I am a proud history geek. In the early 1990s through to the late 2000s I was like a sponge that absorbed information at the rate of one new non-fiction history book per month. It’s fair to say I built a sizeable library of interesting history books. Today, I am not as prolific with my attention to history but I still manage to pick up a new history book occasionally that has something interesting to say.
If you are looking for a good history book, it often truly depends on what you’re interested in. In my case I’m primarily fascinated by ancient and medieval history, military history and twentieth century history. Interestingly, the books I have present here are primarily popular history books. They are aimed at a wider readership rather than a specialist field for scholars or students. For the record I have dozens of history titles on Roman history in my home library which is by far my favourite area of history. For the purposes of this article I’ve tried to stay clear of making them my sole focus, but I have to admit that task was somewhat difficult.
When considering which history books left their greatest mark on me, I followed my gut and asked myself why I read those books at the time. The answer was interesting and evidently helped me understand a little bit about myself and my place in this world. Anyway, without further ado here below are my thoughts on the books that I am fond of the most.
I first stumbled across Byzantine history almost thirty years ago when I was looking for information about medieval Croatia (my parents birthplace) and its history. In the early 1990’s there were not many books dedicated solely to Croatia, so I was getting my fix by reading other European history that mentioned Croatia. One of these books was entitled The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe 500-1453 (1971) by Dimitri Obolensky. It was here that I was instantly mermerized by this long enduring section of the medieval Roman empire that we refer to as Byzantine history. I didn’t forget about Croatia, but everything was put on hold while I peeled away at all the layers that was Byzantine history.
Edward Gibbon, as a writer and historian has so much to tell us about Roman history and all its intricate little stories and side events that fill the lines of his pages in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). Overall it is hailed as a masterpiece because of it relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources. Though, there is also much in it that offends and draws criticism from scholars and modern historians. In particular, his scathing views of Christianity and his neglect to fully focus on the later history of the empire (Byzantium). Nevertheless, he is often referred as the first ‘modern historian of ancient Rome’. If you manage to pick up a good abridged version of his ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ you will definitely be in for a treat. I think I would have to draw breath first if I were to tackle his full 6 volume version, at some 1,500,000 words!
The Story of Art (1950) by Ernst Gombrich has often been cited as the most popular art book ever written. Since its original publication date it has been revised sixteen times. I came across it about twenty years ago, when I read about the death of Ernst Gombrich in a newspaper article that describe him as the most eminent art historian of our lifetime. The book itself, is a survey of the history of art from prehistory to the modern era. Its accessibility and ease in understanding important developments in art helped me look at the world differently. Importantly, it is a good take off point to make your own enquiries and to advance your knowledge with further reading elsewhere.
A newly revised and updated edition of Misha Glenny book The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999 seems to come out every few years. I still have my 1999 first edition copy and have no desire of trading it in for a new one. Everything you ever wanted to know about the modern history of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Greece, Bulgaria Romania and Albania is outlined in immaculate detail. Glenny writes about the troubled region not only with broad stroke but also with small details most history books don’t even consider. I always knew the Great Powers and their intervention in the Balkans was problematic. Glenny makes you wonder what the region might have looked like if the Great Powers had truly cared about these nations instead of using them as political pawns.
While I adore David Lean’s 1962 epic historical film drama about the legend and exploits of T. E. Lawrence of Arabia, I first truly learned the truth of the infamous victory at Damascus, via Jill Hamilton’s extraordinary book First To Damascus: The story of the Australian Light Horse & Lawrence of Arabia (2002) and how the Australian Light Horse rode into Damascus ahead of Lawrence of Arabia. It was a truth that had been buried and conveniently forgotten for a very long time leaving Lawrence and his Arab rebels with the credit. In short, the Australians that swept through Damascus participated in what was part of “The Great Ride”. It was the last great cavalry expedition not seen since Alexander The Great. This book was timely in my own education in understanding Australia’s role during the Great War. It also helped lead to a deeper fascination in my attempt of understanding the complexities of the Middle East.
One of the most interesting accounts on the history of twentieth century Europe was written by Richard Vinen in a book called A History In Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century (2000). Vinen’s account of Europe in the twentieth century was a refreshing look at the narrative and or the stories that shaped the lives of all Europeans. A one-size fits all approach to history is thrown out the window in Vinen’s book as he opened my eyes to not only the political history of Europe but also the important social, economic and cultural issues that shaped Europeans lives throughout its long century marred by upheaval, change and violence. A lot of readers might be put off by how Vinen deviates often from the narrative to focus on issues like women in work or the power of the church, but this is what simply makes this such a refreshing account.
When we talk about the Great Powers we often refer to their leaders like Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt and what they did for their countries. Roosevelt for instance used his presidential power to make America a superpower. His heir apparent Truman was seemingly left with the same task of trying to keep America at the top of the heap. But as I had learnt quickly in reading Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson and Bush turned a presidential power into a threat to America’s future (2007), President Truman was faced by threats to America’s standing which left him in a precarious position. The book goes on to examine how three presidents Truman, Johnson and Bush all but drained American power by fighting three unwinnable wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
It is of no surprise that one off my favourite historians Roger Crowley chose to write about Byzantium, more specifically, Constantinople, The Last Great Siege 1453 as his first book in 2005. Like many who travel to modern day Istanbul, one can’t quite help but fall in love with the city and its rich history. (More recently I discovered Richard Fidler’s history of Constantinople called Ghost Empire. He too, fell in love with Istanbul on a trip there in 2014.) Anyway Crowley’s remarkable retelling of the final sack of Constantinople leaves the reader completely satisfied. His wealth of knowledge is very evident and his passion for it too. It’s no wonder he was asked to contribute to Netflix’s TV documentary history drama about the epic siege called Rise of Empires: Ottoman (2020).
Simon Reid-Henry’s remarkable story of Fidel Castro and Ernesto (Che) Guevara’s friendship is one of my favourite books of all time. Within its pages I learnt how their friendship helped shape my understanding of the Cuban Revolution. In truth, there is more to Fidel & Che: A Revolutionary Friendship (2008) than just the Cuban Revolution and as Reid-Henry points out the camaraderie between Che and Castro and the part they played during the Cold War is nothing short of great theatre. On a personal note, I’ve always been fascinated by Che’s final months in Bolivia, his death and martyrdom and eventual place in twentieth century history. After reading this book I’m interested more than ever in understanding how an Argentine became the face of revolution.
Gerri Chanel’s Saving Mona Lisa: The battle to protect the Louvre and its treasures from the Nazis (2014) is one of the more recent history books in my home library that found its way into my heart. My interest in World War Two and art collide in spectacular fashion in Chanel’s fascinating story of how the French raced to stop the Nazis from plundering and destroying Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and other amazing priceless art. In short, I’ve always thought of art as one of our most important treasures. That said, reading how the French risked their lives to protect it is absolutely incredible.