Big category today, everyone, not least because the Time list of 100 Best Nonfiction titles included a lot of History books, as well as a "Social History" category. What? I think "Social History" is one of those lame categories where no one really knows what it means. So we're dispensing with the two categories and listing Best-ish History titles, full stop. Are you ready?
Here's Time's titles (Social History is in the second list):
The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown
Carry Me Home, by Diane McWhorter
The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes
The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee
A People's History of the United States,* by Howard Zinn
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer
The American Way of Death, by Jessica Mitford
Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer
The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan
Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond
Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Other America, by Michael Harrington
Why We Can't Wait, by Martin Luther King Jr.
Working, by Studs Terkel
These lists are so lame I don't even know where to start. First of all, why are books like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A People's History of the United States called History and not Social History? Why is a book like Nickel and Dimed called Social History and not Investigative or Journalism or Current Affairs? I refuse to play along with these categories--I'm going to offer a separate list of Investigative titles where books like The Beauty Myth and The American Way of Death (which is old, now, but that doesn't really make it "History") can go.
I don't disagree with a few titles on this list; the Studs Terkel in particular is an important and interesting oral history, and I've heard good things about The Fatal Shore, but I'll admit I've not read the majority of them, and the ones I have read didn't do much for me (in particular I've never understood the appeal of Jared Diamond, I think his writing is SO BORING).
Anyway, fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride; for me, History is a tough category, because I don't read a ton of it, and I tend to like the under-the-radar titles rather than the big popular Stephen Ambrose types (even before the many plagiarization charges against Ambrose I was not a fan). So this may be a somewhat underdoggy type list.
The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang. This one should be on Time's Best History list. Period. Rather than paying lip service to women's history with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (which also doesn't really belong in the History category), a book of history written by a woman, telling the true horror of what happened to all of Nanking's residents during the second World War, but particularly to its women residents.
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, Jean Hatzfeld. An oral history of the Rwandan genocide, told by the people who did the killing. It's unsettling in the extreme but you should read it nonetheless. Philip Gourevitch's We Regret To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is a close second in this category.
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill. This title was quite popular when it came out, and with reason (I thought). Cahill's a good writer and even if you don't agree with his emphasis on the importance of Irish monks saving civilizations' manuscripts, it'll give you something to think about. Just very nice, not overdone, readable history.
Hiroshima, by John Hersey. Well, this one was written at the time, so it probably counts as Investigative as well, but now it's a fantastic read about the history of what atomic weapons do to people. Once you read this one I promise you you'll never forget learning about radiation burning people's kimono patterns directly onto their skin. Hersey was an interesting writer, although some of his works are dated now; another interesting war reporter to consider for historical purposes is Martha Gellhorn.
Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan. Boo on Mark Kurlansky (for me his books are too long and somewhat dry); I say this one is the best "micro-history" out there. Sullivan explores world and New York City history through the story of its lowliest and arguably most disgusting residents. (I'm still recovering from learning, in this book, that adult rats can squeeze themselves through a hole the size of a quarter.)
In Our Hearts We Were Giants: The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe--A Dwarf Family's Survival of the Holocaust, by Yehuda Koren. I no longer read books about World War II--historians and publishers seem to think it's the only era in history worth writing about, and I've just read TOO MUCH of it--but when I did this one stood out. The story of a dwarf family being experimented on by Nazi doctors is horrific, but its emphasis on the family's love and support for one another highlights the other side of human nature. Another history which is told on human scale on the topic is Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the Struma and World War II's Holocaust at Sea.
Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, Alison Weir. I'm using this one as a stand-in for all the great Historical Biography titles I should be listing, but which I can't think of right now. It's a good idea to read any Alison Weir--she's a well-known and skilled (and comprehensive--her books are the big thick impressive type) historical biographer. I really like getting my history through biography, as a matter of fact; another great choice here would be Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, from which I learned most of what little I know about Russian and revolution history.
I know I'm missing a TON. What history titles would you suggest?
*I've read maybe half of this one. I keep trying, I liked Howard Zinn, but I just can't get into it.