August 14, 2006

Beautifully written history.

A propos of this discussion on Saturday, I'm trying to come up with a list of history books -- emphatically not historical novels, but solid history books -- that are written so well that one would want to read them as great literature. I mean to set a very high standard. That is, David McCullough isn't good enough. (By the way, his blog is... not even a blog.) Anyway, offer up some suggestions for someone who wants a sublime aesthetic experience while reading history.

I'd like to do the same for some other categories of nonfiction: law, science, politics, philosophy, art.


the pooka said...

#1 would have to be Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

SippicanCottage said...
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Mark said...

How about:
Henry Adams: HIstory of the United States in the administrations of Jefferson and Adams

McAuley: HIstory of England

Motley: History of the Dutch Republic

Parkman: History of the French in North America

Prescott: The Conquest of Mexico

Grant's Memoirs

Gibbon of course

Hume's History of England


stephenb said...

There's always 'The Journals of Lewis & Clark' written by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Anthony Brandt.

elliot said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "great literature" (I was a lit major and I STILL don't know what makes great literature), but I would submit A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.

howzerdo said...

Lincoln on Leadership by Donald T. Phillips

What Style Is It? by Poppeliers et al

The Family Life of Ralph Josselin by Alan Macfarlane

The Tastemakers by Russell Lynes

The Last of the Handmade Dams by Bob Steuding

Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon

Adirondack Tragedy by Joseph Brownell

Mark Daniels said...

Churchill does write beautifully. His 'History of the English Speaking People' may be what you have in mind, Ann. But the series does have its deficiencies. One of Churchill's political friends dismissed the entire work as being not so much a history of the English-speaking peoples as a compendium of things that Churchill found interesting in that history.

Given that we all have our perspectives, that's probably true of any history. It should also be said that Churchill must have found a lot of interesting things because the history runs to four volumes!

I can't figure out why you want to dismiss McCullough, though. He writes with a beautiful and descriptive economy, born no doubt of his years as a magazine writer and editor. (I've never looked at his blog.)

In his books on FDR, Andrew Jackson, and JFK, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has obviously taken it as his goal to write about these lives in a novel-like way. August Haenchen's biography of Woodrow Wilson is also beautifully rendered.

The two biographical books that also stand out as literary works, I think, are Jon Meacham's 'Franklin and Winston' and Roland Bainton's powerful and evocative, 'Here I Stand: The Life of Martin Luther.'

David Herbert Donald's biography of Lincoln is my favorite study of the sixteenth president, written beautifully. I love Doris Kearns Goodwin's 'Team of Rivals' and it's very well-written, although her obvious defensiveness over the whole plagiarism thing has added some unnecessary clunkiness to the narrative.

The most readable work of pure history that I've encountered recently is James C. Davis' 'The Human Story.' I love the way Davis militates against the natural biases he would have as a white American and delivers a rich, appreciative history of the human race. He has the gifted teacher's ability to make what are for me difficult topics--like the metaphysical assumptions of a Japanese samurai or Einstein's theory of relativity--accessible without talking down to me. On subjects with which I'm more familiar, I find him to be accurate and informative. More to your point, he also writes with wit and in memorable sentences. I had intended to only skim the book when I started reading it. But I found that I couldn't do that; he simply wrote too well.

Richard Brookhiser is one who writes both histories and biographies like a novelist. He's also the champ of shorter studies. His ability to pack so much in such short books always amazes me.

His opposite is probably the wordy Joseph Ellis. If Ellis can use fifty words to say what could be communicated in two, he'll opt for the long-winded path. Like the insufferable Edmund Morris, who is a better writer, Ellis seems more consumed with showing you how smart he is than telling the story he's supposedly telling.

Anything written by Richard Norton Smith is worth reading. His books are all insightful and readable. His book on Washington is the best I've read about our greatest president.

Just a few thoughts.


Mark Daniels said...

Ooh, Elliott, you're right. Anything by Tuchman is great. I loved 'The Guns of August' as well. How could I have forgotten her?


Truly said...

God's Playground by Norman Davies.

"Thus were the fortunes of two countries served by the tears and humility of an unhappy girl." (in reference to Queen, later Saint, Jadwiga of Poland).

Slope Oaks said...

I haven't yet finished reading it, but I find Lincoln: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin to be one of the most "readable" historical books I've seen in recent years.

She relates Lincoln's biography via four separate additional mini-biographies of members of Lincoln's cabinet, and uses the interactions of the cabinet and their personalities to provide a perspective that is both enjoyable and enlightening.

I know that she's had some authorship issues in the past, and that this book may be part of the problem; however, I find it excellent nonetheless.

BarbO said...

One of the best-written history books I've ever read is "The Genome War," by James Shreeve. Although he discusses recent history about how the human genome project came to fruition, it is history none-the-less. Shreeve had insider's access to most of the goings-on. Surprisingly, uber-narcissist Craig Venter, demonized for supposedly attempting to patent genes (actually, the info was being made available for free on line), comes off a lot better than the secretive, Machiavellian Francis Collins, who led the government's project. Shreeve writes beautifully about a crucial historical undertaking. It's one of my top books ever!

Truly said...

Also, as a crossover book for history and science, I'd recommend Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris.

RogerA said...

I "third" anything written by Barbara Tuchman--I am "shocked--shoked" that no one as yet as mentioned Tacitus (they create a wasteland and call it a peace) or Suetonius.

Fritz said...

Paul Seabright's "The Company of Strangers" A natural history of economic life. To paraphrase an example; While in St. Petersburg following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Russian economics minister told me that they understood that the free market system works, but "could he please tell me who runs the bread production for London?" An innocent question, but the response, "no one" is such a foreign concept and not comprehensible.

Bruce Feiler's "Where God was Born" A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion
This paragraph for aesthetic experience . "As a Jew, I take from the final books of the prophets the positive message I had been craving in my upbringing, Judaism can be a living alternative to triumphalism. After centuries in which many Christians and Muslims tried to assert themselves as the universal religion; at a time when violent fundamentalists of all Abrahamic faiths try to impose their views on rivals; Jews, and non-Jews, can reach back to the base text for all three traditions and declare, "There's another way." Faith in God does not depend on size. As lovers of the Bible, we fulfill our relationship with God by upholding his values, and define our relationship with others not by thrusting our ways onto them but by asserting our willingness to be vulnerable in the face of dominant cultures."

Balfegor said...

Theodor Mommsen -- so good they gave him a Nobel Prize for it!

I actually like Gibbon better, though.

I am fond of Anna Comnena's Alexiad, even if only in translation (because I do not read Greek) -- the splendid arrogance of those opening lines: "I, Anna, daughter of the Emperor Alexius and the Empress Irene, born and bred in the Purple . . ." sticks in the mind.

Dobson Graham said...

To transport you into another world, albeit a world of almost horrific extremes, The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga would be hard to beat.

I read the old translation in a Penguin Paperback of the 70s - which is stunningly beautiful prose.

It is the literary equivalent of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. People who like that sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.

Henry said...

The classic list is pretty predictable fare, I must say. I've never been able to get through Gibbon, though Prescott really grabbed me when I read the Conquests as a teenager and Parkman's History of the French in North America, which I read recently, is an eye-opener.

In the beautifully-written category, some more contemporary works that come to my mind are not really history, but have lots of history in them, specifically:

Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City

Mario Vargas Llosa, A Fish in the Water

In the eye-opener catagory:

Niall Ferguson's Pity of War

Hugh Thomas's History of the World. This is an astonishingly inventive work; I haven't yet read Thomas's other works, but his award-winning Spanish Civil War may be a candidate.

I second Elliot's support for A Distant Mirror. Much of Tuchman's work is a narrative history in the McCullough vein, and Guns of August may be faulty in its premise, but A Distant Mirror stands out. (I would add that I like some of the essays in A Proud Tower quite a lot, but it is an inconsistent work.)

Smilin' Jack said...

Gibbon comes first to my mind too.

As a more unconventional choice, I would pick Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn, by Evan S. Connell. I read it many years ago and still remember its offbeat but compelling style.

Tuchman's books are interesting but the prose style never impressed me that much.

Truly said...

Ecclesiastical History of the English People by The Venerable Bede (or Venomous Bead, depending on your source).

Jack Wayne said...

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Balfegor said...

Ah, and let us not forget the unforgettable classic: The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries!

PatCA said...

I don't know what you mean by great, either, but...I recently read The Fall of Paris by Herbert Lottman, which resonates today. Clear, lean, eloquent writing.

Don't forget de Toqueville, Democracy in America, although I find the antiquated prose tough reading.

jvgordon said...

I agree with the many posters who cite Barbara Tuchman, with The Guns of August as my personal choice.

However, I'd like to suggest a history that's a bit different than the others noted so far - Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel. It is not a history in the sense of a document recording and analyzing individual events of the past. Rather, it presents a theory of history that is extensively supported by the evidence Diamond marshals. While there are many valid criticisms of Guns, Germs & Steel, it is a fascinating book written with clearly articulated ideas. The prose may not rival Tuchman's, and does not approach that of Churchill, but its clarity is its virtue, particularly since the theory of the book is challenging to much of conventional wisdom.

Linc said...

Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle
Shelby Foote's Civil War

SWBarns said...

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

Churchill's "The Second World War" is a little heavy but gives the best first hand overview of the war.

Speer's "Inside the Third Reich" gives the insiders view from the other side.

LoafingOaf said...

It's not a pure history book, but Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million by Martin Amis is really good.

Palladian said...

If you want a rich history of the Restoration period of the 17th century in England, you can do no better than The Diary of Samuel Pepys, who was writing from the viewpoint of an insider. Not only does it offer the best first-hand chronicle of the London fire of 1666, but many other significant events in politics, art, literature over a ten year period, as well as a fascinating and rare look into the personal life of a 17th century man struggling to make himself a gentleman. Not exactly a history book(s) but far richer.

jult52 said...

Ann -- Thanks for starting this thread in response to my comment.

GearDaddy said...

Rehnquist's All The Laws But One.

Troy said...

John Keegan -- Faces of Battle... one of the first (1976?) of the current trend in "What battle is actually like" histories. He does a great job with Agincourt and Waterloo. I would also put in Victor Davis Hanson's Ripples of Battle which is a history of Okinawa in 1945, The Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and the Battle at Delium in 424 BC between Thebes and Athens in which Socrates and Alcibiades participated. His uncle died in Okinawa and it obviously affcted him. He also deals with the ripple effects of these conflicts with very interesting results. Great history and he hits some literary high notes as well. Herodotus should rank high as would many of the ancients Suetonius, Thucydides, et al.

I know Stephen Ambrose is too popular for some, but his books Band of Brothers and Undaunted Courage (on Lewis and Clark) read like novels in places.

Dave said...

Paul Fusell's The Great War and Modern Memory is a study of the history of World War I and its literature.

I would second Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. It is, emphatically, history, and an important one at that.

Dave Schuler said...

T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Sam Clemens, Life on the Mississippi
John Reed, 10 Days That Shook the World

and, where legend and history meet, Robert E. Sherwood, Abe Lincoln in Illinois

BTW Theodore Roosevelt wrote a book on this subject and it's online: History as Literature

Dave Schuler said...
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Dave said...

An interesting book, which is not really history but nonetheless deals with important historical concepts, is Thomas Sowell's Black Rednecks.

Troy said...

I second Dave's mention of Thomas Sowell's White Liberals and Black Rednecks.... Interesting read and mixture of history and social study.

Pastor_Jeff said...

The Arms of Krupp by Manchester is fascinating read on a 300-year dynasty which supplied the arms, engines, and machinery that made Germany the dominant European power. Krupp was involved in deisel engines, tanks, U-boats, and the giant Paris Guns of WWI which shelled the French captial from 75 miles -- so far away that the gunners had to account for the earth's rotation in their targeting.

And I agree with others on Tuchman. Another good read is The First Salute, a look at the American Revolution from the perspective of naval warfare and European power politics.

gbdub said...

I'm a little miffed that it took until Troy's comment to get a mention in for Herodotus and Thucydides, who are interesting at the very least as examples of the origin of history as literature. Herodotus writes in a style very much rooted in the traditions of Homer, and his Histories is really more of a collection of tall tales or a fantastical travelogue than a history in the modern sense. Thucydides writes in a style very similar to modern history, and it's rather amazing how much his thoughts still resonate with a modern reader.

But still, no one has mentioned the Bellum Gallicum or Bellum Civile - how can you possibly resist something written by Julius Caesar himself?

All of these are available in good translations, but, as a fair warning, they tend to make you want to learn Greek and Latin so you can read the originals.

As a note to Troy, I agree that Hanson writes some very readable and interesting history. Just be careful, as he tends to be a little too Hellenocentric in his writing on the Greeks.

Dave said...

Does Russell Bank's novel Cloudsplitter count? I guess not--it's a novel--but what a great re-telling of the abolition movement.

Dave said...

Copies in Seconds is an interesting book about the history of the development of the Xerox copier.

Dixie Flatline said...

No love for Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb? I've always found his writing clean, elegant, and compelling.

Jim said...

I agree with Smilin Jack about Son of the Morning Star, but I would add Simon Schama's book "Landscape and Memory" to the list. It's not only the best written history I've ever read, it's one of the best books I've ever read about anything.

bearing blog said...

I second the Bomb by Rhodes.

Patrick Byrne said...

"Armada" by Garrett Mattingly.

SippicanCottage said...
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Christy said...

I'm rather fond of Charles Dickens' A Child's history of England myself. His prejudices are so obvious they don't offend.

FWIW, Caesar's Civil War, most of David McCullough, Doris Kearns Godwin, Stephen Ambrose, Tacitus, Gibbon, and others are available for download as an audiofile from most of the libraries in the U.S. I bring this up because our hostess is known for her love of driving and listening.

I'm currently making my way through Herodotus, which I've been trying to read since I first saw "The English Patient." Not until someone told me not to sweat the details and just read for gestalt could I make any headway. I don't know about the rest of you, but I find I usually must read history with maps and other history books handy. My mistrustful nature wants to check out other takes on events.

Brent said...

1)Victor Davis Hanson - "Why the West Has Won: Nine Landmark Battles in the Brutal History of Western Victory".

2)David Herbert Donald: "Lincoln"

3)My absolute Favorite:

Richard Shickel: "The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney" (1969, updated in 1997 for the 3rd edition).

This "non-kiss-ass" biography of Walt Disney is really a history of American Popular Culture as interpreted by (and in many cases despised by) Walt Disney. It is well written: Pauline Kael loved it (now there's a writer!). Controversial in its day, it is still the only bio/history about Walt Disney that doesn't begin through the lens of Disney being a saint and genius above men. This is not to say that Shickel doesn't give Disney his due. There is simply nowhere else to find a more well-rounded and historically-contexted accounting.

Madison Guy said...

I "third" Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Gracefully written with a novelist's sense of character and comprehensively researched. (I've never forgotten Rhodes' remark that all the great physics papers of the 20th century were beautifully written, in prose so lucid that they were perfectly accessible to a layman like himself.)

Know you didn't want novels, but Marguerite Yourcenar's magisterial Memoirs of Hadrian transcends genres and shouldn't be missed.

garrison said...

When I was young, I read through The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. The series of 11 books has been somewhat demoted as popular history, but I found them readable and comprehensive.

A War like no other by Victor Davis Hanson is an excellant run through of the peloponnesian wars.

There is also a strange book called Eyewitness to History edited by John Carey that is a collection of first person accounts of hundreds of historical events. No interpretation, just raw reporting. It's not literature, but fascinating.

C. Schweitzer said...

I can add two suggestions:

Arthur Koestler's _The Sleepwalkers_, which is a history of man's views of the universe. Koestler himself being a literary giant elevates the prose to levels of beauty normally reserved for fiction or poetry.


G M Young's _Victorian England: Portrait of an Age_ contains some of the most beautiful prose you'll be likely to find in any context.

And I'd like second the nomination of Paul Fussell's _The Great War and Modern Memory_. Fussell's work as a poet and literary critic makes it much more than an everyday history.

LarryK said...

Modern Times by Paul Johnson is a tremendous read, as exciting as almost any thriller - although it has a definite point of view that will vex the left-leaning readers of the Althouse-osphere.

Mark Daniels said...

I was going to bring up Ambrose myself. All his books on World War Two are great, as is his biography of Eisenhower. (I feel that his book on the transcontinental railroad was less successful.) He's quite readable.

But I don't know quite what is meant by this notion of being "literary." Ambrose tells the stories he tells well. I hesitated to advance his name because he writes in the plainest and most direct of prose. But to me that in itself can be the mark of great literature.


Mark Daniels said...

BTW: Bruce Catton's trilogy on the Civil War and Sandburg's on Lincoln probably warrant consideration for such a list.

Mark Daniels

Richard Dolan said...

In this list, it's surprising that there are few recommendations for well written works by 20th century professional historians, other than several recommendatinos for works by Barbara Tuchman. Tuchman is fine as far as she goes, but I've never thought of her as being in the first rank of professional historians. I thought that The Distant Mirror, for example, was merely OK and not nearly as interesting or inciteful as Johan Huizinga's Autumn of the Middle Ages. I agree completely with the previous commenter who recommended his masterwork (first translated as The Waning of the Middle Ages) which I read as a college freshman 35 years ago. In the newer translation, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, it is even better.

For American history, I have always enjoyed such writers as Perry Miller (The New England Mind in the Seventeenth Century, Life of the Mind of America); Bernard Bailyn (Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson); Edmund S. Morgan (The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop); and James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom), to name a few.

Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie has written wonderfully readable books of microhistory in the Annales tradition, such as Montaillou and Carnival in Romans. In that regard, I find him a much more engaging writer than Fernand Braudel.

Jonathan Spence brings the novelist's art to Chinese history (The Question of Hu, The Death of Woman Wang, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci) as well as a magisterial review of 400 years of Chinese history (The Search for Modern China).

And Donald Kagan's retelling of the Peloponnesian War is both well done and a nice companion to that other book on the same topic.

Oddly, I haven't seen anyone recommending works of art history. Emile Male's study of Gothic architecture (The Gothic Image) is a great companion to Huizinga's book, and for anyone interested in the cathedrals of France, a must read before your next visit.

Seven Machos said...

Clearly, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.

Aspasia M. said...

1) Edmund S. Morgan

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. By Edmund S. Morgan. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1975. x, 454 pp. $11.95.

Just excellent. You will laugh, you will cry, you will wish you could write like Morgan & it will make you re-examine what it meant to live in the colonies during the Revolutionary Era.

Book description: "If it is possible to understand the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom, Virginia is surely the place to begin," writes Edmund S. Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom, a study of the tragic contradiction at the core of America. Morgan finds the key to this central paradox in the people and politics of the state that was both the birthplace of the revolution and the largest slaveholding state in the country. With a new introduction. Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize and the Albert J. Beveridge Award."

2) Laurel Tatcher Ulrich

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Beautiful. Especially good as a present -- my grandmother loved it. Won the Pulitzer.

Ballard's account is stark, dry, stripped of passion like the stripped-down prose of a minimalist novel. But passion lurks beneath the unfeeling exterior, waiting to be unearthed by a careful reader.

(from this review (It's also been made into a film --

Some other historians I'd suggest would be Alan Taylor (William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (Vintage) (Paperback) and John Putnam Demos (The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (Vintage).

Mark Daniels said...

You're right about Solzhenitsyn. 'The Gulag Archipelago' is as telling a history as one can find, told by a novelist on top of his game. 'The Cancer Ward' is another great one from AS.

And speaking of novelists writing history: Norman Mailer's books from the 60s and 70s, 'Armies of the Night' and 'Saint George and the Godfather' are worthy entrants. While Mailer is often swept away by his own whimsy and sheer delight in his own intellect--I think of the Neil Young song, "I've been in my mind, it's such a fine mind," to which I always wanted to say, "Yeah, sez you."--Mailer's whimsies often contain insights of deadly accuracy. (This isn't true of his absurd studies of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer and other writers treat her like a Rorschach Blot to whom they can assign any meaning they wish.)

Mark Daniels

PS: I've always liked Neil Young, though never a fan. So, don't think I was ragging on him.

Aspasia M. said...

Bernard Bailyn (Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson); Edmund S. Morgan (The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop); and James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom), to name a few.

Oh, yes - all quite wonderful.

TW Andrews said...

Peter The Great by Robert Massie is one of the best books I've ever read, fiction or no. It's meticulously researched and provides immeasurable insight into one of Russia's greatest leaders as well as 17/18th century Europe. Really an amazing book.

I haven't read his numerous other books but I have no doubt that they are excellent as well.

Aspasia M. said...

And because this is a law blog:

Donna Merwick, Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York (Hardcover)

I haven't had time to read it yet -- but friends say it's great.

Book Description from Amazon:

He was the only one. He was the only man to have committed suicide in the town's seventeenth-century history." So begins Donna Merwick's fascinating tale of a Dutch notary who ended his life in his adopted community of Albany. In a major feat of historical reconstruction, she introduces us to Adriaen Janse van Ilpendam and the long-forgotten world he inhabited in Holland's North American colony. Her powerful narrative will make readers care for this quiet and studious man, an "ordinary" settler for whom the clash of empires brought tragedy. Like so many of his fellow countrymen, Janse left his Dutch homeland as a young adult to try his luck in New Netherland. After spending a few years on Manhattan Island, he moved on to the fur trading settlement today known as Albany. Merwick traces his journey to a new continent and re-creates the satisfying existence this respected burgher enjoyed with his wife in the bustling town. As a notary Janse was, in the author's words, "surrounded by stories, those he listened to and recorded, the hundreds he archived in a chest or trunk." His familiar life was turned upside down by the British conquest of the colony. Merwick recounts the changes brought about by the new rulers and imagines the despair Janse must have felt when English, a language he had never learned, replaced his native tongue in official transactions. In any military adventure, truth is alleged to be the first casualty. Merwick offers a poignant reminder that the first casualties are in fact people. As much a musing on what history obscures as what it reveals, her book is a superior work by a master practitioner of her craft.

Elizabeth said...

I am glad to see Tuchman, Tacitus, and Caesar turn up here. Let me add the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Peopleand the anonymous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

I'm also glad to Stephen Ambrose. I think his writing qualifies, simply because it moved so many people to care about the regular guys who found themselves on the front lines in a world at war. I don't think we'd have a World War II museum without Ambrose's influence.

Now, his successor as head of University of News Orleans' Eisenhower Center is less accomplished and doesn't get my recommendation. Think Magic Bus if you don't know who I'm talking about.

pct said...

Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages.

Jakob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Jon574 said...

Churchill, of course, but especially The River War, which hasn't been noted yet.

And my favorite, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer. Extraordinary prose, thorough reporting, written by a man straining to remain objective about the horror around him.

Nickelcity said...

Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Really a wonderful book.

RHodnett said...

I second SippicanCottage's mention of William Manchester's biography of Churchill, especially the second volume (The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill; Alone: 1932-1940). Fascinating topic, thoroughly researched, and well-written.

Truly said...

Yay! This is such a great topic! Thanks for all the suggestions--I'm definitely going to have to hit Amazon later today. Here's some more:

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks

Galbert of Bruges, The Murder of Charles the Good

My medieval history professor used to say that most historians could only fantasize about writing as well as Sir Richard Southern. His Making of the Middle Ages (1953) and Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1962) are particularly worthwhile.

The French historian Marc Bloch is also quite readable in translation. The Historian's Craft is must-reading for aspiring historians.

According to legend, Bloch was taken by the Germans during WWII and sent into exile in the German countryside--he was too valuable to kill outright. He got bored cooling his heels at some farmhouse, and proceeded to write a history of the Middle Ages...from memory.

tcd said...

Definitely on the lighter side of things, I would recommend Edith Wharton's travel writings and stories of New York during the Gilded Age.

SippicanCottage said...
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Balfegor said...

Oddly, I haven't seen anyone recommending works of art history. Emile Male's study of Gothic architecture (The Gothic Image) is a great companion to Huizinga's book, and for anyone interested in the cathedrals of France, a must read before your next visit.

Art history? That summons to mind Henry Adams' Mont St. Michel and Chartres. Not sure if it's really "history," per se, and not sure it can really be called "well-written" or "literary," but I remember it fondly as my first introduction to the Middle Ages, back when I was small.

I must say, though, that this is an excellent thread. I am going to go seek out this Waning/Autumn of the Middle Ages.

Troy said...
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Troy said...

Elizabeth and the Magic Bus.... That is great Elizabeth! Ambrose lit a fire under me to research my (deceased) Grandfather and his WW2 tailgunner POW exploits.

I would second Gregory's History of the Franks.

If you like lurid, then you would love Asbury's The Gangs of New York (and other volumes on New Orleans, Chicago, etc.). They are a mixture of journalism, history and myth-making, but if NYC was even half that grotesque in the 1840s. History reading as pulp fiction, not sublime, but very interesting. There's a lot that is acurate and much that is questionable.

And I have to give love to Marco Polo. I spent many days in my backyard as a kid dealing with Kublai Khan (in between fighting Nazis and Japanese).

stephenb said...

I know you emphatically excluded historical fiction, but I can never resist plugging Howard Bahr's "The Black Flower," a tale surrounding the Battle of Franklin in 1864.

Pogo said...

Paul Johnson also wrote a wonderfully fun and vicious read, Intellectuals, in which he rips Rousseau, Marx, Ibsen, Brecht, Chomsky, Sartre, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, and Lillian Hellman into tiny little pieces for their arrogance and utopianisms.

He actually likes the artwork under discussion, but argues that such talent doesn't translate into superior ideas on governing, marriage, or anything else..

EMC said...

Macaulay's "History of England since the Accession of James II" is wonderful. Churchill (who affected to loathe him) obviously learned more from Macaulay than from Gibbon.

Barbara Tuchman? Please.

Elizabeth said...

A sad artifact of the post-Katrina world is that my university has had to cut faculty ranks. In many cases, longtime faculty chose to retire, to allow their position to continue and a younger colleague to remain employed. A reminder of their lives pops up in hallways around campus, in the form of stacks of books they've emptied from their offices. Today, in the Philosophy department, I picked up a a set of Greek tragedies, a Modern Library history of philosophy, and a fairly new copy of The Plague," which I spotted easily after the thread on Camus this week. Now I'll have to take a walk through the History department to see what I can add to my library. It's kind of a sad atmosphere here, and there's something about perusing the detritus of 30 and 40-year careers that feels both callous and respectful.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. I don't entirely agree with his pessimism, but it's an excellent read.

Evan said...

Great thread.

My recommendation: The Life and Times of Mexico, by Earl Shorris. 3,000 years of history, yet written with a novelist's eye for detail. I set aside all the other books I was reading to finish it.

Finn Kristiansen said...

Wow. Some huge readers here. I am not particularly well read, so my suggestion can be taken in that light.

But I agree with LetMeSpellItOutForYou who recommended Barzun.

I have enjoyed reading From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, (1500 to the present).

Barzun weaves history together in a kind of narrative, but packed with information, and some topical digressions.

My goal in reading the book was to get a better knowledge of the important themes, ideas and people that have shaped western culture. But I wanted something that would not be like a textbook (though, ultimately, I want to get a kind of comprehensive textbook too, where I can quickly look up dates, people and ideas).

Bob said...

Tom Holland's Rubicon and Persian Fire. Also Killer Angels.

Mark Daniels said...

Wow! I had also forgotten about the two-volume Manchester history. It is great. I remember when I read it thirty years ago, there were places when he described the everyday lives of those living in post-World War 2 America, his America, where I was moved to tears. He was a fabulous writer. His biography of MacArthur is also outstanding.

Frederick Lewis' two volumes on the US of the Twenties and Thirties also merit mention now that I think of it.


Peter Lee said...

We made it this far without a mention of Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution? It is the embodiment of history as literature.

Morison's biography of Columbus can be included on such a list.

Nice catch on the newer translation of Huizinga, it is much better.

Eric Cochrane's Florence in the Forgotten Centuries is another choice.

grumpyTA said...

Taylor Branch's trilogy of life in the MLK years is wonderful. I especially like the third book At Caanan's Edge. A wonderful read.

Sanjay said...

Given their popularity I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Mark Kurlansky's "Cod" ("Salt" is good, too) and of course Simon Winchester's "Professor and the Madman" (and damn near everything else) -- maybe we're restricting it to larger books?

Of course Donald's "Lincoln" certainly, in my opinion, deserves the praise it's getting here -- so warm. I likes Remini's book on Webster too, though, not as much. I don't know if it's fair to count Pamuk's "Istanbul" which isn't quite in the style of most history.

But I'd also like to single out for special mention David Landes' "Revolution in Time." In fact he wrote another book some while back -- "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" -- discussing many of the same problems as "Guns, Germs and Steel" although suggesting rather different root causes.

I think Sneden's diary, published as "Eye of the Storm," is a hell of a read, and of course just to make the safe call nobody will quibble with there's "Education of Henry Adams," a better read than the Adams works cited above (albeit a memoir, not "history" in a larger sense).

John Keegan can't not write brilliantly, but the first thing I read of his was "A History of Warfare," and it holds a special place in my heart: lots of people I know who don't like reading history, read it and liked it.

Squeezing another in: Schama's "Embarassment of Riches" on Holland in the 1600s.

And as for whoever recommended Thucydides: blech. Yeah, it's a classic of realism, yeah, everyone ought to read it. But it's the 21st century and I lose a lot of respect for the guy as a writer when he puts his damn thesis in everybody's mouth as though I were an idiot. You feel like you're being force-fed.

SippicanCottage said...
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Doug said...

Others have mentioned Ambrose and I know there has been some controversy about him, and that he might be too best sellerish for some, but I really enjoyed his trilogy on Nixon.

Also, Richard Reeves wrote a book on JFK that went day by day in his presidency that was interesting, though not always in depth. It did take some of the shine off the propaganda from JFK's Camelot flunkies. It showed how he really wasn't quite the civil rights hero that his insiders portrayed him as.

Aspasia M. said...

A history book I remember simply for its beautiful, smooth sentences is Paul Gilje's, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834.

Anyone interested in Revolutionary Era New York City should read this book. (although he jumps the shark with his epilogue.)

Reading his sentences is like drinking a really good glass of wine. Smooth.

Johnny Nucleo said...

I don't know if I've ever read a beautifully written history book. But I've read some that were fun, rip-roaring page-turners.

Three that I would classify as fun histories are "Rubicon" by Tom Holland, and "A World Lit Only By Fire" and "The Glory and the Dream" by William Manchester.

"The Guns of August" is not exactly fun, but it is a rip-roaring page-turner. I don't remember if it is beautifully written, but it is a beautiful work of history. It almost feels like a movie, like there's this bomb about to go off and all the different characters in their own ways are trying to stop it. But the bomb goes off.

vnjagvet said...

Reading the Ambrose Biographies of Eisenhower and Nixon together is a engaging way to get a comprehensive look at politics of WWII and the early cold war from several perspectives.

I had forgotten how good Manchester's Last Lion was. This thread persuades me to read it again this summer as a "senior citizen".

Another interesting biography is Caro's massive critique of New York's Robert Moses The Power Broker. In its 1000 some pages is a wealth of information about the realities of state and local government both good and bad.

Debbie said...


There are other biographies of Eleanor out there but none as good as this. Published in 1950. Might be hard to find but worth the search. Her whole life was a "page turner".

Jay said...

Agree with most of the above. Manchester was a great writer and I enjoyed "American Caesar" and, though autobiographical,"Goodbye Darkness".

Niall Ferguson's "The Cash Nexus" is a model of clarity and like "Guns,Germs,andSteel" gives the lay reader an unusual and interesting take on the events of the past. "Titan" and "The House of Morgan" excellent contemporary tellings of the gilded age and taken together form a picture of late 19th century commercial history. "Titan" does put a heavy coat of whitewash on John D.

Dating myself, Douglas Southall Freeman's "R.E.Lee" gives an interesting and highly readable picture of early 19th century America in its first two volumes. His "George Washington" is also excellent though best read in the abridged version.

Jay said...

Agree with most of the above. Manchester was a great writer and I enjoyed "American Caesar" and, though autobiographical,"Goodbye Darkness".

Niall Ferguson's "The Cash Nexus" is a model of clarity and like "Guns,Germs,andSteel" gives the lay reader an unusual and interesting take on the events of the past. "Titan" and "The House of Morgan" excellent contemporary tellings of the gilded age and taken together form a picture of late 19th century commercial history. "Titan" does put a heavy coat of whitewash on John D.

Dating myself, Douglas Southall Freeman's "R.E.Lee" gives an interesting and highly readable picture of early 19th century America in its first two volumes. His "George Washington" is also excellent though best read in the abridged version.

Among the ancients don't forget Xenophon, much superior to Herodotus IMHO.

Karl said...

Some philosophy that can be read and appreciated as great literature...or maybe some great literature that can be read and appreciated as philosophy:

Aristophanes - The Wasps

Dante - The Divine Comedy

Machiavelli - The Prince

Nietzsche - Thus Spake Zarathustra

Any poem by Novalis, especially Hymns to the Night

Goethe - Sorrows of Young Werther

Flannery O'Connor - A Good Man is Hard to Find

Bob said...

As long as we are doing Tom Wolfe, include _The Right Stuff_.

JDM said...

I can only add yet another recommendation to the late William Manchester's "The Last Lion" trilogy biography of Churchill and his times.

Hopefully, whoever has been signed up to complete Vol 3 1941-1965 will have enough of Mr Manchester's notes, and innate ability, to pen a worthy conclusion.

I have my eye on a set of Churchill's Histories, which I have been wanting for read for probably 5 years now.

Lastly, there is an English author by the name of Giles Milton who writes excellent little "personal" histories which generally show the turn of history on a hinge. His "Big Chief Elizabeth", dealing with the initial English settlements in North America is an excellent read.

Some excellent recommendations in here though - I am inspired to add a few titles to my library.

Armed Liberal said...

I'd suggest:

Page Smith's "A New Age Now Begins" - a brilliant history of the Founding;

Bernal Diaz del Castillo - "The Conquest of New Spain"

Wallace Stegner's "Beyond The Hundreth Meridian" about Powell.


Todd said...

David Blight, Race and Reunion

DannyNoonan said...

I was always partial to Harry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe series. But maybe that's just beautifully written when you're twelve. I still retain a great deal of what I learned in those books though.

Henry said...

One more on the art history front:

Mary McCarthy's The Stones of Florence

GrumpyTA, I really like Taylor Branch's MLK series, though I actually thought the first two books were much better than the third. The last seems sketchier and thematically weaker than the first two. I think Branch just had too much ground to cover.

knoxgirl said...

I'd add to Johnny Nucleo's "Fun" category, South by SIr Ernest Shackleton and Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden, page-turners, both.

Wombat Rampant said...

I'd like to recommend Samuel Eliot Morison's official history of the U.S. Navy in World War II, probably the only official history that won't put you to sleep - for those lacking time to tackle all fifteen volunes, The Two-Ocean War is a good precis.

Also worth the time is Alistair Horne's Franco-Prussian War trilogy, The Siege of Paris, The Price of Glory, and To Lose A Battle. While we're on the subject of the French, Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy and Hell In A Very Small Place are excellent studies of the French war in Indochina and especially the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Others have recommended works by William Manchester, which are all good, but I find his American Caesar particularly compelling, as well as A World Lit Only By Fire.

Catton's history of the Civil War is excellent, as is his Army of the Potomac trilogy, and his biography of Grant makes an interesting counterpart to Freeman's work on Lee. (I found Freeman incredibly prolix and excessively detailed, myself, and couldn't finish Lee's Lieutenants.)

David said...

Bailyn's Ideological Origins may be the best book ever written about the run-up to the Revolution.

Morgan is also excellent.

I would add George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England, which is better literature than history, and C. Vann Woodward's great biography, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel.

Robert R. said...

U.S. Grant's Memoirs are the first thing that spring to mind. Frank, self effacing at times, and not mean spirited.

How would one categorize Maus?

somross said...

I second Paul Fussell's "Great War and Modern Memory" (take a look also at "Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays" and "Wartime"). I had him in grad school - fantastic lecturer. I'm using his "Abroad" in a travel writing class.

For biography - I have never read anything as good as Robert Caro's biography of LBJ.

Kent said...

Lots of good suggestions.

I've never forgotten Rhodes' remark that all the great physics papers of the 20th century were beautifully written, in prose so lucid that they were perfectly accessible to a layman like himself.

As a Ph.D. astronomer, I have to agree. If I can't explain a concept in physics to an intelligent layman, I know I don't really understand it myself yet.

I know it's a good biography when the death of the subject brings a tear to my eye. Tuchman's biography of Stilwell did that for me. It's quite an accomplishment to make the reader that sympathetic with a tough old S.O.B. like "Vinegar Joe."

A couple of other dark horses:

[i]The American Heritage History of the Second World War[/i] may sound more like coffee table material than great literature, but the text was written by journalist C.L.Sulzberger, who definitely knew how to turn a phrase. Find a copy of the original edition. The more recent edition, revised by Stephen Ambrose, corrected a number of mistakes and added new material such as Ultra, but at the cost of butchering Sulzberger's prose and discarding most of the brief oral histories of the original edition, which is just criminal.

Perret's [i]There's A War to be Won[/i] is pretty ordinary for the most part, but the chapter on the Graves Registration Service is so different in style and literary quality from the rest of the book that you wonder how it could be the same author. The chapter begins "This is what happened to you if you were killed" and proceeds in an Hemingway-esque manner (meant as a compliment in this case) to outline the fate of those U.S. servicemen killed in the Second World War. Definitely worth looking up.

Schuft said...

Annotated C++ Reference Manual by Margaret Ellis and Bjarne Stroustrup.

True it's software programmer's manual, but it's a magnificent read.

AST said...

Byron York's The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.

I like Victor Hanson's books and Stephen Ambrose, but Barbara Tuchman is definitely going to be one of my next purchases.

Bernard Lewis is excellent for his breadth and depth of knowledge about the Near East and Islam. He's the antidote to Kevin Barrett.

Kirk Parker said...

As long as Solzhenitsyn is being mentioned, First Circle is also excellent.

And someone else made Mark Daniels say "wow", but I'm here to make him say "ouch". Mark, your bit about Neil Young is based on mangled lyrics. It's "I've been in my mind, it's such a fine line...". Or were you joking maybe?

somross2 said...

For an old read that's still worthwhile - try Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians," especially on Edward VII and Florence Nightingale.

dave said...

Artyom Borovik wrote a fantastic account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan called "The Hidden War." It taught me more about the Iraq war than I ever though I'd know.