographies comparing the lives of historic Greek and Roman figures who lived out similar destinies. Athens founder Theseus, for example, is paralleled with Rome's founder Romulus. In another chapter, Alexander the Great is posed against Julius Caesar. Considered one of the earliest works of history as we understand it, it's essential reading for any student of the Antiquities.
The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor
While Beevor is known for having written several of the greatest books on World War II, this book stands out in that it is often considered the most comprehensive look at the test-run war that led directly up to it, the Spanish Civil War. With its in-depth exploration of the many factions, detailed maps of engagements, and explanation of foreign support from future enemies like Germany and Russia who were using the conflict as a proxy skirmish, the book provides a fascinating look at the war that bled directly into WWII.
Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice P. Nimura
In the 1870s, five girls from Japan visited the United States with the intention of learning something of western culture and then to bring it back to their native country. They spent roughly a decade in the U.S., then returned home with new ideas about women's education and their place in society. Nimura's book is a powerful read for anyone looking to understand the development of women's rights and the formation of early global bonds.
The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge
Almost universally heralded as the most expansive examination of the series of conflicts that plagued the Levant and Mediterranean over the course of the Middle Ages, here Asbridge looks not only at the Crusades themselves but how they have impacted the world that followed. This isn't just a great read for anyone seeking a detailed understanding of the topic in question, but who wants an engaging, sometimes outright thrilling narrative.
This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan
The newest book to appear on our list, here we look not at an event or period but at specific plants and how they've impacted our society. While Pollan has looked at a variety of plants before, here he zooms in on coffee and tea, opium poppies, and mescaline cacti, examining the histories of the plants and their effects on our bodies, minds, and society.
The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
Written some 2,500 years ago, this is a detailed -- emphasis on detailed -- dive into the great war between Sparta and Athens. It's an insanely dense book that no one expects you to read, but if you do you will be part of a select group of exceedingly patient history buffs. This is the Mount Everest of history books. Suffice to say that it's an impressive addition to your bookshelves.
The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer
Publisher's Weekly said Susan Wise Bauer's book The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome "guides readers on a fast-paced yet thorough tour of the ancient worlds of Sumer, Egypt, India, China, Greece, Mesopotamia, and Rome." I'd call that a fine summation. When you close this sweeping, nearly 900-page tome, you won't know the blow-by-blow of the Battle of Thermopylae or the intimate details of the plot leading up to Caesar's assassination, but you will have a keen sense of how each early civilization developed, grew, and ultimately fell (or at least changed or merged with another) in addition to how they impacted one another. If you have forgotten the bulk of your ninth-grade ancient history class (I haven't, by the way, Mr. Farquahar!), then this book is a good place to start your re-education.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies isn't the history of one particular place, people, or period, it is an examination of what happened to a range of peoples in a host of places and times based on agriculture, disease, and other factors, like luck. History happened the way it happened not because one group of people was innately better than any other, but simply because some folks first developed better weapons or learned how to grow more food than the next culture over. But for slight changes, it all could have been different. (Not necessarily better, mind you, just different.)
1776 by David McCullough
Ah, David McCullough, dropping knowledge on us for decades. As usual with his books, 1776 unpacks just about everything you need to know about its subject -- in this case, we're talking about the formation of the United States of America, a nation forged in the fires of war but crafted by ideals. In these pages, George Washington is no mythic figure, he is flesh and blood, but no less impressive for it. And British commander Sir William Howe is no villain, either, but a formidable and worthy adversary. McCullough's writing is authoritative yet readable.
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
It's important that you note the subtitle of James McPherson's book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. For while this celebrated tome covers all the major battles and features all the major officers on both sides of the war, it also spreads wider, looking at the politics of the war years, the events that preceded the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, and the ramifications of America's deadliest conflict. This is one of the best single-volume histories ever written about the Civil War and might be one of the best single-volume histories on any topic of so large a scale.
The Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson
Rick Atkinson didn't write the book about World War II, he wrote the books. His three-volume series, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, The Day of the Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, and The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, is about the best resource you could ask for when it comes to a comprehensive telling of America's role in the entirety of the Western Theater of WWII. In reading the books , it's shocking to learn at first how ill-prepared America was for war and amazing just how good we got at waging it in less than half a decade. Through the course of the books , you follow generals and GIs as, slowly but steadily, the tide turns from a harrowing defensive fight against Axis forces to a certain and total victory.
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Whether it is your dad, grandpa, a brother, a cousin, or a paternal or father figure, Father's Day is the time to celebrate the special men in your life. Regardless of whatever you call him, he's the man who helped you become the individual you are today. Outside of working his tail off and making sure he's turned off every unused light in the house, he's still just a man who has interests and hobbies. Some dads go fishing to blow off steam, while others collect vinyl records.
This Father's Day, don't just get your dad a gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse; put some thought behind it. Hopefully, within this list of the 23 best Father's Day gifts, you'll see something that your dad will love. Here are some of our favorite Father's Day gifts for 2023.
War movies are among the most morally sticky films produced in Hollywood. While the best war movies go out of their way to reveal the violence and bloodshed that comes with any armed conflict, many can't help but valorize the men and women who fight in these wars. As a result, many movies about war end up glorifying war even if the creative voices behind the project didn't intend them to. In the best war movies, though, moral questions are never easily answered. Well, unless your war movie is a Star Wars movie. If you want black-and-white morality, this list of the best action movies on Netflix may better fit the bill.
War movies, on the other hand, often speak to the way that violence breaks men, even if they believe in their cause. These war movies will shake you to your core, and remind you that humanity is capable of being messy and violent just as frequently as it is brave and valorous.
There are things that society deems as a man's needs. Fast cars, big cigars, and shiny toys — these are what a man needs, right? Wrong. What a man genuinely needs are things that will improve his everyday life. From using them and getting the job done to simply enjoying them on an aesthetic level, these things are meant to make life easier, not more complex.
These items most probably require trial and error, so we went ahead and gathered some of the most trusted products in each category. Here are 26 things every man should own in 2023.
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The Best Historical Fiction Writers of All Time
Best historical novelists in the world manage to combine a vast knowledge of history with compelling storylines, taking the reader on a journey through time. Putting together a comprehensive list of historical writers is a daunting task, primarily because actual 'historical novels' can include historical fiction, fantasy, romance, and alternate history novels. I've listed what I believe are some of the greatest historical novel writers of all-time here, but I'm sure I've left off far too many. I'm counting on the community of historical novel fans, here. Vote for your favorites (or vote down your least favorites) and, if you know of an historical novelists that isn't on the list, add it!
I've tried to incorporate a wide variety of the best historical novelists on this list: Those authors whose works were penned hundreds of years ago, and more modern writers as well. From the brilliance of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens to the great modern historical writers like Ken Follett, I've listed as many big names as I can. These authors have written some of the best historical fiction books of all time. Some of the authors on this list are winners of, or nominees for, the prestigious Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, including David Mitchell ('A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet') and Robert Harris ('Fatherland,' 'Enigma,' 'Lustrum'). The 'Blue Ribbon' award is given to authors who first publish in either the UK or Ireland.
Who are the best historical novelists of all time? Take a look at this history authors list and see for yourself.
Robert Louis Stevenson
C. S. Forester
James A. Michener
Phillippa gregory, edward rutherfurd.
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History for Everyone
The 20 Best Books About American History
The books on this list are considered some of the most essential and best books on American history.
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1. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
“Known for its lively, clear prose as well as its scholarly research, it is the only volume to tell America’s story from the point of view of—and in the words of—America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.”
2. 1776 by David McCullough
“It is the story of Americans in the ranks, men of every shape, size, and color, farmers, schoolteachers, shoemakers, no-accounts, and mere boys turned soldiers. And it is the story of the King’s men, the British commander, William Howe, and his highly disciplined redcoats who looked on their rebel foes with contempt and fought with a valor too little known.”
3. Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne
“The war with the Comanches lasted four decades, in effect holding up the development of the new American nation. Gwynne’s exhilarating account delivers a sweeping narrative that encompasses Spanish colonialism, the Civil War, the destruction of the buffalo herds, and the arrival of the railroads, and the amazing story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son Quanah—a historical feast for anyone interested in how the United States came into being.”
4. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis
“Ellis argues that the checks and balances that permitted the infant American republic to endure were not primarily legal, constitutional, or institutional, but intensely personal, rooted in the dynamic interaction of leaders with quite different visions and values. Revisiting the old-fashioned idea that character matters, Founding Brothers informs our understanding of American politics–then and now–and gives us a new perspective on the unpredictable forces that shape history.”
5. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
“We view the long, horrifying struggle from the vantage of the White House as Lincoln copes with incompetent generals, hostile congressmen, and his raucous cabinet. He overcomes these obstacles by winning the respect of his former competitors, and in the case of Seward, finds a loyal and crucial friend to see him through. This brilliant multiple biography is centered on Lincoln’s mastery of men and how it shaped the most significant presidency in the nation’s history.”
6. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin
“With an extraordinary collection of details, Goodwin masterfully weaves together a striking number of story lines—Eleanor and Franklin’s marriage and remarkable partnership, Eleanor’s life as First Lady, and FDR’s White House and its impact on America as well as on a world at war. Goodwin effectively melds these details and stories into an unforgettable and intimate portrait of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and of the time during which a new, modern America was born.”
7. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
“In this deeply researched and fast-moving narrative, Kendi chronicles the entire story of anti-Black racist ideas and their staggering power over the course of American history. Stamped from the Beginning uses the life stories of five major American intellectuals to offer a window into the contentious debates between assimilationists and segregationists and between racists and antiracists.”
8. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
“In this beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America.”
9. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
“Particularly notable are McPherson’s new views on such matters as the slavery expansion issue in the 1850s, the origins of the Republican Party, the causes of secession, internal dissent and anti-war opposition in the North and the South, and the reasons for the Union’s victory.”
10. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
“Using council records, autobiographies, and firsthand descriptions, Brown introduces readers to great chiefs and warriors of the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes, revealing in heart wrenching detail the battles, massacres, and broken treaties that methodically stripped them of freedom. A forceful narrative still discussed today as revelatory and controversial, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee permanently altered our understanding of how the American West came to be defined.
11. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin
“The story is told through the intense friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft—a close relationship that strengthens both men before it ruptures in 1912, when they engage in a brutal fight for the presidential nomination that divides their wives, their children, and their closest friends, while crippling the progressive wing of the Republican Party, causing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected, and changing the country’s history.”
12. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
“In this, the first and most frequently read of his three autobiographies, Douglass provides graphic descriptions of his childhood and horrifying experiences as a slave as well as a harrowing record of his dramatic escape to the North and eventual freedom. Published in 1845 to quell doubts about his origins — since few slaves of that period could write — the Narrative is admired today for its extraordinary passion, sensitive and vivid descriptions and storytelling power.
13. The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
“In this landmark, Pulitzer Prize–winning account, renowned historian Barbara W. Tuchman re-creates the first month of World War I: thirty days in the summer of 1914 that determined the course of the conflict, the century, and ultimately our present world. Beginning with the funeral of Edward VII, Tuchman traces each step that led to the inevitable clash. And inevitable it was, with all sides plotting their war for a generation.”
14. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
“Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering.”
15. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose
“Ambrose has pieced together previously unknown information about weather, terrain, and medical knowledge at the time to provide a vivid backdrop for the expedition. Lewis is supported by a rich variety of colorful characters, first of all Jefferson himself, whose interest in exploring and acquiring the American West went back thirty years. Next comes Clark, a rugged frontiersman whose love for Lewis matched Jefferson’s.”
16. John Adams by David McCullough
“This is history on a grand scale—a book about politics and war and social issues, but also about human nature, love, religious faith, virtue, ambition, friendship, and betrayal, and the far-reaching consequences of noble ideas. Above all, John Adams is an enthralling, often surprising story of one of the most important and fascinating Americans who ever lived.”
17. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
“James Abram Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, a renowned congressman, and a reluctant presidential candidate who took on the nation’s corrupt political establishment.”
18. Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides
“At the center of this sweeping tale is Kit Carson, the trapper, scout, and soldier whose adventures made him a legend. Sides shows us how this illiterate mountain man understood and respected the Western tribes better than any other American, yet willingly followed orders that would ultimately devastate the Navajo nation. Rich in detail and spanning more than three decades, this is an essential addition to our understanding of how the West was really won.”
19. Truman by David McCullough
“The last president to serve as a living link between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, Truman’s story spans the raw world of the Missouri frontier, World War I, the powerful Pendergast machine of Kansas City, the legendary Whistle-Stop Campaign of 1948, and the decisions to drop the atomic bomb, confront Stalin at Potsdam, send troops to Korea, and fire General MacArthur.”
20. Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War by Nathaniel Philbrick
“As Philbrick reveals in this electrifying history of the Pilgrims, the story of Plymouth Colony was a fifty-five year epic that began in peril and ended in war. New England erupted into a bloody conflict that nearly wiped out the English colonists and natives alike. These events shaped the existing communities and the country that would grow from them.”
For the best books in WWII History see our list here .
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50 Of The Best Historical Fiction Authors Writing Today
Ann can often be found walking very slowly through the aisles of bookstores, making sure that nothing new has come out she doesn’t know about yet, and then eagerly telling people about them. She writes about women from history at annfosterwriter.com , and about books, film, TV, and feminism at various other sites. She prefers her books to include at least three excellent plot twists, which is why she usually reads the end first. Twitter: @annfosterwriter
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The magical thing about historical fiction is the way it truly makes you feel like you’re experiencing life in another era. The best historical fiction authors are able to combine fictional characters with real settings and events in a way that makes it all feel visceral and current.
What do we mean by best historical fiction authors?
With countless amazing writers working in this genre, we went with the following criteria for our list:
Here are our picks for 50 of the best historical fiction authors writing today, in alphabetical order.
Kate Alcott is the literary pseudonym for journalist Patricia O’Brien. Her historical novels include The Dressmaker , The Daring Ladies of Lowell , and A Touch of Stardust .
Jean M. Auel
Jean M. Auel is an American writer best known for her novels about people living in prehistoric eras. Her works include The Clan of the Cave Bear , The Mammoth Hunters , and The Land of Painted Caves .
Sebastian Barry is an Irish playwright and novelist. His historical novels include Annie Dunne , A Long Long Way , and Days Without End .
Marie Benedict is an American author of historical fiction. Her notable works include The Other Einstein , Carnegie’s Maid , and The Only Woman in the Room .
Melanie Benjamin a pseudonym for the writer Melanie Hauser. Her historical novels include Alice I Have Been , The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and The Aviator’s Wife .
Jessica Brockmole is the American author of historical novels including Letters from Skye , At the Edge of Summer , and Woman Enters Left.
Geraldine Brooks is an Australian American journalist and novelist. Her historical fiction includes March , The People of the Book , and The Secret Chord .
Elizabeth Chadwick is a British author of historical novels, including The Scarlet Lion , The Summer Queen , and The Winter Crown .
Tracy Chevalier is an American-British historical novelist. Her historical novels include Girl With A Pearl Earring , At the Edge of the Orchard , and New Boy .
Bernard Cornwell is the English author best known for his novels about Richard Sharpe, beginning with Sharpe’s Rifles . Two of his other series are The Warlord Chronicles and The Saxon Chronicle Stories .
Emma Donoghue is an Irish Canadian author. Her works of historical fiction include The Wonder and Slammerkin .
Sarah Dunant is a British author whose works of historical fiction include The Birth of Venus , In the Company of the Courtesan , and Sacred Hearts .
Esi Edugyan is the Canadian author of historical novels including The Second Life of Samuel Tyne , Half Blood Blues , and Washington Black .
Ken Follett is a British author of historical fiction including Fall of Giants , Winter of the World , and World Without End .
Margaret George is an American author of historical novels including Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles , The Memoirs of Cleopatra , and Elizabeth I.
Philippa Gregory is a British historian and author. Her works of historical fiction include The Other Boleyn Girl , The White Queen , and The Constant Princess .
Sara Gruen is a Canadian-American writer of historical fiction including Water for Elephants , At the Water’s Edge and Ape House .
Sandra Gulland is an American-born Canadian writer of historical novels including The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. , Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe and The Shadow Queen .
Conn Iggulden is a British author of non-fiction and historical fiction. His historical fiction debut was The Gates of Rome , the first in what would become his five-part Emperor series about the life of Julius Caesar.
Jeanne Kalogridis is an American author of historical novels including The Borgia Bride , The Devil’s Queen: A Novel of Catherine de’Medici , and The Orphan of Florence .
Susanna Kearsley is a Canadian author and former museum curator, whose historical novels include The Winter Sea , A Desperate Fortune , and Bellewether .
Barbara Kingsolver is an American author of historical novels including The Bean Trees , The Poisonwood Bible , The Lacuna , and Unsheltered .
Hilary Mantel is an English writer whose historical novels include Wolf Hall , Bring Up the Bodies , and A Place of Greater Safety.
Ami McKay is a Canadian author of historical fiction including The Birth House , The Virgin Cure , and The Witches of New York .
Paula McLain is an American author of historical fiction including The Paris Wife , Love and Ruin , and Circling the Sun .
Rohinton Mistry is an Indian-born Canadian author of historical novels including Such A Long Journey and A Fine Balance .
Toni Morrison is an American writer and icon, whose novels of historical fiction include The Bluest Eye , Beloved , Jazz , Paradise , and A Mercy .
Michael Ondaatje is a Sri Lanka–born Canadian writer whose historical novels include In the Skin of a Lion , The English Patient , Anil’s Ghost , and Warlight .
Kate Quinn is an American author whose works of historical fiction include The Alice Network , Mistress of Rome and The Serpent and the Pearl .
Edward Rutherfurd is a pen name for the English author Francis Edward Wintle. As Rutherford, his works of historical fiction include London: The Novel , New York: The Novel , and Paris: The Novel .
Lisa See is an American author whose historical novels include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan , Shanghai Girls , and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane .
Eve Stachniak is a Polish-Canadian author whose works of historical fiction include The Chosen Maiden , The Winter Palace , and Empress of the Night .
Indu Sundaresan is an Indian American writer whose works of historical fiction include The Twentieth Wife , The Feast of Roses , and Shadow Princess .
Lalita Tademy is an American author, whose historical novels include Cane River , Red River and Citizens Creek .
Colm Tóibín is an Irish writer whose historical novels include Brooklyn , and The Testament of Mary .
Amor Towles is an American writer of historical fiction including Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow .
Guy Vanderhaeghe is a Canadian writer whose historical novels include The Englishman’s Boy , The Last Crossing , and A Good Man .
Sarah Waters is a Welsh writer whose historical novels include Fingersmith , Tipping the Velvet , and The Paying Guests .
Alison Weir is a British historian and novelist whose historical novels include Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey , The Marriage Game: A Novel of Elizabeth I , and Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession .
Beatriz Williams is an American writer whose historical novels include Along the Infinite Sea , A Certain Age , and The Summer Wives .
Kate Williams is a British historian and author, whose works of historical fiction include The Storms of War and The Edge of the Fall .
bonus! best Historical Fiction Authors: emerging
We can’t wait to see what these rising stars of historical fiction will write next!
LaShonda Katrice Barnett, author of Jam on the Vine
Tracy Borman, author of The King’s Witch
Yangsze Choo, author of The Ghost Bride
Tara Conklin, author of The House Girl
E.C. Fremantle, author of The Poison Bed
Vivien Shotwell, author of Vienna Nocturne
Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing
Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko
Kate Worsley, author of She Rises
Can’t get enough historical fiction? We’re here to help! Check out our top 50 historical fiction books that everyone should read.
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Best Historical Fiction Authors: 10 Writers You Must Read
Are you interested in the best historical fiction authors of all time? There are plenty of amazing historical novel examples from which to choose.
If you are looking for the best historical fiction books, there are plenty of options. Some books take place in London while others may take place in New York or Paris. Whether drawing from the United States, England, Europe or the wider world, expect to find best sellers from the 18th century, 19th century and 20th century.
1. Ken Follet, 1949
2. hilary mantel, 1952-2022, 3. geraldine brooks, 1955, 4. diana gabaldon, 1952, 5. philippa gregory, 1954, 6. sarah waters, 1966, 7. colson whitehead, 1969, 8. bernard cornwell, 1944, 9. alison weir, 1951, 10. georgette heyer, 1902-1974, 11. sharon kay penman, 1945-2021, final word on the best historical fiction authors, faqs about the best historical fiction authors, best authors reading list.
Ken Follet is one of the greatest historical fiction writers of all time. He has sold more than 160 million copies of his works, and many of them have found their way onto lists of the best historical fiction works of all time. A few of his books have even found their way to the number one position on the New York Times Bestseller List, with many of them being thrillers.
He was born in 1949 in Wales, located in the United Kingdom. He was not allowed to watch television as a child, so he started reading. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to London. He attended University College London, studying philosophy. He initially had a job as a reporter for the evening news before he left journalism and became a writer.
Some of his most popular works include Eye of the Needle , The Key To Rebecca , World Without End , and Whiteout . For more, check out our guide to the best Ken Follett books .
Hilary Mantel was a British writer who is best known for writing great historical fiction. She grew up in Derbyshire and attended the University of Sheffield, graduating in 1973. She published her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day , in 1985. She published the sequel a year later. In 1989, she achieved commercial success with Fludd. It’s set in 1956 and focuses on the Roman Catholic Church.
Mantel is best known for the Wolf Hall series, which focuses on the rise of Thomas Cromwell during the Middle Ages in the court of Henry VIII. She won the Booker prize for Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies . For more, check out our guide to the best British authors .
Geraldine Brooks is from Sydney, Australia. She has worked as a journalist and as a writer during the course of her career, focusing on historical fiction. Her father was a singer in an American big band who met her mother while he was on tour in Adelaide and got stuck. Geraldine attended the University of Sydney, getting a job as a reporter following graduation. She work for the Sydney Morning Herald for a while before moving to the United States to earn a Master’s Degree from Columbia University.
During her career as a journalist, she covered a variety of incidents across the world, serving as a source of inspiration for her writing . She published her first book, Nine Parts of Desire , in 1994. The book was based on her experiences with Muslim women, becoming a bestseller that was translated into 17 languages. Other significant works by Brooks include Year of Wonders , March , and Foreign Correspondence .
Diana Gabaldon is an American writer known for the Outlander series of novels. He has the ability to merge multiple genres of literature together, including historical fiction. She was born in Scottsdale Arizona and grew up in Flagstaff. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Northern Arizona University. She continued her education to earn a Master’s Degree in Marine Biology from the University of California at San Diego. She also earned her PhD in behavioral ecology from Northern Arizona University.
She earned a job in Environmental Studies at Arizona State University, serving as the founding editor of the science software quarterly. She wrote software reviews and technical articles for computer publications during the 1980s. She eventually left to write full-time.
She wrote her first novel as a type of writing practice . She didn’t have any intention of continuing as a writer and did not have a background in history. She was inspired to pursue the genre after watching Doctor Who .
Her marquee work is the Outlander series, which focuses on a 20th-century nurse who travels back in time to Scotland in the 18th century and finds romance and adventures. The character travels to North America, England, France, and the West Indies.
Philippa Gregory is a British novelist who has published a variety of best-selling historical fiction novels. She was actually born in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. She studied journalism in college in Cardiff. Then, she spent a year as a reporter with the Portsmouth News. She eventually earned an English literature degree from the University of Sussex in 1982. She worked for BBC Radio for two years before she attended the University of Edinburgh, earning her PhD in 18th-century literature.
Her works have focused on a variety of historical periods, including the Tudor era of the 16th century. Some of her novels have been set in the 17th century, while others have been set in the 18th century. The most popular book, titled The Other Boleyn Girl , won the award for the Romantic novel of the year in 2001. Another one of her works, The White Queen , was turned into a TV series.
You can pick up a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl, which focuses on the life of Anne Boleyn (one of the queens of Henry VIII), from Amazon, one of the best historical fiction books of all time.
Sarah Waters is a historical fiction author from Wales. She is known for her numerous books that focus on Victorian society. Of note, many of her works focus on lesbian protagonists, including Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. She is originally from Pembrokeshire but moved to Middlesbrough at a young age. After finishing grammar school, he attended the University of Kent, earning her bachelor’s degree in English literature. She went on to earn her master’s, as well as a PhD from the University of London.
The first book to put her on the map was Tipping the Velvet , published in 1998. This book was adapted into a television series for BBC Two and focuses on lesbian relationships during the Victorian era. It has also been translated into 24 languages. Some of her other significant works include Affinity , Fingersmith , and The Night Watch . She is a hugely influential historical fiction author, particularly among the LGBTQ community.
Colson Whitehead is one of the most popular authors of American historical fiction. He was born in New York City and grew up in Manhattan. His parents own an executive recruiting firm, and he attended the Trinity School in Manhattan. He attended Harvard University, graduating in 1991. He still lives in New York City,. Of note, he received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2002, which he uses to further his career as a writer.
He published his first book in 1999, titled The Institution . His most popular work is The Underground Railroad, which he published in 2016. This book won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction as well as the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It focuses on the life of slaves if they try to escape from the Southern United States during the first half of the 19th century.
In 2020, he won another Pulitzer Prize for his book titled The Nickel Boys . He has also published a few works of nonfiction as well. His works have influenced a lot of young authors in the field of historical fiction.
Bernard Cornwell is an English author who focuses on historical fiction. Most of his works have focused on the Waterloo Campaign, which was the last campaign of Napoleon during the early 19th century. Eventually, Napoleon would be defeated at Waterloo by a coalition of a variety of other countries.
His best-known novels focus on The Rifleman , Richard Sharpe. The series was eventually turned into a television series of the same name. His works have also served as the basis for the television series The Last Kingdom, run by the BBC. Today, he lives in the United States with his wife, frequently moving between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Charleston, South Carolina.
His most popular novel series, Sharpe , focuses on Richard Sharpe, who was sent to the Iberian Peninsula to fight against Napoleon. The series takes place over seven years, with Sharpe frequently engaging with the enemy across multiple battles.
Weir was born in London and developed a love of British history after reading a novel about Katherine of Aragon as a teenager. She worked as a history teacher and wrote on the side during the early part of her career. She said the Tudor period is the “most dramatic period” of British history “with vivid, strong personalities”.
Today, Weir is best known for biographies and non-fiction like The Six Wives of Henry VIII, A Tudor Christmas and A Queen of Crusades. Her famous historical fiction works include The Captive Queen and J ane Seymour: The Haunted Queen.
Georgette Heyer was born in London, the eldest of three children. She started writing as a teenager and published her first book The Black Moth in 1921. She wrote romance novels, thrillers and detective stories set primarily in the 1800s. She found success in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany although did not find the same level of success as her contemporary Agatha Christie. Her most famous fictional characters were Superintendent Hannasyde and Inspector Hemingway. She’s also best known for creating the genre Regency romance. For more recommendations like Heyer, check out our guide to the best romance authors .
Penman was born in New York City. She began writing historical fiction as a student. Her first novel was The Sunne In Slendour about the life of Richard III. A thief stole a 400-page early draft from her car and that setback Penman off writing for five years. She worked in a law firm until she finally published that book in 1982. She’s best known for the Welsh Princes series of books and the Plantagenet series, all set in the Middle Ages. Penman won multiple awards during her writing career including the Edgar award. She died of pneumonia in 2021.
The world of historical fiction is a wide-ranging genre. Plenty of the best historical fiction books focus on the Medieval Times, While others focus on the Cold War. There are also plenty of books that focus on World War II, such as American, Japanese, and Nazi soldiers. The top writers of historical fiction have a unique ability to blend general facts of the era with entertaining fictional twists. Many of their works are adapted to television series and movies.
If you are looking for fun, entertaining, thrilling books to read, check out a few of the books on this list. Many of these authors also wrote books focusing on other periods of history. This is a great way to not only learn about a certain time period but also be entertained by some talented writers.
Are historical books non-fiction?
There are lots of ways people write about history. There are some people who write non-fiction novels that focus on getting the dates and facts precise. In some cases, they read more like a textbook. In other cases, people use historical dates as context for works of fiction. That is exactly where historical fiction comes into play.
Are historical fiction books historically accurate?
Some of the characters in historical fiction books might be fictional; however, the events that take place in the book are usually historically accurate. A historical novelist has to do a tremendous amount of research to make sure they get their facts correct.
Are historical fiction books a good way to learn about history?
Historical fiction books are a good way to learn about the general facts of the time period; however, they usually do not possess the same level of granular detail as a history textbook.
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15 Historical Fiction Authors We Can Never Get Enough Of
Let these masters of the genre take you back in time.
- Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Some people say history is boring. Those people have not read enough good historical fiction. The genre is really the best of both worlds, taking the most interesting parts of history and combining them with original and interesting stories.
Many authors have made their careers writing historical fiction covering nearly every era of human history. From political intrigue in the courts of royal Europe to mysteries in the Roman Empire to multi-generational meditations on the American Dream, the great authors on this list have covered it all. Here are 15 historical authors we can never get enough of.
By Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel is one of the most critically acclaimed historical fiction authors today. She has been publishing works since the mid-1980s, but she is best known for her Thomas Cromwell series. The trilogy follows the rise and fall of Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII and architect of the English Reformation. 2009’s Wolf Hall , which chronicles Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry’s court, is the first in the series.
Both Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies were awarded the Booker Prize, making Mantel the only woman to have won the award twice. The series’ final instalment, The Mirror & the Light , was released in 2020. Mantel’s work has been praised for its strong characterization and its commitment to accurate historical detail. Although her works can be long— Wolf Hall is over 650 pages—her mastery of the craft always has readers wanting more.
The Power and the Glory
By Graham Greene
Often considered one of the greatest British novelists of the 20th century, Graham Greene was a prolific author. He was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature twice and, in addition to his many novels, wrote the screenplay for the noir classic The Third Man . His works were known for exploring political issues of the modern world, often through a historic lens. Many of his books, like The Power and the Glory , were also often heavily influenced by his Catholic faith.
The Power and the Glory is set in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s, a time when the government was actively trying to suppress Catholicism in the country. It follows a man known only as the “whisky priest” as he travels around the country as a fugitive. Haunted by his sinful past, the priest is forced to choose between keeping himself safe and doing what he knows is right. One of Greene’s most stirring works, The Power and the Glory was named by Time magazine as one of the hundred best English-language novels written since 1923.
Related: 13 Must-Read Graham Greene Books
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Daughter of Fortune
By Isabel Allende
A recipient of the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, Isabel Allende is one of the most well-known Spanish-language authors in the world. Before she began her career as a novelist, Allende was forced to flee her native Chile when she and other family members were targeted by the brutal regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet. She published her first novel while in exile in Venezuela. Many of her books, including Daughter of Fortune , cover the history of Chile and other Latin American countries.
An Oprah’s Book Club selection , Daughter of Fortune tells the story of Eliza Sommers. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile by the English Sommers siblings. She eventually falls in love with Joaquín, a clerk who works for the siblings, and follows him to northern California when gold is discovered there. As Eliza, now pregnant, makes her way north and navigates life in Gold Rush-era California, she begins a journey to find her own personal freedom.
The Other Side of the Sun
By Madeleine L'Engle
Best known for her young adult fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time , Madeleine L’Engle also penned quite a few works of historical fiction . Her 1971 novel The Other Side of the Sun is a family drama set in the post-Civil War American South.
Stella is only 19 when she marries Theron Renier and finds the atmosphere of his family’s home in Florida very different from her native England. When Theron is sent away for work, Stella is left alone with the Renier family. As dark secrets begin to come to light, Stella will have to work to find the truth. The Other Side of the Sun is a masterwork of suspense that also touches on issues that are painfully relevant to this day.
The Pillars of the Earth
By Ken Follett
Ken Follett is the author of several New York Times- bestselling thriller novels with a historic twist. 1989’s The Pillars of the Earth is the first book in his Kingsbridge series and marked a departure from his usual focus on World War II-era spies. Pillars focuses on the construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. Set in the 12th century, the characters in the novel struggle to build the cathedral while England is plunged into civil war and law and order quickly disintegrate.
Praised for its depiction of life in Medieval England, The Pillars of the Earth has been adapted into several mediums including board games, a television miniseries, a Danish musical, and a video game. Later entries in the series follow the lives of Kingsbridge citizens in later periods of English history, with the most recent book, The Evening and the Morning , serving as a prequel set during the 900s as Vikings raided the English coast.
Fire from Heaven
By Mary Renault
Mary Renault was best known for her novels about ancient Greece . Many of her works featured portrayals of famous Greek figures from antiquity including Socrates and Plato. In the 70s and early 80s, she penned a series of works focusing on the life and legacy of Alexander the Great. The first of these books is Fire From Heaven , which covers Alexander’s childhood through the death of his father.
Renault’s books were notable for their frank and sympathetic portrayals of gay relationships. She wrote most of her novels while living in South Africa from 1948 until her death in 1983, where attitudes towards LGBT+ individuals were more liberal than in Britain. Fire From Heaven depicts the origins of Alexander’s relationship with his lover Hephaestion.
By E. L. Doctorow
One of the great American novelists of the 20th century, E. L. Doctorow penned many famous works of historical fiction. Most of his works are set in the first half of the 20th century in various parts of America. He became known for his style of interweaving fictional characters with real-life historical figures to tell his stories.
His best-known work is 1975’s Ragtime . The novel focuses on a series of events that occur in the New York City area between 1902 and 1912 and involves a wide cast of characters from various walks of life. The wide expanse of the novel allows Doctorow to cover major events of the era as well as the experiences of marginalized groups like immigrants and African-Americans. Ragtime was made into a movie in 1981 and later into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
Tipping the Velvet
By Sarah Waters
Welsh author Sarah Waters is best known for her novels set in the Victorian era that often feature lesbian protagonists. She was inspired to write her first book, Tipping the Velvet , while doing research for her PhD thesis. Her works are often praised for how much thorough research goes into them.
Tipping the Velvet follows Nancy “Nan” Astley, a working-class girl from Kent who falls in love with Kitty, a male impersonator who she soon follows to London. The two have a tumultuous relationship as they also begin performing together on stage. The novel was critically acclaimed upon its release and was adapted into a television miniseries a few years later.
The Good Earth
By Pearl S. Buck
Winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature, Pearl S. Buck was an American writer whose works of historical fiction mainly focused on Chinese history. The daughter of missionaries, Buck spent her entire childhood in China and developed a deep appreciation for Chinese people and their culture. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth tells the story of a Chinese peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan as they work to create a life for themselves in early 20th century China.
Buck wrote two sequels to The Good Earth that follow the descendants of Wang Lung and O-lan, and the books are sometimes credited by scholars as having garnered sympathy for the Chinese people from American readers, especially as the Japanese invaded in the late 1930s. Buck was unable to return to China after her last trip in 1934 but spent the rest of her life dedicated to various humanitarian causes. In 1949, she co-founded Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency in order to combat the popular notion that mixed-race and Asian children were “unadoptable.”
The Silver Pigs
By Lindsey Davis
Lindsey Davis is best known for her multiple detective series set in the ancient Roman Empire. The first of these is 1989’s The Silver Pigs , which introduced readers to Marcus Didius Falco. Falco is a delator , which Davis translates as “private informer”, an imperial agent for Emperor Vespasian. In his first mystery, Falco investigates a conspiracy to steal silver ingots in Roman Britain.
There are 20 Marcus Didius Falco mysteries in total. Since 2013, Davis has been writing a sequel series that follows the adventures of Falco’s adopted daughter Flavia Albia.
By Howard Fast
Best known for his 1951 novel Spartacus— the basis for the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film of the same name— Howard Fast wrote novels set in many different historical periods . He is also known for his television and film screenplays, including the script for Spartacus and several episodes of How the West Was Won. He has also been lauded as being one of the first writers to break through the constraints of the Hollywood blacklist, which he was put on after refusing to name names of other suspected Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.
Related: I Am Spartacus! Remembering Kirk Douglas, 1916-2020
His 1982 novel Max is set at the turn of the century during the early days of the film industry. Max Britsky developed his entrepreneurial spirit at a young age after his father walked out and he had to find ways to provide for his mother and siblings. As he grows up, his love of theater and his business instincts lead him to become one of the first movie moguls in American history. But Max soon finds that great financial success sometimes comes at a cost.
By Toni Morrison
A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize in Literature, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Toni Morrison is one of the most celebrated authors of all time. Her works address the long-term consequences of racism in the United States and often involve historical themes. Her 1992 novel Jazz is a story of love and obsession set during the Harlem Renaissance. According to Morrison, Jazz is the second book in a trilogy that explores African-American history, beginning with Beloved and ending with Paradise .
Jazz begins when Joe Trace, a door-to-door salesman who sells beauty products, shoots his young lover Dorcas. At her funeral, his wife Violet attacks the corpse with a knife. As the characters in the novel explore this event, Morrison explores their life stories, transporting the reader from Harlem to the American South in the mid-19th century.
Related: 30 Must-Read Books by Black Authors
By Rumer Godden
Many of Rumer Godden’s best-known works were inspired by her childhood in British colonial India. Her first best-seller was 1939’s Black Narcissus . The novel follows five Anglican nuns as they attempt to establish a school and health clinic in the remote foothills of the Himalayas. The sisters have occupied an abandoned palace where a general housed members of his harem, and the building’s scandalous history in addition to the isolation and conflict with the local population just might be too much even for the purest of heart.
Godden’s story of the tension between faith and temptation was very well received. It was adapted into a Golden Globe and Oscar-winning film starring Deborah Kerr as well as an FX miniseries in 2020 .
The Memoirs of Cleopatra
By Margaret George
Margaret George is best known for her fictionalized biographies of famous historical figures. She first achieved notoriety with her novel The Autobiography of Henry VIII which, 35 years after its publication, is still ranked as one of the most popular fictional portrayals of the infamous English king. Her work on these biographies is famously meticulously researched. Several of her novels focus on notable women from history and myth including Mary Magdalene, Queen Elizabeth I, and Helen of Troy.
In 1997, she published The Memoirs of Cleopatra , which traces the entire life of Cleopatra VII, popularly known as the last Pharaoh of Egypt. The book chronicles her early life, her famous romances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and her famous death. Cleopatra was critically acclaimed upon its release and was adapted into a miniseries in 1999.
Dynasty of Death
By Taylor Caldwell
Taylor Caldwell was a prolific author who often centered her stories on actual historical events and people. Many of her books explored the American Dream and the tension between the desire for wealth and power and moral values like family and love. Her novels are set at different times in American history as the country transformed from an agrarian society into an industrial superpower.
Caldwell’s debut novel was Dynasty of Death , an intergenerational saga of two families as they turn a small munitions factory into a global empire. The story begins in the fictional town of Windsor, Pennsylvania in 1837 when Joseph Barbour immigrates from England with his family. Joseph soon starts a gunpowder firm with his neighbor, Armand Bouchard, and tensions rise between his two sons, one an altruistic idealist and the other an ambitious and violent egoist. Dynasty of Death follows the Barbour and Bouchard families up to the eve of World War I while their story is continued in the novel’s two sequels.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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Authors throughout history have helped capture something about their lives, their era, and the society around them. From Homer in the 8th century BC all the way until now, there is something in the works of these authors that can capture our imagination and help us expand our knowledge. Here are some of the greatest authors in history and a little something about the works that they created.
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Virago at 50: a potted history and 10 titles to try
Publisher sarah savitt explains its history and authors sarah waters and lucy scholes pick their favourites.
Carmen Callil, founder of Virago, discusses the women's liberation movement, at the Hay Festival last year in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images
Virago, the feminist publisher of outstanding books for all readers, turned 50 in June.
Born out of the political and social change of the 1970s, Virago’s mission has always been to champion the voices of women and, more recently, people of underrepresented genders, and bring them to the widest possible readership around the world. The breadth of the list – fiction, history, politics, humour, biography, classic literature and more – has always been an important part of our identity too.
The idea of Virago as a feminist business was also crucial. Carmen Callil, with Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, started Spare Rib Books in 1972, and by June 1973 the name had changed to Virago and this feminist business – with three women directors – was officially listed as a publishing company. Soon after, Ursula Owen and Harriet Spicer stepped in and Virago was off and running – joined not long after by Alexandra Pringle and Lennie Goodings.
From the start, and to this day, we are often asked: is Virago still necessary?
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Writing by women and people of underrepresented genders is still not given the same critical or prize attention as writing by men. Their writing continues to be read, published and judged differently – often pigeonholed as particular, domestic, individual. And there are still voices that aren’t being given space. Back in the early 1980s, Virago was the only British publisher to take a chance on Maya Angelou’s first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , which became an influential bestseller. And it still happens now that we can be the only publisher to see the potential in what others consider a marginal story.
What will Virago look like in 50 years’ time? The most exciting – and the most truthful – answer is that I don’t know. Carmen Callil set the ball rolling with a revolutionary idea – to celebrate writing by women, who at that time were underrepresented and misrepresented in publishing – and it’s such a strong idea that it can manifest in so many ways. Even since our 40th anniversary, we’ve begun publishing graphic novels, launched a podcast and seen Girl, Interrupted become a TikTok sensation. Who could have predicted those things 10 years ago?
Writers are always ahead of the rest of us, bringing us untold stories, fresh perspectives and original voices. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Sarah Savitt, Publisher, Virago Press
Five Virago titles selected by Sarah Waters
The great fire by shirley hazzard.
I discovered Hazzard’s marvellous, luminous writing only rather recently; now I don’t know how I ever managed to get along without it. Her novels and short stories are all terrific, but The Great Fire is my favourite: the story of a quiet, grand passion played out in Asia, New Zealand and England in the wake of the Second World War.
The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister edited by Helena Whitbread
The inspiration for TV’s Gentleman Jack – but the real Anne Lister was a more complex character, and her frank descriptions of her romantic and sexual entanglements with other women, along with her determination to live life on her own terms, make for a compulsive, fascinating read.
Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
This 1921 novel is often seen as a forerunner to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca , but it exists in a creepy league all of its own. A darkly comic story of a naïve young woman being sucked into marriage with a manipulative narcissistic husband, it’s a brilliant depiction of coercive control.
Poor Cow by Nell Dunn
Along with her stories in Up the Junction , this novel established Dunn as an amazingly faithful and sympathetic chronicler of 1960s London working-class life. Controversial in its day because of its frankness about female desire, prostitution and petty thievery, it is clear-eyed, unsentimental, still quite startling, but incredibly warm. I adore this book.
A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous
The author of this astonishing diary was trapped in Berlin when the city was captured by the Soviet Army at the end of the war, and she writes with devastating clarity of life in the ruins: of hunger, humiliation, forced labour and rape. Not exactly a cheery festive read – but gripping, intensely moving, and, in the end, surprisingly uplifting.
Sarah Waters is the author of Virago favourites Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and The Little Stranger
Five Virago books everyone should read by Lucy Scholes
Trust me when I say that my picks took much deliberation – I found myself skimming the pages of books I’ve loved for years, Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets , Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado and Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness amongst them, while remembering all over again just how perfect a novel Dorothy West’s The Wedding is. Then I got to thinking about more recent publications: Gayl Jones’s Palmares , for example; or a stand-out title from a few years back, Rosa Rankin-Gee’s The Last Kings of Sark . My list could go on and on . . .
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns
Since it so excellently showcases her eye for the grotesque, this is one of my favourites of all Comyns’s weird and wonderful novels. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, in the grimy backstreets of Battersea – and culminating in a truly unforgettable and dreadful denouement on Clapham Common – The Vet’s Daughter is suburban gothic with just a sprinkling of magical realism. It’s the strange, sad story of Alice Rowlands, a young girl who lives with her sadistic veterinarian father. It’s tragic, comic and utterly bonkers all in one, and features levitation, a terrible house fire, a neurotic parrot locked in a lavatory, and a ‘partly-cooked’ cat. What more could you want?!
Home by Marilynne Robinson
With the publication, earlier this year, of Jack – the fourth volume in Robinson’s Gilead series – I found myself re-reading the novels that precede it, and was thus reminded of how heartbreakingly and exquisitely flawless Home (the second book in the sequence) is in particular. Robinson – a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction – has been widely hailed as one of America’s greatest living novelists, but this, I think, has to be one of the finest novels ever written. Set in mid-century, rural Iowa, in Home a troubled prodigal son returns home after twenty years’ absence, shaking up the lives of those closest to him. It’s an understated tale of love, death and family ties, but it’s written with such grace and compassion, it moves me like nothing else.
Wayward by Dana Spiotta
Ever feel like just saying ‘What the hell!’ to everything and blowing up your own life? If so, this is the novel for you. Wayward is the story of one woman’s mid-life crisis, but it’s also about so much more than that. Her heroine Sam – a white, middle-aged, middle-class suburban wife and mother – falls in love with a fixer-upper house in downtown Syracuse, and before she knows it, she’s left her husband and their teenage daughter and is starting over, by herself and on her own terms. It’s a novel about mothers and daughters, about love and sex, about ageing, about how the hell to go on living in this horrible, messed-up world. It’s also utterly brilliant.
The Narrows by Ann Petry
Ann Petry’s debut, The Street , was the first novel written by a Black American writer to sell over a million copies, but it’s her third novel, The Narrows – originally published in 1953 – that’s undoubtedly her masterpiece. It’s the gripping tale of star-crossed but doomed lovers, Link Williams and Camilla Treadway Sheffield. Both young and beautiful, and living in the same town, but he’s Black and she’s white. Their fateful entanglement, and the tragic consequences which ensue, are at the heart of the story, but it’s also a richly detailed portrait of a small town in Connecticut, life in which is very different depending on the colour of your skin.
Love Marriage by Monica Ali
The acclaimed writer of Brick Lane ’s first new novel in a decade is an absolute joy from start to finish. A gloriously big-hearted tale about a tangled web of secrets, lies and betrayals across two generations, and between two different families, all of whom are drawn together in the run up to a young couple’s impending wedding. These are characters who are a pleasure to spend time with; they’re each funny and flawed, loving and troubled in their own ways. And, all the more impressively, Ali keeps us on our toes throughout. I’m not saying there’s no happily ever after, but it might not be the happily ever after that you expect!
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Author traces 'surprising history' of words that label women and their lives
Scholar Jenni Nuttall speaks to ABC News Live.
Articulating a woman's journey may not be an easy task, but in her new book, “Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women's Words,” scholar Jenni Nuttall attempts to do just that.
The book, released last month, is billed as an investigation of the words used to describe women, "from the dawn of Old English to the present day," according to the publisher's synopsis. Nuttall "guides readers through the evolution of the words we have used to describe bodies, menstruation, sexuality, the consequences of male violence, childbirth, paid and unpaid work and gender."
In an interview with ABC News Live, Nuttall gives examples of some of the language she presents in the book and how both her work with students and conversations at home with her daughter inspired her to write it.
LINSEY DAVIS: So let's start with your research to sort out the origin of the word, “woman.” What language experts thought it was and what it actually is?
JENNI NUTTALL: The difficulty is, is where does that word “wif” [Old English] that's standing for woman and then later “wife” comes from. Scholarship isn't quite sure about that. It might be something to do with weaving, one of the occupations traditionally associated with women or to do with waving. People have suggested the idea of women kind of being busy backwards and forwards, or they're kind of waving hips, but no one's really sure. So there's a bit [of] the further back you go, there's more of a mystery.
DAVIS: You write, “Our vocabulary today still bears the consequences of this general shushing of women and their words.” During your research, what other historical writings showed evidence of sexism?
NUTTALL: Oh, I mean, an awful lot. You know, the way in which some of the writings of the Church constructs women and particularly medical writing in the words for parts of female anatomy and the way in which women's sort of work is valued and shaped.
You can think of even words like bachelor and spinster for single men, single women. Bachelor – a young knight or a young student, so a bachelor of arts or even a kind of young apprentice showing kind of men making their way in the world. Spinster coming from that job title of a woman spinning wool, because that was often the kind of low paid, low status work that single women were left to do at the edges of the economy. And gradually that word becomes a kind of standard legal term for a single woman. So you can see marks on all sorts of vocabulary, the kind of traces of historical sexism and misogyny.
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DAVIS: You're a mother and also were a tutor at the University of Oxford. How has your research been influenced by your daughter and your students?
NUTTALL: Well, my students are right, and they often kind of stop me when I'm talking about a poem or a play or a story, and we'll just stop and ask about a word. And lots of the book comes from kind of finding out the answers.
But I've also, in my home life, been working out what are the best sorts of words to talk to my daughter about, you know, what it's like to grow up female. Ages and stages and kind of changes in bodies.
And one of the kind of sparks for the book was her coming home from school after a kind of tricky day and saying, period, that word we used for menstruation. She said, “Period is such a boring word.” And she meant something like, it doesn't really capture what I'm kind of dealing with on a kind of physical, social level.
So it's been a great way to bring my kind of home world and my working well together, this book.
DAVIS: You write, “Some of our first steps toward equality were taken by means of these radicals’ encouragement to live not as everlasting children, but once we come of age as grown women.” Can you explain how this imagery and how the language of what a grown women is supposed to be is influence the way girls ultimately grow up?
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NUTTALL: Even as you go back into the history of familiar words like “girl,” that word, it comes quite late in the history of English and it comes in when it's first used just to talk about female children and young women.
It's used often to label girls and young women who are kind of stepping outside of roles like, kind of maiden or daughter or any of these, kind of, socially allocated roles.
So even “girl” has a way in which it’s, you know, we might think of that sometimes it's used today as “girlish,” a slightly kind of belittling way of saying it. But “girl” in its history, right at the beginning, was often used to signify girls who were kind of pushing the boundaries of what was allowed.
So I thought with all of these stories, if you followed all of our everyday words right back to their beginnings, you could kind of find some of those tensions between what society is trying to kind of limit women girls to and what women and girls might want.
DAVIS: Really fascinating stuff. Thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate the conversation. I want to let our viewers know you can purchase “Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women's Words” wherever books are sold.
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Book review: With hunting as the catalyst, ‘The Land We Share’ ponders life’s lessons and relationships
"The Land We Share: A love affair told in hunting stories," By Christine Cunningham and Steve Meyer
“The Land We Share: A love affair told in hunting stories”
By Christine Cunningham and Steve Meyer; Alaska Geographic, 2023; 260 pages; $19.95.
Fall has recently arrived in Interior Alaska, and depending on who you ask, it’s either come too quickly or not soon enough. For a large swath of Alaskans, “too quickly” is the immediate response, but for hunters, currently welcoming the season openings occurring across the state, it’s about time.
Contrary to the stereotypes many hold, hunters (or the ones who know what they’re doing, at least) spend very little time shooting their guns, and endless amounts of time preparing for the moment when the trigger will be pulled. Plans need to be made, equipment bought and maintained, transportation arranged, landscapes studied, and much more. Economically, it makes no sense, lifelong hunter Steve Meyer tells us, admitting that “most of the game meat consumed costs twice what the best New York steak does per pound.”
Meyer’s partner in hunting as well as life, Christine Cunningham, recognizes this fact as well, but like him, sees beyond the money. Hunting isn’t about the meat, she tells us. It’s about the land itself, about becoming enmeshed with all that dwells upon it, thereby becoming a steward. “As a hunter,” she explains, “my investment in wild animals and wild places changed so that not only did my appreciation deepen, so did my responsibility.”
Cunningham and Meyer were longtime outdoors columnists in the Anchorage Daily News, recounting their hunting adventures and experiences on the land, while pondering the lessons this life has taught them along the way. The columns themselves are presently on hiatus, but a large selection of previously published ones have recently been gathered together into a book appropriately titled “The Land We Share: A love affair told in hunting stories.”
Moments in time with the best. Steve Meyer with Winchester, August 2021 (Photo by Christine Cunningham)
I call the title appropriate, because while hunting is the catalyst for nearly all that is discussed in these pages, the land itself, and our relationship with it, with wildlife, with dogs, and with each other are the real topics. As with real life hunting, there isn’t much in the way of shooting here. Cunningham and Meyer are more focused on the groundwork involved in getting to that point. It’s ground that we all share.
Cunningham grew up in Alaska, but never tried hunting until adulthood. It happened after she met Meyer, a lifelong hunter who spent his first 12 years on a farm in rural North Dakota before his family moved north. Cunningham was born into Alaska, Meyer was born into hunting, and together they have come to know and love the wilds and each other through the hard work of obtaining sustenance from the land.
Rigby and Christine Cunningham in a duck blind on the Kenai River flats, both watching a flock of teal high overhead. (Photo by Steve Meyer)
It’s land they travel most often by foot, usually accompanied by hunting dogs, a number of whom play supporting roles and sometimes even emerge as lead characters in the stories that unfold in these brief essays. Watching these dogs through the eyes of the authors, running across open lands and doing the jobs their genetic lines have prepared them for, is one of the joys of this book, and one of the countless ways the authors explore relationships.
The couple’s dogs are bird dogs, and bird hunting is by far the context for most of these essays. Both Cunningham and Meyer reach into their respective pasts, describing the ins and outs of a sport that demands patience and skill. Simply learning to spot wild fowl is an acquired art that comes with close observations of the landscape. And these observations are what both authors offer in endless variations. They pay attention to details.
It’s from these details that their relationship with the land itself, the heart of the multiple relationships explored here, is crystalized. To hunt is to not just visit the land, but to live upon it as all life does, understanding that all lives persist at the expense of other lives, be it plant or animal. Arguments abound both for and against hunting and the killing of wildlife, and there are persuasive points raised by both sides. But the reality of death as necessary for life is often overlooked in these debates, and Meyer, in particular, is well adept at explaining this. Both excel at placing hunting within this holistic context in a way that non-hunters might not easily grasp on their own.
Much of the land the couple hunts on is public land, and from the very first page, the intrinsic value of preserving that land, where the natural world progresses in its own fashion and humans seek renewal, is a persistent theme in this book.
If there is a shortcoming here at all, it’s hardly the fault of the authors. It’s the nature of their material. These essays originated as newspaper columns and are by design brief. Both Meyer and Cunningham have mastered the economy of language required to maximize how much can be said in such a short space. For reading on the fly (or at night in the tent on a camping trip) it’s ideal, but with only three to four pages per essay, there is not a lot of room for expanding on ideas worthy of further attention.
What would be interesting, therefore, would be a follow-up memoir that tells the story in a more linear fashion. A book aimed at sharing with readers how the couple’s relationship with the land and each other developed in tandem, while offering lengthier accounts of their adventures with their dogs, and most importantly, exploring how hunting fits into public land use. It’s a topic that gets lost in frequently emotional debates on how this land should be shared. Sometimes non-hunters fail to recognize that ethical hunters, something the authors most definitely are, also have a vested interest in conservation. That mutual objective of keeping land undeveloped and accessible (inherently contradictory objectives requiring careful balance) should be common ground to build from rather than fight over. Meyer and Cunningham offer a thoughtful perspective that is too often overlooked and should be listened to.
What should also be listened to are the dogs, the wildlife, and the land itself. This book honors all of that and more.
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at [email protected].