Best Books in History
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon (1776-1789)
“History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind, ” Gibbons wrote in this classic history tracing the Roman Empire from the 1st Century BC to the 15th AD. Vast, learned, opinionated, and witty, it is an absolute epic.
A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway (1929)
Set in the Italian theatre during the FirstWorldWar, Hemingway’s short, powerful, semiautobiographical novel is guaranteed to make any grown man cry, but it is also a penetrating study of camaraderie in the face of danger and is, as you’d expect, beautifully written in telling sentences.
1066 and All That
W C Sellar and R J Yeatman (1930)
Subtitled “A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates” 1066… is a tongue in cheek send-up of the way history used to be taught, and may yet be again.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
“This book is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure”: so begins the remarkable semiautobiographical, humane and poignant novel about Remarque’s experiences in the trenches and back in Germany after the war.
Legion of the Damned
Sven Hassel (1953)
A History of the English-Speaking Peoples
Winston Churchill (1956-1958)
A magisterial, if patchy, four-part history of Britain from Anglo-Saxon times to 1914, it was begun in 1937 but subsequently much delayed. Subjective, erratic, with a romantic view of the world, it is full of character and incident, and is beautifully written.
Sword of Honour Trilogy
Evelyn Waugh (1952-1961)
Loosely autobiographical, this three-part meandering, tragic-comic farce paints a convincingly chaotic picture of the British muddling their way to winning the war. It is beautifully world weary and cynical, as the hapless hero is buffeted by the forces of class, waste, spite, cowardice and inefficiency.
A History of the Crusades
Steven Runciman (1951-1954)
A classic three-part history of the crusades written with such elegance and dash, one might think he was making it all up. Historians have since frowned on his technique, and recent research has revealed some factual flaws, yet Runciman remains required reading.
The Making of the Middle Ages
R W Southern (1953)
Joseph Heller (1961)
The blackest and yet funniest book ever written on any subject. The “hero” is a bomber pilot flying sorties over Italy where thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him, but it is not them he’s most frightened of: it’s his own side who seem determined to do the job themselves.
The Guns of August
Barbara W Tuchman (1962)
Tuchman was awarded the first of two Pulitzer Prizes for this superb analysis of how and why the European powers went to war in 1914, and what could have been done to stop them. Tuchman enlivens the complex issue to make the book as compulsive as any thriller.
Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
A satire of more than just war, Slaughterhouse-5 mixes elements of science fiction with the novel’s central event: the bombing of Dresden in 1945. Vonnegut was there at the time, an American PoW, who survived the fire storm by sheltering in a slaughterhouse.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Dee Brown (1970)
Following the heartbreaking travails of the American Indians from their first contact with white settlers until the massacre atWounded Knee, Dee Brown’s book covers what was in effect their ethnic cleansing by the American Government.
The Face of Battle
John Keegan (1976)
The late John Keegan dissects the ordinary soldier’s experience in three key battles from English history: Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme and shows how, despite the technological changes, what is asked of a man in war remains fundamentally the same. An absolute classic of the genre.
Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294-1324
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (1978)
A ground-breaking micro-history of a small French village, researched from the records of a local inquisitor who went on to become Pope. Revelatory of the medieval mindset, as well as more general society.
A Bright Shining Lie
Neil Sheehan (1988)
The life and death of an American colonel who went to Vietnam in the 1960s, didn’t like what he saw – cowardice and incompetence, rather than a wrong war – and so went on to tell the world’s press about it. A fascinating study, not just of the war but of a man.
Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
Christopher R Browning (1992)
Browning uses records to show how an ordinary group of men became involved in the Final Solution and how just as easily humanity in general might be perverted to evil.
Dava Sobel (1998)
Responsible for many copycat histories of previously overlooked trifles, Dava Sobel’s diminutive masterpiece describes 18th-century British clock maker John Harrison’s invention of a timepiece accurate enough to measure longitude at sea.
The Discovery of France
Graham Robb (2007)
A very different France to the one we think we know emerges from Graham Robb’s unconventional history: one that is impossibly rural, remote, and insular, where no two villages speak the same dialect and peasants hibernate through the winter. The shock is how recently this was the case.
Tacitus (100-110 AD)