Seeking help with "501 Must-Read" history

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Seeking help with "501 Must-Read" history

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Edited: Dec 2, 2014, 8:10am

I'm a follower of 501 Must-Read Books, and one of its sections is devoted to History. I don't anticipate reading all 500, but I'd definitely like to tackle the ones that intrigue me most or come most recommended by others. The first criteria is easy to determine, the second I need help with.

I've already read these History titles:
The Armada - Garrett Mattingly
Hiroshima - John Hersey
A History of Warfare - John Keegan
A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies - Bartolome de la Casas
The Story of English - Robert McCrum

I definitely intend to read these ones:
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life - John Lee Anderson
Berlin, The Downfall - Antony Beevor (aka The Fall of Berlin 1945)
Millenium - Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Edward Gibbon
The Holocaust - Martin Gilbert
Histories - Herodotus
The Fatal Shore - Robert Hughes
Seven Pillars of Wisdom - T.E. Lawrence
Parallel Lives - Plutarch
Citizens - Simon Schama
Origins of the Second World War - A.J.P. Taylor
A Distant Mirror - Barbara Tuchman
A People's History of the United States - Howard Zinn

Here's the remainder I'm wondering about. Among these titles, any standouts I should definitely pursue (or maybe can just skip?)
The Age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980-1420 by Georges Duby
The Annals by Tacitus
The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg
Chinese Shadows by Simon Leys
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt
Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf
Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino
The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler
The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama
Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul by Roy Porter
Frozen Desire by James Buchan
God's First Love: Christians and Jews Over Two Thousand Years by Friedrich Heer
Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock
The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Aries
The Iron King by Maurice Druon (pointed out as fiction by >3, see below)
Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis
Leviathan and the Air-Pump by Steven Shapin
The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans by Plutarch
London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade by Henri Pirenne
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel
The Naked Heart by Peter Gay
The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal
Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox
Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine As Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings
Pax Britannica: the Climax of an Empire by James Morris
The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer
Rites of Spring : The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins
The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 by Eamon Duffy
The Trial of Socrates by I. F. Stone
The Women's History of the World by Rosalind Miles
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Dec 1, 2014, 10:45am

I loved The Trial of Socrates but more for its comments on what makes a democracy work, rather than its history. The reviews on LT make disparaging comments about his knowledge of the period.

Pagans and Christians looked interesting but very detailed. At the time I wanted the Cliff Notes so I put it down.

I read Bullock's Hitler and liked it, and always meant to pick up Hitler and Stalin. However, after reading Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler which is a look at the premises behind the different explanations of Hitler, including Bullock's, I decided I'd probably be better off reading something just on Stalin.

I've read a couple of the "Daily Life" books, though not the one on Rome. They tend to get lost in details.

Have fun.

Dec 1, 2014, 6:20pm

I am not keen on "bucket lists", but I suppose they have their place. You find yourself wondering why some works are listed and others not.

The Iron King by Maurice Druon is a historical novel. Excellent, but it's fiction. You should be wary of The Fatal Shore. Hughes's expertise was art, and he's out of his depth, determined in spite of the historical record to portray New South Wales as some sort of hell on earth.

Dec 1, 2014, 8:04pm

When I look at that list I see not history as history (that is the struggle to make sense of the past), or even history as enjoyment. Rather I see history as "great literature"; works that have been read by and influenced the discourse of the "educated public." Reading them would provide some insight into the background of that discourse. Though whether all of the books listed rise to that level of significance is certainly debatable.

If that's not what you're looking for, I would skip the list entirely and come up another method of identifying worthwhile historical works.

Dec 1, 2014, 8:25pm

Of the aforementioned only Spengler, Burckhardt and Fanon seem relevant to me.

Dec 2, 2014, 8:09am

>3 dajashby:, took a closer look at the 501 descriptor and it admits Druon's is a work of fiction. Not the first weird categorization I've found. You've given me a valuable tip re Hughes, thanks. His book has seemed to be universally praised, so it's good to finally have a grain-of-salt perspective.

>4 eromsted:, thanks for framing this list as a whole. I think I'm okay with that definition provided it's been pointed out to me. Based on the few I've read I'm actually finding them good in terms of enjoyment (although that's the wrong word with some something like Hiroshima, etc.)

>5 Phlegethon99:, "relevant"?

Dec 2, 2014, 6:04pm

Relevant as in worthy to be put on a must-read list. Bernard Lewis and Fernand Braudel could be added, too.

Edited: Dec 3, 2014, 2:19am

Three enthusiastic recommendations:

Roy Porter was a brilliant, incisive historian and an uncommonly graceful writer, and Flesh in the Age of Reason is well worth your time. It's "Big Picture" history in the intellectual sense: An exploration of how the mental furniture we still live with got arranged the way it got arranged, and why.

The Cheese and the Worms is -- like The Return of Martin Guerre -- one of those books that's assigned, year after year, in introductory European history courses, as a way of trying to show students that the past isn't just the present in funny clothes, but (in many ways) a genuinely alien world. There's a reason for that: It's short, accessible, and it works.

Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins is another modern classic; along with Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (not on the list, though it could be), it's the scholarly wellspring of the "WWI changed everything" school of cultural history. It's no longer the last word on the subject (if it ever was), but it's well worth your time.

Four "read if the concept grabs you, otherwise skip" recommendations:

Leviathan and the Air Pump, about the role of experiment in 17C physical science, is a towering, landmark work in the history of science, but not an easy point of entry to the field. If you're interested in science, though, it's worth a look.

Pandaemonium is a collection of eyewitness accounts to the industrialization of Europe: valuable as such, but skippable if you're looking for historical writing as it's usually understood

The End of History and the Last Man was hugely influential in its time (c. 1989), but would -- I suspect -- read like a period piece now. We know what the post-Cold-War world looks like now, and it doesn't look like Fukuyama's utopia.

Pax Britannia by James Morris is a superb example of the grand-narrative, history-as-literature school of historical writing (see also Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative) -- great reading, but no historian of Britain (or imperialism) would see it as authoritative.

And six you can skip unless you aspire to read The Classics because they're The Classics (a perfectly legitimate ambition -- just not one I happen to share!):


Dec 3, 2014, 7:56am

>8 ABVR: lots of helpful reviews here, thanks. Your six classics - not good reading, just work, is that what you mean?