In today’s fast-paced, increasingly digital world, sometimes the best respite is curling up with a good book. And when you’re struggling to make sense of our chaotic current climate and unpredictable future, often history can provide a great sense of comfort – which makes sense when you consider that you can’t really make sense of the present without understanding the past. If you enjoy a good history book and are looking for your next read, we’ve put together a list of books that will take you back in time. Whether you’re interested in the Victorians or the Vikings, there’s something here for everyone. Here are 20 of the best history books.
The Mongols conquered more countries in 25 years than the Romans did in 400 – and under the command of Gengis Khan, they abolished torture, granted religious freedom, and revoked systems of aristocratic privilege. In spite of their progressive achievements, most people know very little about the Mongols – but Jack Weatherford’s New York Times bestselling book is a chance to remedy this. This excellent work of revisionist history tells the story of how an extraordinary, complicated and ambitious man created, then led, an empire that shaped civilisation and the modern world forever.
Widely accepted to be one the most brilliant thinkers of all time, Stephen Hawking’s legendary book A Brief History of Time is just as readable today as it was when it was first published in 1988. Using everyday language and layman terms, Hawking unravels some of the greatest mysteries in history, from black holes to the big bang. If you’ve ever wondered whether time could run backwards, whether the universe is truly infinite, or if there was an actual beginning of time, this book will captivate you.
The State of Israel was established in 1948 following a complex history of pain and anguish. In this awe-inspiring novel, Daniel Gordis weaves his own intimate knowledge of the country together with historical documents, interviews and letters to tell a comprehensive, yet vivid account of Israel’s cultural, political and economic history. Gordis highlights that although Israel’s past is rife with conflict, these events do not fully depict the true spirit of Israel. As he guides us through the milestones of its history, he paints a portrait of the people, and of a country that has overcome so much adversity – but which still faces insurmountable challenges today. Dating from the beginnings of Zionism, right up to the present day, this book is perfect for anyone who is looking to gain more insight into the formation of modern Israel.
Winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies is a groundbreaking piece of scientific literature that argues that the factors which shaped the modern world and humankind were not race or identity, but geography and environment. In this fantastic book, Jared Diamond examines the fates of Europeans, Asians, Native Americans, Africans, and aboriginal Australians by studying their respective histories, biologies, ecologies and linguistics. Providing an expert insight into what caused some societies to thrive over others, this book also explores the effect germs, weapons of war, and religion had on our societies.
The origin story of the United States is at times brutal, and at times uplifting, but always fascinating. Written by one of the USA’s most esteemed historians, 1776: America and Britain at War is one of the best ways to learn about the birth of America. David McCullogh’s book tells the story of how a group of independent, feuding colonies became one united country, and how the British Empire did everything they could to stop this from happening. From George III to George Washington, 1776 is a comprehensive piece of historical narrative that will grip you from start to finish.
Though rejected by nine out of 10 publishing houses that it was submitted to, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa became an unexpected bestseller and won countless awards – and for good reason. This book tells the jarring story of how Belgium’s King Leopold II exploited the Congo to such an extent between 1885 and 1908 that it was classed as a holocaust, and millions were left dead. Yet a hundred years later, few remembered these atrocities. Written in part to raise awareness of this awful exploitation, Hochschild’s book is harrowing, yet compelling, and also reveals plenty of intriguing insights about Leopold himself.
More than 1,500 years after their empire crumbled, Ancient Rome still fascinates people – and its influence on science, mythology and history still remains relevant today. ‘SPQR’ is the Roman abbreviation of their state, Senatus Populusque Romanus – the Senate and People of Rome – and this is exactly what this great book delves into. Written by history professor Mary Beard, SPQR provides a new look at a magnificent and ancient empire, and how it grew from a shabby iron age village to a mighty power that controlled half the world.
Another one for readers interested in American history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West tells a very different story of the rise of the USA. While mainstream history tends to focus on the USA’s quest for independence, the early exploitation of the Native American people is rarely given the focus it deserves. In this book, Dee Brown tells the appalling story of how the original inhabitants of America were robbed, murdered and exiled, and all but wiped out by white settlers who took their land, lives and liberty.
Easily the most popular history book of recent years, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind manages to tell the story of how humans evolved to conquer the world and its resources. Beginning 70,000 years ago, Yuval Noah Harari describes how early cavemen began hunting and gathering, and how, over the millennia that passed, this evolved into the relentless factory farming of today. From painting on cave walls to designing and creating cyborgs, Sapiens tells the astounding story of humanity’s success – in all its incredible, yet often savage, glory. A must-read.
Biographies about Winston Churchill certainly aren’t few and far between, but arguably the most definitive account of the former Prime Minister of England is The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. The unusually long title suits an unusually long book: at 1,200 pages it’s not an easy read, but it will captivate anyone interested in the life and times of one of Britain’s most famous leaders. The book covers both Churchill’s achievements and his weaknesses, and gives a revealing insight into a man who was a remarkable statesman, but also an imperfect one.
History is known for focusing on men far more than women – which is why Rachel Swaby’s book, Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, is a breath of fresh air. This is an account of 52 inspiring women who became some of history’s brightest female scientists. Covering Nobel Prize winners, rocket scientists, and lesser-known women who made enormously significant discoveries, Headstrong examines who the first female scientist role models were, what they discovered and accomplished, and what we can learn from their achievements today.
More than 900 years ago, European history was changed forever when the Pope commanded an enormous Christian army to take over Jerusalem. What followed was a ferocious war for the Holy Land that spanned nearly 200 years. From Richard the Lionheart to the emperors of Byzantium and the Knights Templar, The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land is an epic and fast-paced retelling of one of the most influential periods in European history. Written by Thomas Asbridge, professor of medieval history at the University of London, you’ll learn plenty about religion and war, and how the crusades continue to shape modern politics today.
If Victorian London is the era that interests you most, you’ll be gripped by Steven Johnson’s book The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. By 1894, London had emerged as one of the world’s most important cities, but its infrastructure left much to be desired, and the filthy conditions were the perfect breeding ground for cholera. This book tells the story of the devastating cholera epidemic that engulfed London in 1854, and how an anaesthetist and a clergyman finally defeated the disease. Johnson also delves into all aspects of Victorian urban living, from street life to how this plague changed the way we live.
Ian Kershaw is one of the UK’s most distinguished historians, and his book Hitler remains the definite biography of the tyrannical Nazi leader. Originally a two volume biography, this book combines both accounts to tell the full story of Adolf Hitler – how a failed Austrian art student rose to unparalleled power, started a devastating world war, killing millions of people, and destroying the lives of millions more. A compelling account of a leader who inflicted human suffering on an unprecedented scale.
If you think you know the story of the 1888 Whitechapel murders, this astonishing piece of historical detection will leave you reeling. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper tells the real stories of the ‘canonical five’, the five women who were killed by the Ripper, and then subsequently smeared and shamed by the press as prostitutes. In this book, historian Hallie Rubenhold discovers that only two of the five women were in fact prostitutes, shines new light on their lives, and calls time on the misogyny that the Ripper myth has thrived upon. Utterly compelling.
Whatever your religious beliefs, there’s little doubt the bible is a central book of Western civilisation. A History of the Bible tells the full story of the Bible – how it was constructed, how it came to be held sacred by two faiths, and how it’s woven into our language and culture. John Barton’s book sheds new light on how meaning was drawn from the Bible, how these unusually disjointed writings relate to each other, and how some texts were considered to be holy while others were discarded. Writing with plenty of emotional and psychological insight, Barton also comprises what we know about the people who wrote the Bible – as well as what we’ll never know.
Toby Green’s groundbreaking new book A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution will transform your view of West Africa. It tells the devastating story of the slave trade and how, until 1650, the relationship between Africa and Europe was one of equals, who traded goods like shells and gold peacefully. A Fistful of Shells explores themes of warfare, taxation, trade, religion, art and extravagance, and offers a brand new perspective on one of the world’s most historically important regions. Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize, the Cundill History Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, this is a thoroughly absorbing read.
Another one for fans of ancient Rome, Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore tells the story of a hugely significant figure in Roman history. As the great niece of Tiberius, the sister of Caligula, the wife of Claudius and the mother of Nero, Agrippina was a woman of unparalleled power, and her role within the Roman empire was utterly unique. Emma Southon’s book is an extraordinary account of a woman who was beautiful and intelligent, yet ruthless and terrifying, who lived a remarkable life – until she was murdered by her own son at the age of 44. A gripping and exciting read.
There have been many books written about the Vietnam War, but few have made an impact as significant as A Rumor of War. Written by Vietnam War veteran Philip Caputo, this book details the experiences of a young American soldier who served in one of the ugliest wars in modern history. First published in 1977, A Rumor of War focuses on how Caputo’s experiences fighting in the Vietnam jungles, and feeling forgotten and discarded by his own country, changed him forever. A book that altered that way the USA perceived the Vietnam War, that’s still highly relevant today.
If you’re fascinated by the Vikings, you’ll be equally fascinated by Neil Gaiman’s brilliant book. If you think a mythology book doesn’t belong on a list of non-fiction history books, it might be because you aren’t yet familiar to the extent in which legends and lore give insight into the history of cultures. Norse Mythology sheds light onto the belief systems and cultural practices of the Vikings, and after reading this book, you may just find you have a new interest in myths and folklore.
If you enjoy reading, or are hoping to spend more time engrossed in a good book, why not consider joining the Rest Less book club over on our community forum? Whether you’re looking to swap suggestions for books to add to your reading list, want to leave a review of a book you just read, or would like to chat to others about a book that made an impact on you, this is the place to do it. If you’re looking for more general inspiration for which book to pick up next, have a read of our article on the 27 of the best must-read novels.
Have you read any of these books – or have you read any other interesting history books lately? We’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions! Send us a message at [email protected] or leave a comment below.