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By Neil Brien

Tuesday, March 25, 2003
BookShelf
 
By Neil Brien
Wednesday, April 23, 2003
 
I own a lot of books on various history topics. My wife loves to read as much as I do (she was an English major in college, taught English for 8 years, and is passionate about good literature); however, often she will gently nudge me towards reading fiction. Often it is some work by Steinbeck, or maybe Irving. Right now she is urging me to read Hermann Hess' Sidharttha. Whenever she does this, I usually say something like "I'll read that one next", or something to that effect.  Funny thing is, she is always dead-on as far as recommending a good book. A couple that come to mind are House of Sand and Fog and East of Eden , two books that are truly great reads.

Great literature aside, I love reading history.  There are many, many books out there that will regurgitate events and dates at you; we all read enough of that blather in high school, right?  There are tons upon tons of badly written history books.  Trouble is, that's what most people think about whenever they think of the term "history book." 

Well, the good news is that for every badly written, dry history textbook, there is a well-written, interesting book on a particular historical topic.  Good history is not contained within the pages of textbooks; it is Christopher Columbus' diary as he made his way to the New World.  It is the letters written back and forth between Jefferson and Adams in the later part of their lives.  It is the wonderfully complex stories of people like Pontiac, Theodore Roosevelt, and Che Guevara .  The phrase, "truth is stranger than fiction" is certainly true when it comes to history. 

Anyway, here are some of my favorite books, in no particular order. 

  • Angel in the Whirlwind, Benson Bodrick; this is probably my favorite comprehensive work on the Revolution.  The style is a bit heavy, but I think Bodrick does a great job of intertwining the personalities with the actual events, using excerpts from letters and diaries to illuminate various points or circumstances. 
  • Mornings on Horseback, David McCullough; I've read a bunch of McCullough's stuff, and I like this book in particular.  This is a study of Theodore Roosevelt from his youth to his ascension into politics, until he became President.  I had no idea what kind of energy Roosevelt had!  Stricken with what is now thought to be asthma as a young boy, he constantly pushed his bofy to the limits of physical endurance, emerging as a teen "by force of will" as a mentally and physically dominant person.
  • Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose; profiled in my April Reads.  This is the natural follow-up to his book on the D-Day invasion itself, picking up things on the day after the landing, June 7th, 1944. 
  • From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple; profiled in my May Reads.  I haven't read anything else by Dalrymple, but I plan to in the near future.  I had no idea there were people such as these living under the cloud of ancient Orthodox Christianity.
  • Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1851), Sir Edward Creasy; Creasy was a British historian who was also a lawyer and educator.  This book includes accounts of Saratoga (1777), The Battle of Hastings (1066), the Spanish Armada (1588), and Waterloo (1815).  This was a big hit in the mid-19th century, and remains one of the most venerable of books on the subject of warfare.
  • Democracy in America; Alexis De Tocqueville; de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who came to America in 1831 to study the underpinnings of democracy in America.  At the time of his visit, France had lived through the French Revolution, the bloody period of the Restoration, and the subsequent Second Republic.  de Tocqueville was obsessed with analyzing, understanding, and documenting why democracy seemed to work so well in America and immersed himself in the political, cultural, geographic, and demographic review of our country. This was really the first objective view and commentary on our society since the nation's founding barely 50 years before.
  • Stars in their Courses, Shelby Foote; one of my favorite books on the subject of the Civil War, and my favorite on the subject of Gettysburg in particular.  Next to McPherson, no one is as steeped in the subject.  His study of the Gettysburg campaign is exact in all details, yet what really comes through is Foote's story of the whole affair.  The reader can flow along with the narrative and imagine all of the activities and events because Foote is an expert storyteller in addition to being a master historian.
  • Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood; won the Pulitzer Prize.  Presents the view that there were many cultural, economic, and geographic obstacles that stood in the way of independence.  This is a serious read for anyone interested in learning just how "radical" our founders were in pulling off the upset of the millenium.
  • American Scripture, Pauline Maier; profiled in April Reads.  A wonderful story of the history of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Killer Angels, Michael Shaara; while this isn't a history text in the purest sense, this historical novel about the Gettysburg campanign won the Pulitzer Prize.  Told from the viewpoints of several key participants including Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain, this novel tells the events from a very personal perspective.
  • The rest of the Shaara series; Jeff Shaara; after his father died, Jeff Shaara picked up the reins and completed two other Civil War novels, one predating Gettysburg, the other following events after the battle to the end of the war.  His most recent novels have focused on the American Revolution.  I like historical novels if they are well-researched; these certainly fit the bill:
    • Gods and Generals, Jeff Shaara; beginning of the Civil War to Gettysburg
    • The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara; Gettysburg to the end of the war
    • Gone for Soldiers, Jeff Shaara; about the Mexican-American War
    • Rise to Rebellion, Jeff Shaara; about the events leading up to and including Bunker Hill during the American Revolution
    • The Glorious Cause, Jeff Shaara; takes the reader from Bunker Hill's aftermath to Cornwallis' surrender 
  • The Discoverers, Daniel Boorstin; I like Boorstin a lot because his books do two things for me.  First, he is voluminous on his subjects, providing sufficient detail on everything you could want to know without taking an advanced class on a subject.  He gives the reader a wealth of little-known facts that provide a richer reading experience.  Second, he can link important yet disparate events together across timelines and geographies to provide a macro-view of a given subject.  This book profiles major discoverers in many different areas including geography, medicine, and philosophy.  
  • Cleopatra's Nose, Daniel Boorstin; a collection of essays that cover a variety of topics including the design and construction of the U.S. Congress building, and the great Egyptian queen herself.
  • The History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon; the definitive study on how the Roman Empire decayed over a period of 500 or so years following the "Pax Romana", ending with Germanic and Italian warlords ruling what was left, which wasn't much.  Anyone who thinks that the U.S. will simply rule the roost indefinitely should read this book.  The Romans thought they were invincible, too.
  • Lawrence of Arabia , Jeremy Wilson; a study of the "desert-loving" Englishman. 
  • Spirit of 1776, Henry Steele Commager (editor); this is a huge volume of correspondence composed before, during, and after the events of the American Revolution.  This is a fascinating reference text for anyone really interested in gaining true first-hand perspective from folks that lived through those times.  The style of the correspondence reflects the times, and it's a bit hard to grasp just what the heck any given person is trying to say at times; however, it's still cool to read exactly what people like Benedict Arnold, John Adams, Washington, Franklin, and many others had to say.
  • Norton Anthology of Interviews (Christopher Sylvester, editor); includes what is thought to be the first published interview, that of an interview conducted with Brigham Young in 1859.  Includes interviews with a wide assortment of historical figures including Gertrude Stein, Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Kennedy, and many others.
  • April 1865, Jay Winik; profiled in April reads.  Puts forth the argument that the month of April, 1865 was the most pivotal month of the entire national experience up to that point. 
  • A History of the Arab Peoples , Albert Hourani; a comprehensive history.
  • The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes; tells the story of early Australia; how much of the country's early population were former prisoners from British prisons that were shipped to Australia. 
  • The First Salute, Barbara Tuchman; a profile of how the infant United States came to be recognized as a true independent, sovereign nation by the world.  This is a cool book because you come away with an appreciation for how the U.S. did not simply take its place in the world of nations by announcing its independence.  It was a slow process.
  • The Lessons of History (1968), Will Durant; Durant authored this book with his wife towards the end of their careers.  It is a summary and reflection of sorts written after they had produced volumes of works on history.
  • The Norman Conquest, Edward Freeman; the definitive study of the Norman conquest of England.

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