History doesn't have to be the stultifying grind you remember from high school. It can be shocking, and funny, and sad — and even if you don't remember all the dates and faces, it can leave you knowing more about the world. Here are 10 popular history books that will change your view of reality.
Top Image: Philip of Macedon, interior illustration from A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich
Written over the course of only a few weeks by an Austrian art historian, this history book was meant for children. It was published in 1936, was an immediate hit in German-speaking countries, and was translated into several languages, but not English. Its author, Ernst Hans Gombrich fled to England in 1939, and when he became a naturalized citizen, he harbored fond hopes of translating his earliest work into the language of his adopted country. Life got in the way. He died before translating it fully, and the work was finished by his assistant and his granddaughter.
A Little History of the World is valuable in the sense that it gives us a perspective of history from the point of view of German-speaking people. It's also somewhat old-fashioned in its language and its views, giving us a glimpse of how history changes over time. What really sets it apart is its determined accessibility. Most history books are sharp, hammering home a point. The writing in A Little History is gentle, simple, and lyrical. The illustrations are beautiful. It's a great review of world history that reminds us that just because something has to be understandable for children doesn't mean it has to be stupid.
Yes, we all know this one from Good Will Hunting, and also from every politically-minded bookstore clerk's shelf of recommended reading, but it got its reputation for a reason. Of all the books on this list, it is probably the toughest to read. Dense, long, and and almost unbearably depressing, it recounts the history of seemingly every person that the United States of America unjustly crushed. And it looks like we (or they, depending on who is reading the book) crushed a lot.
But that's not the point of the book. The point of the book may be even more depressing. A People's History examines America's much-celebrated social progress and finds it wanting. For example, in the early chapters Zinn examines the close ties between African slaves and European indentured servants during colonial times, and how those ties were severed when the indentured servants were granted more rights. Regarded one way, rights for indentured servants, who were frequently assaulted and sometimes maimed by their "temporary" owners, was a triumph. Regarded another way, it was a slight advance which was nothing compared to what might have done if the two groups had stuck together. Or if the poor and the emerging middle class had stuck together. Or if the upper and middle class had stuck together. The "history" of the people seems to be very much focused on what kind of bribes, or concessions, the rich and powerful offer in order to destroy the alliances that exist among the poor and disenfranchised. While you may not agree with the book's assertions, it is a book that will make you consider rethinking who, exactly, is politically on your side.
You've plowed through the tough early reading. Now, for a bit of fun, want to read about naughty nuns? Be warned, these nuns are naughtier than most, given that in 1858, at the beginning of the story, one of them flees the convent after nearly being poisoned to death. The woman who fled, a German princess, had discovered that another nun at the convent was the leader of a strange cult. The rituals of the cult included sexual initiation rites, to which even visiting priests submitted.
If this sounds like a trifle after A People's History . . . well, you deserve a trifle after A People's History. But more importantly the book doesn't just illuminate an old scandal at a convent. Sister Maria Luisa, the "mistress of novices" in more ways than one, didn't form a murderous sex cult merely through the force of her personality. She leaned on years of female prophetesses, formidable abbesses, and the cult of the Virgin Mary. Nominally, the religion was patriarchal, prudish, and committed to poverty, yet at this time it provided a reliable conduit for poor and obscure women to achieve wealth and power through heavily sexual ecstatic preaching. This book is a good way to learn how, within an extremely orthodox movement, counter-movements can spring up. And these counter-movements gain strength by seeming to be even more orthodox than the current orthodoxy.
This is a furious history of one of the world's most famous royal lines. G. J. Meyer takes a blow torch to the popular legend of the Tudor dynasty — which is fair enough, considering what the Tudors did to many of the people who opposed them.
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn's passionate story of a love turns into a petty grab for money, with a little personal stubbornness thrown in. The corrupt Catholic church is, compared to the royal court, an open-handed charity and an admirable meritocracy. "Bloody Mary," is a surprisingly tolerant and sympathetic queen. Elizabeth, instead of being the strong lady we see in movies, becomes a vain, deluded, and terrified woman scrabbling for her own survival.
Not everyone agrees with this portrayal of the royal family. It is an unusual viewpoint and even today the Tudors have great PR. Everyone reading this will undoubtedly see multiple incarnations of the Tudor legend across multiple media. It's worth it to read one account that is both unsentimental and unsparing.
6. The Little Red Guard, by Wenguang Huang, and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick
Both of these books look at ordinary family life in a repressive Communist society, and document how political ups and downs affect people helpless to control their situation. Nothing to Envy tracks six North Korean characters over fifteen years. Some lived in terrible poverty and some were comparably well-off. Some were blinded by idealism and some were cynical. At times they loved the oddities of the nation they lived in - black outs are great times for romance. At other times they simply tolerated the deprivation. Sometimes they feared for their lives. Eventually, each person came to the painful realization that the country they loved, and had served all their lives, did not even remotely value them.
The Little Red Guard follows one family, but it's a family that contains multiple generations. These generations show how much China changed in a short time. Wenguang Huang's grandmother suffered under the old imperial system, but she treasures its traditions. When Wenguang is eight, she announces that she wants more than anything to be buried with a traditional ceremony and in a coffin. Wenguang's mother and father are products of the Communist system, who find the grandmother's superstition foolish, but don't want to hurt her. Their experiences with the system have taught them to be cautious, and so each step in a simple process is filled with fear and paranoia. Wenguang also provokes fear in his parents. He's part of the hip younger generation that comes of age when orthodoxy seems to recede, and young people learn new ideas at the university, start their own businesses, and visit the west. Eventually, he learns that he probably should have listened to his elders.
Both of these books do more than take us on a tour through the history of the countries. They show us the way that ordinary people experience, adjust to, and view nation-wide political upheaval. The books show that a person, a people, and a nation are not the same thing.
It's a difficult job to run through the history of two continents from 25,000 BC to 1491 AD, but if any book comes close, it's this one. The book is designed to set up and knock down various myths about the pre-Columbian Americas. The result is a mix of disorienting new revelations and oddly intuitive information.
The former comes in the form of understanding the way people in the Americas "terraformed" the land, sculpting whole ecosystems in order to encourage the growth of the plants and the migration of the animals that suited them best.
The latter reminds us of facts that, if applied to most other continents, we would already have guessed. For example, the fact that when an existing empire is invaded, the people who have been oppressed by the empire are more likely to help the invaders — or use them to advance their own goals — than they are to fight on the side of the people who have been oppressing them. The book gives readers an understanding of two continents, both of which had a complicated existing power structure before new people in boats showed up.
When the Mongol Empire makes an appearance in most histories, it's just a group of horsemen coming into town and wrecking everything. They're the biker gangs of the Middle Ages. Other than their numbers and their choice of transportation, they're not really any different from the anarchic and ultraviolent gangs in the Mad Max series.
Mongol Queens explains the history of Mongol Empire, including the fact that is was an empire, not just a swath of land controlled by horsemen. The empire affected every major government from Europe to China, politically, economically, and culturally. Ever seen the weird cone-hats that European noblewomen wear in old paintings? That's called a hennin. It's an imitation of the boqta headress worn by the mongol queens, who were familiar figures to anyone who planned on sending a trade delegation eastward. More importantly, the history of the Mongol empire fills in some very important holes in history, including what maintained the balance between Christianity and Islam in Eurasia.
You need a strong stomach to read this book. Warfare is never gentle, but back then many different cultures celebrated the brutality of war and the book is full of people who get burned alive or have their various orifices sewn closed. It's also called the "secret history" of the Mongol queens for a reason. On io9 we've speculated on whether modern feminism is a lasting movement, as there have been many times when women made great strides forward only to be beaten back. This was one of those times. It's sad to see the organized way a ruling family turns on its female members, breaking down their kingdoms, even at the expense of the empire.
The title refers to buzkashi, the much-reported game in which players on horseback try to drag a goat carcass towards a goal. The game plays out on in many different conditions, can go on for days, and has few official rules or strategies, but many unofficial ones. The implication is, as Ansary states, that if you don't know the rules you shouldn't be on the field of play. It's an accurate metaphor for Afghanistan's history, and this book chronicles both the many failed attempts to modernize Afghanistan, and the many interrupted attempts Afghans made to modernize on their own.
Ansary provides some concrete examples of why the modern attempts to steer Afghanistan in certain directions backfired, but the book is about more than policy screw-ups, and about more than Afghanistan. If you favor support and diplomacy over military action and interventionism, but haven't been able to articulate why, this is probably the book for you. (If you support military action and interventionism this is also probably the book for you, as it will present you with the arguments you'll need to counter.) Through repeated examples, involving both the United States and the Soviet Union, Ansary shows the importance of supporting a people rather than steering them, of piling on the good will and the sense of fellowship between countries, and, most importantly, of never making yourself the enemy.
This book coined a very useful phrase - and that's the one thing that everyone can agree on about it. Perhaps that's not true. Another thing that most people can agree on is that this was not meant to be an objective look at history. In some ways it's almost propaganda. Arendt writes with a specific purpose and with intense anger. The famous phrase, "banality of evil," was devised by Arendt to strip Nazism of glamour and might. The holocaust was perpetrated, Arendt alleges, by boring little people who numbly did their boring little piecemeal jobs until millions of people ended up dead.
The book provokes ire today in part because of some of Arendt's anger was aimed at the Jewish community. Arendt sharply criticizes the actions of some Jewish people during the trial and during the Holocaust, while seeming in places to absolve Eichmann of evil intent - although not of responsibility. When it was published, it ended friendships, including some of Arendt's friendships. So this isn't a book to be read on its own. It's a document that needs to be read with both its praise and its criticism.
If there's one thing you need to read after skimming this list, it's anything by Barbara Tuchman. A master of style, she ushers in her books with graceful images and sprinkles them with quotes you will want to memorize so you can obnoxiously use them at parties. One such quote is, "To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states." It's from the book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, but it should be the thesis statement of The March of Folly, published in 1984, six years after A Distant Mirror.
The March of Folly is exactly what it sounds like. It skips through history, examining "one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests." Tuchman looks at the ever-more-belligerent policies that Great Britain took to tax the American colonies, despite the fact that imposing the taxes cost more than could be collected from the taxes. She looks at the Renaissance popes, whose greed and nepotism demoted the church in popular opinion from something divine to something that stood in the way of the divine. She examines the tortured logic that the United States used to convince its government and its citizens that Vietnam was the "first domino" that would lead to continent-wide communism. And she leaves the reader with a profound desire to personally thank and promote the first military leader or politician to candidly admit a mistake and take steps to reverse a failing policy. This isn't just a book that changes the way we look at history, it's one that changes the way we will look at the future.