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Covering the study of US literature from its origins through the present, American Literary History provides a much-needed forum for the various, often competing voices of contemporary literary inquiry …
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The ALH Review is a source for in-depth reviews assessing the significance of new books for specialists in American literary history. The Review engages new scholarly and critical studies by deliberating on important shifts and advances in various sub-fields, and exploring major developments in research.
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8 Books For The Literary History Lover
We have a number of writers here at Arcadia Publishing, most of whom have enjoyed the excuse to decline social gatherings to write more. As a homage to the writers of the past, here are eight books that highlight literary history that we think you’ll enjoy. Read on for Hemingway’s history and regional works!
1. Hemingway’s Sun Valley: Local Stories Behind His Code, Characters and Crisis
It was a cold, “windless, blue sky day” in the fall of 1939 near Silver Creek. Ernest Hemingway spent the morning working on his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls . Local hunting guide Bud Purdy attested, “You could have given him a million dollars and he wouldn’t have been any happier.” Educator Phil Huss delves into previously unpublished stories about Hemingway’s adventures in Idaho , with each chapter focusing on one principle of the author’s “Heroic Code.” Huss interweaves how both local stories and passages from the luminary’s works embody each principle. Readers will appreciate Hemingway’s affinity for Idaho and his passion for principles that all would do well to follow. You can find this book here !
2. Ernest Hemingway & Gary Cooper In Idaho: An Enduring Friendship
In the autumn of 1940, two icons of American culture met in Sun Valley, Idaho—writer Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper. Although “Hem” was known as brash, larger-than-life and hard-drinking, and “Coop” as courteous, non-confrontational, and taciturn, the two became good friends. And though they would see each other over the years in Hollywood, Cuba, New York, and Paris, it was to Idaho they always returned. Author Larry Morris celebrates the story of that unforgettable friendship. You can find this book here !
3. Edith Wharton’s Lenox
In 1900, Edith Wharton burst into the settled summer colony of Lenox. An aspiring novelist in her thirties, she was already a ferocious aesthete and intellect. She and her husband, Teddy, planned a defiantly classical villa, and she became a bestselling author with The House of Mirth in 1905. As a hostess, designer, gardener, and writer, Wharton set high standards that delighted many, including Ambassador Joseph Choate and sculptor Daniel Chester French. But her perceptive and sometimes indiscreet pen also alienated potent figures like Emily Vanderbilt Sloane and Georgiana Welles Sargent. Author Cornelia Brooke Gilder gives an insider’s glimpse of the community’s reaction to this disruptive star during her tumultuous Lenox decade. You can find this book here !
4. Monroeville: The Search For Harper Lee’s Maycomb
For 39 years, people from all over the world and all walks of life have come to the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, in search of a place called Maycomb. Monroeville: The Search for Harper Lee’s Maycomb explores the relationship between Harper Lee’s hometown and the setting of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird . Included are photographs of the Lee family and the author in her early years; the sights of Monroeville that undoubtedly inspired the setting of Maycomb; the cast of the Oscar-winning film adaptation that premiered in 1963; and the Mockingbird Players, a group of Monroeville residents who, each year in May, present an authentic production of the two-act play adapted by Christopher Sergel. You can find the book here !
5. Literary Excursions in the Southern Highlands: Essays on Natural History
Extending from Roanoke to Mount Oglethorpe and bounded by the Appalachian Mountains, the Southern Highlands is one of the most diverse natural areas in North America. From beautiful flora like the Fraser magnolia to rare ecosystems such as the mountain cedar glades, the area has been an inspiration for writers and naturalists since it was first explored by William Bartram in 1775. Essayist, poet, and naturalist George Ellison explores the abundant wonders of the Southern Highlands in a series of humorous, scientific, and literary essays vividly illustrated by artist Elizabeth Ellison. You can find this book here !
6. Tennessee Literary Luminaries: From Cormac McCarthy to Robert Penn Warren
The Volunteer State has been a pioneer in southern literature for generations, giving us such literary stars as Robert Penn Warren and Cormac McCarthy. But Tennessee’s literary legacy also involves authors such as Peter Matthew Hillsman Taylor, who delayed writing his first novel but won the Pulitzer Prize upon completing it. Join author Sue Freeman Culverhouse as she explores the rich literary heritage of Tennessee through engaging profiles of its most revered citizens of letters. You can find this book here !
7. Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard To Robert Hayden
From Ernest Hemingway’s rural adventures to the gritty fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, the landscape of the “Third Coast” has inspired generations of the nation’s greatest storytellers. Michigan Literary Luminaries shines a spotlight on this rich heritage of the Great Lakes State. Discover how Saginaw greenhouses shaped the life of Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Theodore Roethke . Compare the common traits of Detroit crime writers like Elmore Leonard and Donald Goines. Learn how Dudley Randall revolutionized American literature by doing for poets what Motown Records did for musicians. Join author Anna Clark as she unveils Michigan’s extraordinary written culture with a mixture of history, literary criticism, and original reporting. You can find this book here !
8. Literary Philadelphia: A History Of Poetry & Prose In The City Of Brotherly Love
Since Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin put type to printing press, Philadelphia has been a haven and an inspiration for writers. Local essayist Agnes Repplier once shared a glass of whiskey with Walt Whitman, who frequently strolled Market Street. Gothic writers like Edgar Allan Poe and George Lippard plumbed the city’s dark streets for material . In the twentieth century, Northern Liberties native John McIntyre found a backdrop for his gritty noir in the working-class neighborhoods, while novelist Pearl S. Buck discovered a creative sanctuary in Center City. From Quaker novelist Charles Brockden Brown to 1973 U.S. poet laureate Daniel Hoffman, author Thom Nickels explores Philadelphia’s literary landscape. You can find this book here !
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The Best Historical Fiction of 2021
The year’s most transporting novels have taken us to the past and around the globe.
Credit... Boyer D'Agen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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By Alida Becker
- Dec. 9, 2021
This has been a great year for historical fiction, which makes choosing a list of the 10 best even harder than usual. What to do? Opt for some personal favorites, arrange them alphabetically and wish the list were twice as long.
THE ART OF LOSING , by Alice Zeniter. Translated by Frank Wynne. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 448 pp., $28.) In this prizewinning French novel, a young Parisian attempts to reconnect with the Algeria that shaped and silenced her paternal grandfather.
CATHEDRAL , by Ben Hopkins. (Europa, 624 pp., $28.) A nimble mesh of intersecting plots that rest on the slow but not so steady, generations-long construction of an enormous church in medieval Alsace.
LIBERTIE , by Kaitlyn Greenidge. (Algonquin, 366 pp., $26.95.) In Reconstruction-era New York, the daughter of a Black female doctor struggles to reconcile her own independence with her mother’s deeply felt vocation, traveling all the way to Haiti before coming to a difficult resolution.
THE MAGICIAN , by Colm Toibin. (Scribner, 512 pp., $28.) A masterly evocation of the life and times of the great German writer Thomas Mann, showcasing his relations with his contentious family and his intensely private sexual yearnings.
MATRIX , by Lauren Groff. (Riverhead, 272 pp., $28.) In this novel inspired by the 12th-century poet Marie de France, an impoverished English nunnery is the setting for a stirring exploration of the many forms of devotion.
NORA , by Nuala O’Connor. (Harper Perennial, 496 pp., paper, $16.99.) A lively fictional rendition of Nora Barnacle, the minimally educated, blue-collar woman who propped up one of literature’s most challenging highbrow writers, James Joyce.
THE PROPHETS , by Robert Jones Jr. (Putnam, 396 pp., $27.) The emotional wounds of the inhabitants of a plantation in antebellum Mississippi are laid bare in a swirl of fiercely poetic prose, impelled by the dangerous bond shared by two enslaved men.
SEND FOR ME , by Lauren Fox. (Vintage, 272 pp., paper, $16.95.) A trove of letters discovered in the American Midwest reveals the agonizing experiences of a German Jewish family separated by the steady rise of Nazism.
THE SINGING FOREST , by Judith McCormack. (Biblioasis, 302 pp., paper, $16.95.) A young lawyer in present-day Toronto grapples with the moral reckoning of war crimes as she probes a mass murder committed by Stalin’s security police in 1930s Belarus.
TENDERNESS, by Alison MacLeod. (Bloomsbury, 640 pp., $29.) This ambitious blend of research, guesswork and fabrication is centered on the creation and reception of D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.
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100 monumental novels from literary history
Almost 4,000 years ago, an unknown scholar in ancient Mesopotamia wrote the first known book on a series of clay tablets. The story was “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” a fictionalized recounting of the life of an ancient king of Uruk. While the art of telling stories dates back even further, this singular epic poem is in large part responsible for the development of literature as we know it today.
In the millennia since this story was first written down, there have been millions, if not billions, more books written and published. A voracious reader could charge through a stack a day and not even make a dent in the world’s literary canon. This truth poses a problem for many readers: How does one know which few thousand books to read in a lifetime? How do you determine which are worth the time and brain space, and which are not?
Today, Stacker helps readers solve this age-old quandary—at least when it comes to novels. We’ve dug through the literature of the world, using sources like Goodreads, awards lists, and New York Times Best Seller columns to round up 100 monumental novels everyone should read before they die. These books are important for a variety of reasons. Some made the list because of the powerful stories they tell. Some made the list because of the way their form or style changed writing as a whole. Some made the list because of the representation they give to underseen and undervalued cultures or identities, and some made the list simply because, like “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” their very existence changed the course of the world.
Two caveats to note before diving into the following pages. Only novels (including some ancient epic poems) were considered for the list. So many important and influential authors, like William Shakespeare and Niccolò Machiavelli, have been left out, not because their contributions aren’t great but because they never authored long-form fictional narratives. Also, for many of these works, especially the earlier ones, an exact publication date is difficult to nail down. In an effort to remain consistent, we consulted Goodreads for all publication years.
So, from ancient Greek epics like “The Odyssey” to modern hits like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” read on to find out which novels Stacker considers must-reads.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
- Author: Anonymous - Date published: 1800 B.C.
Literary scholars agree that “ The Epic of Gilgamesh ” is the oldest existing piece of written fiction in the world. Early versions of the text, which is an epic poem detailing the adventures of a real-life Sumerian King named Gilgamesh, date as far back as approximately 1800 B.C. However, the most complete versions of this foundational text are more recent, dating from the 12th century B.C.
- Author: Homer - Date published: 750 B.C.
“ The Iliad ” is an epic poem about the roles of men and gods during the Trojan War. Another foundational text of world literature, the poem is attributed to the blind poet Homer. For centuries, scholars have debated whether Homer really existed , with many believing the poem may have actually been written by a group of individuals over a long period of time.
- Author: Homer - Date published: 700 B.C.
You can hardly mention “The Iliad” without also mentioning “ The Odyssey .” The epic poem tells the story of Odysseus’s journey home from the Trojan War, as he battles monsters, fates, and gods to return to his home and family. Just as “The Iliad” set the stage for future groundbreaking pieces of war literature, so did “The Odyssey” set the stage for adventure tales.
- Author: Vishnu Sharma - Date published: 300 B.C.
Originally written in Sanskrit, “ The Panchatantra ” is a collection of fables and folklore that gives instruction on how to live. While the book itself is an important piece of Indian literature, it’s also representative of an entire genre of folklore, fairy tales, and fables that began to be transcribed around this time. Eventually, these types of stories went on to be the foundation for today’s fantasy genre.
- Author: Virgil - Date published: 19 B.C.
Another epic poem originally written in Latin, “ The Aeneid ” tells the story of Aeneas and includes legend of the founding of Rome. This tale from 19 B.C. is one of the earliest known examples of historical fiction.
- Author: Ovid - Date published: 8 A.D.
No list of monumental novels would be complete without Ovid’s “ Metamorphoses ,” a masterpiece of ancient literature. A narrative poem, the book chronicles the history of the world, tying together all existing myths and histories from the beginning of the world up through the rule of Julius Caesar. It is thought to have inspired later literary greats like William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and Salman Rushdie.
- Author: Petronius - Date published: 66
“ The Satyricon ” is a satiric mock epic about an impotent man’s quest to regain virility. It built on the satire established by the Roman writers who first introduced it. Similar in tone to books by authors like David Sedaris, the hilarious, tongue-in-cheek tale surely inspired other famous comic writers in the millennia since.
Daphnis and Chloe
- Author: Longus - Date published: 150
One of few surviving examples of an ancient Greek novel, “ Daphnis and Chloe ” is Longus’s only known work. A pastoral romance, the book follows two young orphans, a shepherdess, and a goatherd as they attempt to figure out how to consummate their love. The work has inspired dozens of artists since, including Shakespeare, Henry Fielding, and Maurice Ravel.
The Golden Ass
- Author: Apuleius - Date published: 158
“ The Golden Ass ” is the only novel written in Latin that has survived in its entirety. A story of magic and romance, it follows a young man who attempts to turn himself into a bird but ends up as a donkey instead. By turns bawdy, sweet, and fantastic, this early novel will hold your attention from beginning to end.
- Author: Anonymous - Date published: 900
Jumping ahead several hundred years, we come to “ Beowulf ,” an Anglo-Saxon epic poem. Written in Old English, the story follows the titular hero as he fights a monster, the monster’s mother, and a dragon, eventually becoming the king of modern-day Scotland. The book is similar to books like “Le Morte d’Arthur” and “The Once and Future King” in that it mixes fantasy with history.
The Tale of Genji
- Author: Murasaki Shikibu - Date published: 1008
Widely considered the world’s first novel, “ The Tale of Genji ” is a look at courtly life in Japan’s Heian period. The book is also significant in that it was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, who worked as a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court. While the original manuscript, written in an archaic form of Japanese, no longer exists, scholars have around 300 others from the same time period.
The Song of the Cid
- Author: Anonymous - Date published: 1140
One of the earliest pieces of Spanish literature, “ The Song of the Cid ” is an epic based on real-life events that tells the tale of a Castilian hero who works to liberate his beloved Spain from its Moorish captors. The novel is significant in that it brought Islamic and Spanish literature to the world stage.
The Arabian Nights
- Author: Anonymous - Date published: 1315
Some scholars consider “ The Arabian Nights ” to be the greatest Arabic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern contribution to world literature. The novel is a collection of short stories (mainly fables and folklore) tied together by a framing device. The tales included in this work have shaped thousands of novels and Hollywood productions and continue to act collectively as a “ monument to the ageless art of storytelling ,” according to Arab culture specialist Dr. Muhannad Salhi.
The Divine Comedy
- Author: Dante Alighieri - Date published: 1320
When discussing Dante Alighieri’s “ Divine Comedy ,” the BBC called it “Western literature’s very own theory of everything.” A massively important piece of world literature, the nearly 1,000-page tome is an Italian poem from the Middle Ages about a man’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven in pursuit of his great love.
The Outlaws of the Marsh
- Author: Shi Nai’an - Date published: 1370
“ Outlaws of the Marsh ” is the first of China’s four great classical novels, works whose stories have permeated the country’s culture so thoroughly that citizens of all ages are familiar with them. Set during the Song Dynasty, it tells the story of 108 men and women forced into the hills by feudal governments who band together to form an army, are granted amnesty, and then fight for their country against various foes.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Author: Unknown - Date published: 1397
Written by an unknown poet, “ Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ” is considered on par with Chaucer’s works and “Beowulf” in both content and form. One of the best-known Arthurian tales, the story follows a Knight of the Round Table who accepts a challenge from a mysterious knight, undertaking a year-long quest and entering into a chivalrous romance along the way. Famed fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien is a known fan of the novel.
The Canterbury Tales
- Author: Geoffrey Chaucer - Date published: 1400
There are over 90 manuscripts of Chaucer’s “ The Canterbury Tales ” from the 1400s that still exist, a testament to its enormous popularity in its time. Written in medieval English, the book follows a group of 31 pilgrims as they make their way from Tabard Inn to Canterbury Cathedral. In order to pass the time, the members of this fictional group agree to tell two tales each on the way out and two tales each on the way back. While the work was never finished, it remains hugely influential in pop culture today.
- Author: Thomas More - Date published: 1516
An early example of sociopolitical satirical fiction, Thomas More’s “ Utopia ” is the story of a fictional island’s various customs. Written in Latin, the book is seen by modern scholars as an example of utopian/dystopian science fiction and certainly must have influenced modern works like “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “The Hunger Games.”
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
- Author: Luo Guanzhong - Date published: 1522
Set toward the end of the Han Dynasty, “ Romance of the Three Kingdoms ” is another of China’s four great classical novels. A mix of real history, legend, and myth, the book has hundreds of characters but primarily follows three feudal lords as they attempt to replace and restore the crumbling dynasty. The most well-known section follows Liu Pei and his sworn brothers Chang Fei, a giant, and Kuan Yu, an invincible knight, who are aided by a wizard named Chuko Liang and fight for control over the Han throne.
The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities
- Author: Anonymous - Date published: 1554
The crown jewel of the Spanish Golden Age, “ The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and His Fortunes and Adversities ” is an example of a picaresque novel or one that follows the adventures of a lovable, low-class hero who relies on his wits and “street knowledge” to get by. For centuries scholars have worked to determine the author of the novel, but haven’t been able to come to a conclusive decision.
The Faerie Queene
- Author: Edmund Spenser - Date published: 1590
The first epic written in English, “ The Faerie Queene ” went on to inspire some of the world’s most famous poets and novelists like John Milton and Alfred Tennyson. Edmund Spenser’s allegorical work tells the story of several knights who are representative of different virtues, and the work as a whole is meant to glorify Queen Elizabeth I.
Monkey: The Journey to the West
- Author: Wu Cheng’en - Date published: 1592
The third of China’s four great classical novels, “ The Journey to the West ” is considered by some to be the most popular novel of all time in East Asia. (The addition of "Monkey" to the title comes from the definitive English translation.) Another picaresque novel, this book follows a monk as he journeys to the western regions of Asia in order to collect sacred texts, receiving help from spirits and gods, and fighting monsters and ogres along the way.
- Author: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra - Date published: 1605
Clocking in at over 1,000 pages, “ Don Quixote ” is considered by many to be the first modern novel . Published in 1605, the book is about a nobleman, Alonso Quijano, who is obsessed with chivalric romances and decides to become a knight errant himself. Unfortunately for the newly knighted Don Quixote de la Mancha, the world no longer has any use for medieval knights. Sancho Panza, the intelligent squire in "Don Quixote," established the enduring "sidekick" character.
- Author: John Milton - Date published: 1667
An epic work in both scale and ambition, John Milton’s “ Paradise Lost ” is one of the greatest novels-in-verse ever written in the English language. It tells the story of the biblical fall of man as it happened, taking place in heaven, hell, and on Earth.
The Pilgrim’s Progress
- Author: John Bunyan - Date published: 1678
At one point in history, Christianity and culture were so intertwined that almost every popular work had heavy religious influences. “ The Pilgrim’s Progress ” is a perfect example of this. Enormously influential in its time, the allegorical tale follows a man’s journey through life as he searches for salvation. Even today, John Bunyan’s book remains one of the most widely read books written in English.
- Author: Daniel Defoe - Date published: 1719
When Daniel Defoe’s “ Robinson Crusoe ” was first published, it listed Crusoe himself as the author , leading many to believe that it was a real-life travelogue and not a fictitious adventure tale. To this day, many critics point to the book, which covers 30 years of a castaway’s life on a deserted island, as the beginning of realistic fiction.
- Author: Jonathan Swift - Date published: 1726
Where Daniel Defoe set out to write a realistic travelogue, Johnathan Swift set out to satirize the popular genre. Fans both past and present love the tale about a wayfaring seaman who finds himself in far-flung foreign lands like Lilliput and Laputa. Immensely popular when it was first released, “ Gulliver’s Travels ” sold out its initial print run in a matter of days.
- Author: Voltaire - Date published: 1759
Voltaire’s most celebrated work, “ Candide ” is, on its surface, the tale of a gentleman who embarks on grand and romantic adventures all around the world while constantly being battered by fate. On a deeper level, the story is an attack on the philosophical idea that “all is for the best” and that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.”
Dream of the Red Chamber
- Author: Xueqin Cao - Date published: 1791
The last of China’s four great classical novels, “ Dream of the Red Chamber ” has an entire field of scholarship called “Redology” devoted to it. Generally regarded as the greatest novel to ever come out of China , the book is one part romance, one part history of one of the world’s greatest nations, and one part family history. The full work spans three lengthy volumes, but the heart of the story has been edited down into a single book for modern readers.
Pride and Prejudice
- Author: Jane Austen - Date published: 1813
An immediate success upon publication, “ Pride and Prejudice ” remains one of the most read English language novels in the world. Jane Austen’s classic love story has inspired hundreds of other novels, movies, and TV shows, and her romantic leads, the opinionated Elizabeth and proud Mr. Darcy, are some of the most dazzling and recognizable characters ever written.
- Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly - Date published: 1818
Many literary scholars see Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s “ Frankenstein ” as the the first science-fiction story ever written. The gothic horror novel tells the story of a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a sapient creature in his lab and then unleashes him on the world. It would be hard to overstate its influence on modern pop culture.
- Author: Nikolai Gogol - Date published: 1842
Although scholars and readers constantly debate what Gogol was attempting to do with “ Dead Souls ,” there’s no debating its importance in the canon of Russian literature. The novel, which ends in the middle of a sentence, follows a middle-class man, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, as he wanders around the motherland collecting the names of dead serfs while encountering dozens of other middle-class people. While the book certainly won’t appeal to everyone, it provides an excellent picture of Russia during the 19th century.
The Three Musketeers
- Author: Alexandre Dumas - Date published: 1844
“ The Three Musketeers ” is considered by some to be the most famous historical novel of all time. Alexandre Dumas’s most celebrated work is actually about four swordsmen (D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis) whose bond of friendship carries them through many an adventure, battle, and romance relatively unharmed.
- Author: Charlotte Bronte - Date published: 1847
Literary critic Daniel S. Burt has called Charlotte Bronte “the first historian of the private consciousness” thanks to her novel “ Jane Eyre ,” the first to focus on a lead character’s moral and spiritual development. Well ahead of its time, this romantic novel follows the titular Jane Eyre through a rough childhood, as a student and teacher at a school, and then—in what readers remember best about the novel—as she accepts a job as governess and slowly begins to fall for her mysterious employer, Mr. Rochester.
- Author: Emily Bronte - Date published: 1847
Charlotte Bronte’s younger sister Emily wrote “ Wuthering Heights ,” a classic example of a gothic novel. The book, about the ill-fated love between Heathcliff and Catherine, contains elements of the supernatural, a host of scandals, and more than one love triangle.
The Scarlet Letter
- Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne - Date published: 1850
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “ The Scarlet Letter ” is significant for two reasons. It is the first novel to draw from the puritan roots of the United States, taking a good hard look at the negative effects our country’s rigid morality can have on individual lives. It is also one of the few examples of a novel influenced by the transcendentalist movement , which had a huge impact on modern American philosophy.
- Author: Herman Melville - Date published: 1851
Widely regarded as one of the “greatest works of imagination” in American literary history, per Goodreads, “ Moby-Dick ” is, at its heart, a meditation on America. On the surface, however, the book is an action-packed tale of a madman’s pursuit of an unknowable sea creature.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Author: Harriet Beecher Stowe - Date published: 1851
In the same way “Moby-Dick” is imaginative, “ Uncle Tom’s Cabin ” is unflinchingly based in reality. Scandalous in its time for its antislavery sentiments, the book has more than earned its place in American literary history. Abraham Lincoln credited the story, which was written by a white housewife morally opposed to slavery, with igniting the flame that became the Civil War .
- Author: Gustave Flaubert - Date published: 1857
A story about a bored wife’s affairs and romantic fantasies, “ Madame Bovary ” was so scandalous at the time of its publication that it caused a public outcry and wound up banned in multiple countries. With a complicated main character who is self-obsessed and morally corrupt, many readers feel that Flaubert’s central message was one of finding happiness and fulfillment with what life hands you, rather than always searching for greener grass somewhere else.
A Tale of Two Cities
- Author: Charles Dickens - Date published: 1859
No such list would be complete without an entry from Charles Dickens, who is often considered the best writer of the Victorian era. In “ A Tale of Two Cities ,” Dickens spins a story of political prisoners, reunited families, romantic love, and the events that lead up to the French Revolution. The book is one of the best-selling novels of all time.
- Author: Victor Hugo - Date published: 1862
Another novel set in the midst of the French Revolution, “ Les Miserables ” made the radical move of featuring a working-class hero. A story of love and redemption, Victor Hugo’s famous work is, in simplistic terms, a cat-and-mouse tale featuring Jean Valjean, an altruistic ex-convict, and Inspector Javert, a policeman focused more on retribution than justice. Incredibly layered and nuanced, the 1,300-page novel rewards those who manage to read the whole thing.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- Author: Lewis Carroll - Date published: 1865
Ever since the first publication of Lewis Carroll’s “ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ” in 1865, the fantasy tale about a girl who falls into a subterranean world has never been out of print. Considered one of the best examples of literary nonsense fiction, the book has had an enormous impact on our culture and on more recent fantasy tales.
War and Peace
- Author: Leo Tolstoy - Date published: 1867
“ War and Peace ” is an epic saga that chronicles Napoleon’s invasion of czarist Russia and the multitude of ways it affected life for the average citizen. Arguably Leo Tolstoy’s best work, the novel is a world classic.
- Author: Louisa May Alcott - Date published: 1868
Another author who was heavily influenced by the transcendentalist movement in America is Louisa May Alcott. Her book “ Little Women ,” about four sisters during the Civil War era, is far too often classified as girls’ or women’s literature. But the novel’s much deeper themes of family duty, death, gender roles, and personal ambition have value for all readers.
The Brothers Karamazov
- Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Date published: 1879
No other book on our list has earned as much international acclaim as “ The Brothers Karamazov .” The Russian novel earned this praise thanks to the way it tackles tough topics like the existence of God, free will, faith, doubt, reason, and morality. A story of a murder within a family, the epic was author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s last work.
The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants
- Author: Shi Yukun - Date published: 1879
Another well-known piece of Chinese literature, “ The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants ” follows a Robin Hood-esque character named Lord Bao and the men who make up his court as they fight crime and corruption all over China. An absorbing tale, the book also gives international audiences a look at how influential Confucian philosophies were in the country.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Author: Mark Twain - Date published: 1884
“ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ” is a direct sequel to Mark Twain’s other famous work, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The novel follows the titular Huckleberry Finn, a boy who runs away from his small town with Jim, an enslaved boy who escapes his enslavers. The two go on a series of wild adventures on the Mississippi River. The novel is notable not just for its commentary on racism in America , but also for being the first book to use vernacular English throughout.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Author: Oscar Wilde - Date published: 1890
A study of man’s vanity, cruelty, selfishness, and hedonistic impulses, “ The Picture of Dorian Gray ” was considered so immoral when it was first published that it was heavily censored. The only novel ever written by Oscar Wilde, the book is about a young man who essentially sells his soul to the devil in order to obtain eternal youth. Although the story is incredibly dark, the slim novel is easily readable and accessible for modern-day audiences.
- Author: Bram Stoker - Date published: 1897
“ Dracula ” is a gothic horror novel about the vampire Count Dracula, who attempts to leave his native Transylvania in search of fresh blood and new victims. A genuinely chilling read, the book is notable not just for its own content but for the various ways it has shaped fantasy literature and the thousands of vampire stories it inspired.
Heart of Darkness
- Author: Joseph Conrad - Date published: 1899
The final 19th-century book on our list, “ Heart of Darkness ” is about a ferryboat captain’s obsession with an ivory trader and his suspicion that this trader is not a genius like everyone believes—but insane. At its core, the book is an argument that there is very little separating the "savage" (the protagonist’s racist conception of Black men) from civilized people—at heart, we’re really all the same. "Heart of Darkness" has inspired numerous adaptations, the most well-known probably being Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."
- Author: Upton Sinclair - Date published: 1905
Upton Sinclair’s “ The Jungle ” is about the tragic lives of an immigrant family in Chicago. Although Sinclair intended the book to reveal how horrifically immigrants were being exploited and how desperately he thought the country needed to turn to socialism, many readers walked away more focused on the unsanitary practices of the meat industry that he exposed. In this area, the novel did lead to an abundance of reforms and changes, including the Meat Inspection Act .
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
- Author: James Weldon Johnson - Date published: 1912
When “ The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man ” was first published, it was attributed to an anonymous author, as publishers weren’t sure how its unflinching examination of race in America was going to be received. The emotional novel follows a Black man who “passes” for white as he journeys from the rural South to the exclusive suburbs of the Northeast. Wildly successful, the book inspired a generation of Black authors and many Harlem Renaissance works.
- Author: Marcel Proust - Date published: 1913
“ Swann’s Way ” is the first volume in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” which fictionalizes his youth in Belle Epoque France. Described as a “ perfect rendering of life in art ,” the book deals with the themes of childhood, involuntary memory, and the meaning of an individual life.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
- Author: Agatha Christie - Date published: 1920
“ The Mysterious Affair at Styles ” was Agatha Christie’s debut novel. While the book, which sees Christie’s most beloved character Hercule Poirot solve a murder, may not be regarded as her best work, it still is worthy of inclusion as it started her on the path toward becoming the best-selling fiction author of all time.
- Author: Hermann Hesse - Date published: 1922
Written in German, “ Siddhartha ” is about a wealthy Indian man who leaves his charmed life behind in order to find spiritual fulfillment and meaning. A mix of various religious philosophies and cultures, the book didn’t become popular in the United States until the '50s and '60s, when it had a major influence on the counterculture generation.
- Author: James Joyce - Date published: 1922
A modernist masterpiece, “ Ulysses ” is about a single day in the life of a Dubliner named Leopold Bloom, alongside a host of his friends and acquaintances. Written in a stream of consciousness, nothing really notable happens in the book, leading many readers to give up far short of the 700-plus-page end. Still, the book is a major achievement in 20th-century literature thanks to its experimental narrative techniques and subtle humor.
The Magic Mountain
- Author: Thomas Mann - Date published: 1924
Hugely influential in German literary history, “ Magic Mountain ” is another novel that doesn’t have any real central plot. In fact, scholars and readers have debated for years over what this book is about, other than the destructiveness and cynical attitudes of civilization.
- Author: Virginia Woolf - Date published: 1925
“ Mrs. Dalloway ” covers a single day in the titular character’s life as she prepares for a party. Going about her errands and chores, Mrs. Dalloway reflects on the choices that led her to this particular moment and wonders about what the future will hold. Virginia Woolf’s famous work is significant because it demonstrates that novels don’t only have to be about extraordinary adventures, but can be about everyday life, as well.
The Great Gatsby
- Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald - Date published: 1925
A standard of the Jazz Age, “ The Great Gatsby ” perfectly embodies many of the values of its time, like personal freedom and the unapologetic pursuit of pleasure. Most folks, whether avid readers or not, are at least somewhat familiar with the story of the fabulously rich Jay Gatsby, who’s in love with the unattainable Daisy Buchanan and throws massive parties at his Long Island mansion in the hopes of earning her affections.
Home to Harlem
- Author: Claude McKay - Date published: 1928
The author of “ Home to Harlem ,” Claude McKay, was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His most famous work follows two men from very different circumstances as they move through Harlem’s intense nighttime scene and navigate race in America by day.
- Author: Virginia Woolf - Date published: 1928
Another monumental novel by Virginia Woolf, “ Orlando ” has long been a classic in the LGBTQ+ community. Taking place over three centuries, the book follows its central character as a mysterious change transforms him from a man to a woman, and the subsequent ways her place in the world changes. Often studied by feminist, gender, and transgender students, the book has been adapted into several movies, plays, and even an opera.
All Quiet on the Western Front
- Author: Erich Maria Remarque - Date published: 1929
Although it’s fiction, “ All Quiet on the Western Front ” gives readers an all-too-real look at World War I. Written by a German veteran, the novel paints a vivid picture of the social and emotional stress felt by the soldiers, as well as the difficulty for many of them to readjust to civilian life after the fighting was over. During WWII, the heavy book was among those burned en masse by the Nazis.
- Author: Nella Larsen - Date published: 1929
Written by one of the most preeminent female writers of the Harlem Renaissance, “ Passing ” was an instant success upon publication in 1929. The story of two former childhood friends and their renewed fascination with each other’s lives, the book makes important points about Americans’ understanding of race and gender.
A Farewell to Arms
- Author: Ernest Hemingway - Date published: 1929
“ A Farewell to Arms ” was Ernest Hemingway’s first best-seller and America’s most important WWI novel. The semi-autobiographical book follows an ambulance driver who falls in love with an Italian nurse despite the horrors surrounding both of them. The novel was so important to Hemingway that he reportedly rewrote the ending almost 40 times in order to get the words exactly right.
The Sound and the Fury
- Author: William Faulkner - Date published: 1929
Set in Jefferson, Missouri, “ The Sound and the Fury ” centers on the Compson family, former Southern aristocrats and some of the most memorable characters in American literature. Separated into four sections, each piece of the book is told from the perspective of a different family member and in a different narrative style. The book’s success in the '30s certainly played a role in William Faulkner eventually winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Good Earth
- Author: Pearl S. Buck - Date published: 1931
Written by the daughter of two missionaries in China, “ The Good Earth ” is about life in agrarian China and pits the humble and goodhearted Wang Lung against the greedy, noble House of Hwang. The book may feel slowly paced to a modern reader, but for 1930s audiences it was impactful enough to encourage them to consider the Chinese as allies in the impending WWII.
Brave New World
- Author: Aldous Huxley - Date published: 1932
Although “ Brave New World ” was published 90 years ago, it is incredibly relevant to the current moment and the world we live in. A dystopian novel, Aldous Huxley imagines a future World State where citizens are placed in a hierarchy based on their (genetically modified) intelligence and the entire culture is conditioned to follow the government blindly. The book acts as a warning against state control, consumerism, and the lack of individuality.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Author: Zora Neale Hurston - Date published: 1937
Initially ill-received, Zora Neale Hurston’s “ Their Eyes Were Watching God ” has become a classic in Black and feminist literature in the intervening years. The book follows a young Black woman in the '30s who’s desperately searching for her own identity through three marriages and a physical journey back to her roots.
The Grapes of Wrath
- Author: John Steinbeck - Date published: 1939
This Great Depression novel both won the Pulitzer Prize and was publicly banned the year it was published. “ The Grapes of Wrath ” follows the Joad family as they’re pushed off their Oklahoma farm by effects of the Dust Bowl and travel by car across the country to California, “the promised land.” The powerful drama underscores the vast gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country.
- Author: Albert Camus - Date published: 1942
“ The Stranger ” is a story of a senseless murder. It’s also a close look at the philosophies of existentialism and the absurd. Readers of this short and simple work either identify with the main character’s completely indifferent outlook on life—or hate it.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
- Author: Betty Smith - Date published: 1943
“ A Tree Grows in Brooklyn ” is a coming-of-age tale featuring a young woman raised in a tenement in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at the start of the 20th century. Emotional, honest, and at times downright hilarious, the book reminds readers that all one really needs to get through life is a tenacious attitude and a strong sense of self.
Cry, the Beloved Country
- Author: Alan Paton - Date published: 1948
The most important novel to come out of South Africa’s apartheid era, “ Cry, the Beloved Country ” is about a Black man’s life in a Black country under white man’s rule. It follows a Zulu pastor, Stephen Kumalo, and his son, Absalom, as they do their best to navigate life in a country that’s torn apart by racial injustice.
- Author: George Orwell - Date published: 1949
Often paired with “A Brave New World,” “ 1984 ” is another dystopian novel that’s very relevant to today’s world. Often assigned reading for high school students, George Orwell imagines life in a totalitarian state where every move is watched by the Thought Police. When one man becomes disillusioned with the state and attempts to change things, the consequences are swift and heavy.
- Author: Ralph Ellison - Date published: 1952
Narrated by a nameless character, “ Invisible Man ” examines the multitude of obstacles Black men face in America. Taking place in the Deep South, the streets of Harlem, Communist rallies, and underground “battle royals,” the book won the National Book Award for fiction in 1953.
The Fellowship of the Ring
- Author: J.R.R. Tolkien - Date published: 1954
While the content of “ The Fellowship of the Ring ” may not be as heavy as the subject matter of many of the other books on this list, J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel still earns its spot for its impact on fantasy literature. For the uninitiated, the book, which is the first in a trilogy, follows a band of adventurers as they set out across Middle Earth to destroy a ring of great, dark power. Tolkien established many of the fantasy tropes used by subsequent authors.
- Author: James Baldwin - Date published: 1956
Another classic of LGBTQ+ literature, “ Giovanni’s Room ” is about an American living in Paris who’s engaged to a woman and involved in a homosexual affair with an Italian bartender. Masterfully written, the book focuses on the inner turmoil of a person caught between the life society tells him he should live and the life he sees for himself. James Baldwin’s controversial work is credited with opening the door for a wider conversation about homosexuality and bisexuality.
- Author: Ayn Rand - Date published: 1957
Ayn Rand herself considered “ Atlas Shrugged ” to be her magnum opus. In the book, Rand fleshes out her philosophy of objectivism through a dystopian story where private business owners are increasingly put upon by the government and decide to leave everything behind to begin their own capitalist society. While not widely beloved at first, the book has demonstrated great staying power and is still read all over the world to this day.
Things Fall Apart
- Author: Chinua Achebe - Date published: 1958
One of the first African novels to achieve international acclaim, “ Things Fall Apart ” is about life in pre-colonial Nigeria as told through the eyes of a “strong man” named Okonkwo. Often compared to Greek and Roman tragedies, the book examines how clan and village life was negatively affected by the arrival of European colonizers and Christian missionaries.
To Kill a Mockingbird
- Author: Harper Lee - Date published: 1960
“ To Kill a Mockingbird ” is set in a small Southern town and is at once a story of childhood and one of a place rocked by a crisis of conscience. While modern attitudes surrounding the book have shifted slightly, with many pointing to the “white savior” complex written into lawyer Atticus Finch, there’s no denying how big an impact this American classic had toward racist attitudes in the '60s. The impact was so big that it earned reclusive author Harper Lee the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man
- Author: U.R. Ananthamurthy - Date published: 1965
“ Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man ” begins with the death of Naranappa, a renegade Brahmin who has flouted the Hindu rules of purity for years. As his village argues about whether or not his body should be given a proper burial, they are forced to reckon with the questions of God, religion, and rebirth.
Season of Migration to the North
- Author: Tayeb Salih - Date published: 1966
One of the most impactful novels in Arabic literature, “ Season of Migration to the North ” is concerned with the impact of Western colonialism on rural African societies, particularly in Sudan. This is the story of two men who return to their native Sudan after jaunts in Europe, one turned into a monster by the clash of cultures, the other doing his best to hold both parts of his identity together despite their obvious dissonance. The book itself is considered a turning point in postcolonial narratives.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
- Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Date published: 1967
Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez published his magical-realism masterpiece “ One Hundred Years of Solitude ” in 1967. The book follows several generations of the Buendia family, whose patriarch founded the fictional town of Macondo. It deals with themes like solitude, the repetition of history, the fluidity of time, and elitism.
- Author: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. - Date published: 1969
The science-fiction, antiwar novel “ Slaughterhouse-Five ” follows Billy Pilgrim through WWII as he survives a bombing, spends time in a prisoner-of-war camp, readjusts to civilian life, and occasionally time-travels. The novel has been subject to many banning and censorship campaigns thanks to its frank tone and often vulgar content.
- Author: Thomas Pynchon - Date published: 1973
A postmodern epic, “ Gravity’s Rainbow ” is to the second half of the 20th century what “Ulysses” was to the first half. Set in Europe post-WWII, the book primarily focuses on the program responsible for Germany’s V-2 rockets and the mysterious inclusion of a “black device” in one of these rockets. Although it won the National Book Award, Thomas Pynchon refused to accept or even acknowledge the victory .
Petals of Blood
- Author: Ngugi wa Thiong’o - Date published: 1977
On the surface, “ Petals of Blood ” is about the investigation of a triple murder in Kenya. However, a deeper read reveals that the book is actually speaking about the Mau Mau Rebellion and a people who are disillusioned with leadership that has failed to pull their country out of its “developing nation” status. The book made such an impact upon publication that its author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was jailed without charges—an incident that ignited protests around the world.
- Author: Salman Rushdie - Date published: 1981
“ Midnight’s Children ” is essentially about India’s independence from colonialism and the partition of the country. Told through the eyes of one of the 1,001 children born at midnight on its independence day, the book examines what it means to be a master and a victim of a certain point in history. Massively popular in both the U.K. and the United States, the novel has won a host of international awards.
The Color Purple
- Author: Alice Walker - Date published: 1982
An epistolary novel, “ The Color Purple ” is a collection of letters written between sisters in rural Georgia during the early 20th century. A touchstone of Black American literature, the book was one of the first to break the silence on domestic and sexual abuse and violence. Because of that content, the book is often challenged and has even been banned at certain points.
The Handmaid’s Tale
- Author: Margaret Atwood - Date published: 1985
Over the past several years, Margaret Atwood’s “ The Handmaid’s Tale ” has benefited from renewed popularity, largely thanks to the release of the Hulu TV series based on the novel. Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel imagines a totalitarian state where women are property and their bodies tools used merely to advance the agenda and power of the state, the Republic of Gilead. A scathing, satirical warning, the book is a cornerstone of feminist literature.
- Author: Toni Morrison - Date published: 1987
Set just after the Civil War, “ Beloved ” was inspired by a real-life woman, Margaret Garner. It’s a story of a former enslaved woman who can’t beat back her memories of the past or its influence over her, no matter how hard she tries. Toni Morrison’s most acclaimed work, the novel is currently banned in some U.S. public schools thanks to its racial and sexual content.
- Author: Paulo Coelho - Date published: 1988
“ The Alchemist ” holds the distinction of being one of the most translated books of all time, currently available to read in 67 languages . The enchanting and lyrical tale follows a shepherd boy as he travels from his native Spain to Egypt in search of an elusive treasure. Along the way, he learns invaluable lessons about life and the worth we all have inside ourselves.
The Remains of the Day
- Author: Kazuo Ishiguro - Date published: 1989
“ The Remains of the Day ” is a slow-paced novel filled with the musings of a butler near the end of his career. Stevens, devoted to a life of service, has missed out on several opportunities, including a possible romance with a former housekeeper. Nearing the end of his professional life, he begins to realize that the loyalty he’s shown to his work and master may have been misplaced. The novel won the Man Booker Prize the year of its release.
Like Water for Chocolate
- Author: Laura Esquivel - Date published: 1989
Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s “ Like Water for Chocolate ” was a #1 best-seller in her native country and in the United States for two years after its publication. It’s the story of a young Mexican woman, Tita, who is forbidden from marrying her lover, Pedro, and must care for her ailing mother instead. A tragic, heart-wrenching story, the book includes elements of magical realism similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work.
The Things They Carried
- Author: Tim O’Brien - Date published: 1990
A collection of linked fictional episodes, “ The Things They Carried ” follows a platoon of American soldiers through the Vietnam War and after returning home. A veteran himself, O’Brien makes every attempt to steer clear of the politicization of the war, but his work ensures that everyone back home understands what it was really like out there in the jungles.
- Author: Toni Morrison - Date published: 1992
While the content of Toni Morrison’s work always stands apart from her contemporaries, with “ Jazz ” it’s really the style of the novel that makes it such a must-read. Set in Harlem in the 1920s, the book mimics Jazz music, with individual characters “improvising” solo sections of the book, often in a “call and response” format, which all come together to create a melodic whole.
Stone Butch Blues
- Author: Leslie Feinberg - Date published: 1993
“ Stone Butch Blues ” was once an underground classic, but over the past decade it has become a much more widely read hit. The book follows Jess Goldberg, a masculine girl growing up in Upstate New York during the '50s and '60s and coming to terms with her own identity as a lesbian. Set in a pre-Stonewall world, when social pressures and politics kept many from living as their true selves, the book packs a powerful message about identity and acceptance.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
- Author: Haruki Murakami - Date published: 1994
Haruki Murakami’s “ The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle ” is best described as sci-fi meets magical realism. The book follows a Japanese man who goes in search of his wife and her cat, both of whom have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. His search takes him into the netherworld and reveals long-buried secrets about WWII.
- Author: David Foster Wallace - Date published: 1996
Cataloged as an “encyclopedic” novel, “ Infinite Jest ” stands out for both its content and its form. Set in a tennis academy and a halfway house in a future mutation of our world, the novel follows one of the most messed-up families to appear in modern literature, a group of political radicals, a group of recovering addicts, and a group of elite tennis players. Throughout its 1,088 pages, it also experiments with endnotes, racking up nearly 400 in total by the end of the book. While a literary best-seller, the book is hardly for the faint of heart (or attention span).
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- Author: J.K. Rowling - Date published: 1997
While it remains to be seen whether or not “ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ” will stand the test of time, the effect the book has had on literature as a whole is indisputable. The tale about a boy wizard launched a series that would go on to sell more than 450 million copies , be translated into 67 languages, and make J.K. Rowling the first billionaire author.
The Kite Runner
- Author: Khaled Hosseini - Date published: 2003
“ The Kite Runner ” is set in Afghanistan during the fall of the country’s monarchy, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the rise of the Taliban. The story of fathers and sons, friendship, redemption, and reading, the book primarily follows Amir and Hassan, childhood friends torn apart by a horrific act. The novel spent over two years on the New York Times Best Seller list.
- Author: Betool Khedairi - Date published: 2004
Partly a coming-of-age novel, “ Absent ” follows a teenage girl, Dalal, who lives with her uncle and aunt in a Baghdad apartment as she undertakes real responsibility for the first time and begins to fall in love. The book is also an examination of life under restrictions and amid unthinkable violence, as well as the power of the human spirit.
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Blog – Posted on Friday, May 21
45 best history books of all time.
If the mere mention of ‘history books’ is enough to conjure up memories of fighting back yawns in your middle school classroom, then chances are you haven’t been looking in the right places. But fear not — this list is here to bring you some of the most well-researched, entertaining, and readable works by the most preeminent historians of today and generations past.
On this list, you not only find some of the best American history books, on topics spanning slavery and empire, Civil War, and Indigenous histories, but also stories ranging from Asia to Africa, and everywhere in between. This list traverses continents, historical eras, the rise and fall of once-great empires, while occasionally stopping off to hone in on specific, localized events that you might never have heard of.
Whether you’re a history buff looking to flex your muscles, or you struggle to distinguish your Nelson from your Nefertiti, there’ll be something suitable for you. So what are you waiting for? Let’s dive into our 45 best history books of all time.
If you’re looking for history books that give the broader picture as well as the finer details, let us introduce you to some of the most seminal texts on global history. These reads cover the moments and events that form the connective tissue between continents, cultures, and eras. Whether you’re looking for more abstract, theoretical writing on what ‘history’ is and does, or just a broader volume that pans out, rather than in, there’ll be something for you.
1. What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr
Famous for his hefty History of Soviet Russia , E. H. Carr’s foray into historiography (that is, the study of written history) was panned by critics at first. Initially written off as ‘dangerous relativism’, it is now considered a foundational text for historians, one which probes at the very seams of the discipline. By asking what exactly historical knowledge is and what constitutes history as we have come to understand it, Carr provides a compelling and masterful critique of the biases of historians and their moralized narratives of history. This groundbreaking text also interrogates such notions as fact, science, morality, individualism, and society. Carr’s masterpiece is referenced in countless college applications for a reason — it’s a formidable dive into history as a discipline, and laid the foundations for the subject as it exists in the modern world.
2. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
Though first and foremost considered a political theorist, much of Marxist thought can be a means to understand history with attention to economic systems and principles. In this seminal text, Marx argues that all of history has been defined by the struggles between the proletariat working-class and the capital-owning bourgeoisie. According to Marx, economic structures have been defined by class relations, and the various revolutions that have occurred throughout history have been instigated by antagonism between these two forces. As Marx famously opined in his 1852 essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”, and he lays out those repetitions with striking clarity here. As an added bonus, since this was originally intended as a pamphlet, the manifesto comes in at under 100 pages, so you have no reason not to prime yourself on one of modern history’s greatest thinkers.
3. Orientalism by Edward W. Said
A titan of Middle Eastern political and historical study, Edward Said coined the titular phrase ‘Orientalism’ to describe the West's often reductive and derisive depiction and portrayal of "The East." This book is an explanation of this concept and the application of this framework to understand the global power dynamics between the East and the West. Orientalism is considered by many a challenging read, but don’t let its formidable reputation put you off — it’ll all be worth it when you find yourself thinking about global history in ways you haven’t before.
4. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
It’s no big secret that the US school curriculum is more than a little biased — governments have a tendency to rewrite history textbooks in their favour, and the US government is no exception, keeping quiet on the grizzly, harrowing details and episodes which made the USA the country it is today. With particular focus on the American Civil War, Native Americans and the Atlantic Slave Trade, Loewen tries to interrogate and override simplistic, recountings of these events that portray White settlers as heroes and everybody else as uncivilized and barbarous. This is essential reading for anybody wanting to challenge their own preconceptions about American history and challenge the elevated status of American ‘heroes’.
5. Democracy: A Life by Paul Cartledge
From its birth in the city-state of Ancient Athens to contemporary times, democracy’s definition, application, and practice have been fiercely discussed and debated. With this book, Cartledge presents a biography of a political system that has been alternately lauded as the only means to govern a liberal society and derided as doomed to ineffectiveness.
Based on a near-legendary course of lectures Cartledge taught at Cambridge University, this book charts the social, cultural, and political dimensions of democracy, displaying a mastery of the scholarship to brilliant effect. For those that want to know more about democracy beyond ‘governance for the masses’.
6. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary
When history is so often focalized through a Western lens, reading from alternative positions is essential to challenge these normative understandings of the past. Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted does exactly this. By centering on an Islamic recounting of historical events, it challenges preconceived ideas about Western dominance, colonialism, and stereotyped depictions of Islamic culture and custom. Ansary discusses the history of the Islamic world from the time of Mohammed, through the various empires that have ruled the Middle Eastern region and beyond, right up to contemporary conflicts and the status of Islam in a modern, globalizing world.
7. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
If you think salt is a substance useful for not much more than topping fries, let journalist Mark Kurlansky prove otherwise. In this book, Kurlansky charts the origins of civilization using a surprising narrative throughline — salt. Many early settlements were established near natural sources of salt because of its many beneficial properties, and this surprisingly precious mineral has continued to play an important role in societies ever since. From its use as a medium of exchange in ancient times to its preservative properties (which allowed ancient civilizations to store essential food throughout the winter), this innocuous substance has been fundamental to the health and wealth of societies across the globe.
8. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
With his collective bibliography having sold over 16 million copies, you’re probably already familiar with Bryson’s work documenting his travels around the world, or his meditations on the brilliant diversity of global culture. Though primarily a travel writer, he’s also turned his hand to history, and A Short History of Nearly Everything specifically focuses on the scientific discoveries of yore that have defined human society. From quantum theory to mass extinction, Bryson recounts these miraculous, unplanned, sometimes ill-fated marvels of human achievement with humor and insight. If there’s a book that’ll have you repeatedly saying “can you believe this?” to random passers-by, this’ll be it!
9. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine
A nation's ability to conquer the seas has always been a mark of prestige and greatness, especially for empires looking to expand beyond their borders and nations wanting to trade and connect with other peoples. Paine discusses how many societies managed to transform the murky depths of the ocean from natural obstacle to a means of transporting goods, people, and ideas — from the Mesopotamians wanting to trade with their neighbors in ancient Aegea and Egypt, to those in East Asia who fine-tuned their shipbuilding techniques to conquer foreign lands.
10. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Here’s another book that frequents the reading lists of politics and history majors the world over! Many have theorized on why certain human societies have failed while others have thrived — but perhaps none have done it as astutely as Jared Diamond has in Guns, Germs, and Steel . The three things featured in the book’s title make up the nexus that Diamond presents as being fundamental to the development (or lack thereof) of human society. Though Diamond's thesis has as many detractors as it has supporters, it’s worth reading to see which side of the debate you fall on.
11. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity by Amartya Sen
In this collection of sixteen essays, esteemed economist Amartya Sen explores the Indian subcontinent, with particular focus on the rich history and culture that has made it the country it is today. The title refers to what Sen believes is inherent to the Indian disposition: argument and constructive criticism as a means to further progress. In his essays, Sen presents careful and considered analysis on a range of subjects that other academics have often tiptoe around, from the nature of Hindu traditions to the major economic disparities existing in certain regions today (and what their roots might be). Whether you’re an expert or new to the topic, you’ll be sure to learn something from Sen’s incisive commentary.
Ancient kingdoms are shrouded in mystery — a lot of what we know has been painstakingly pieced together by brilliant archaeologists and historians who have uncovered ancient artifacts, documents, and remains, and dedicated their working lives to understanding their significance to ancient people. Aren’t the rest of us lucky they’ve done the hard work for us?
12. Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend
The pre-colonial Central America ruled by the Aztecs was one characterized by remarkable innovation and progressiveness. Western historians, however, often failed to acknowledge this or pay the region and its ancient empires much academic attention. Moreover, the history of the Mexican people as recounted by the Spanish has often leaned into stereotyped, whitewashed versions of events. Townsend’s Fifth Sun changes this by presenting a history of the Aztecs solely using sources and documents written by the Aztec people themselves in their native Nahuatl language. What results is an empathetic and invigorating interpretation of Aztec history for newbies and long-time enthusiasts alike.
13. When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara Cooney
When you think of Ancient Egyptian queens, Cleopatra probably comes to mind — but did you know that the various Egyptian dynasties boasted a whole host of prominent women? Cooney’s When Women Ruled The World shifts the spotlight away from the more frequently discussed Egyptian pharaohs, placing attention on the likes of Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra, all of whom commanded great armies, oversaw the conquering of new lands, and implemented innovative economic systems. In this captivating read, Cooney reveals more about these complex characters and explores why accounts of ancient empires have been so prone to placing powerful women on the margins of historical narratives.
14. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by Edward Gibbon
If you’re a fan of serious, in-depth scholarship on ancient history, then this first volume of Gibbon's classic treatise on the Roman Empire is a perfect fit for you. Despite being published in 1776, Gibbon’s work on the Roman Empire is still revered by historians today. Along with five other volumes of this monumental work, this text is considered one of the most comprehensive and pre-eminent accounts in the field. Gibbon offers theories on exactly how and why the Roman Empire fell, arguing controversially that it succumbed to barbarian attacks mainly due to the decline of “civic virtue” within Roman culture. If this thesis has piqued your interest, then we naturally suggest you start with Volume I to understand what exactly Gibbon considers “virtue” to be, and how it was lost.
15. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer
Historians are often wont to focus on a particular historical era or location when producing historical nonfiction — but Susan Wise Bauer had grander ambitions. In this text, Bauer weaves together events that spanned continents and eras, from the East to the Americas. This book, described as an “engrossing tapestry,” primarily aims to connect tales of rulers to the everyday lives of those they ruled in vivid detail. With an eloquently explained model, she reveals how the ancient world shaped, and was shaped by, its peoples.
16. Foundations of Chinese Civilization: The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty by Jing Liu
Believe it or not, history doesn’t always mean slogging through page after page of dense, footnoted text. This comic by Beijing native Jing Liu turns history on its head by presenting it in a fun, digestible manner for anybody that has an interest in Chinese history (but isn’t quite ready to tackle an 800-page book on the subject yet). Spanning nearly 3,000 years of ancient history, this comic covers the Silk Road, the birth of Confucianism and Daoism, China's numerous internal wars, and finally the process of modern unification.
Middle Ages and renaissance
Some of the most fearsome and formidable characters in history had their heyday during the Middle Ages and renaissance periods — though it’s hard to know whether their larger-than-life reputations are owed to actual attributes they had, or from their mythologizing during a time where fewer reliable sources exist. Either way, we think they’re great fun to read about — as are their various exploits and conquests. From Genghis Khan to Cosimo de Medici, we’ve got you covered.
17. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
The Silk Road, an artery of commerce running from Europe through Russia to Asia (and a vital means of connecting the West with the East), has long been of interest to historians of the old world. In this book, Frankopan goes one step further, to claim that there has been more than one silk road throughout history — and that the region stretching from the Mediterranean to China (modern-day Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan) remains the crossroads of civilization and the center of global affairs. Frankopan argues compellingly that this region should be afforded more attention when historians theorize on centers of power and how they have shifted across time. It’s a convincing argument, and one that is expertly executed by Frankopan’s engaging writing and scrupulous research.
18. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
Genghis Khan is perhaps one of the most formidable figures in global history. Many recognize his iconic topknot-and-horseback image despite not knowing all too much about his life or the military successes he oversaw as leader of the Mongolian empire. Weatherford’s book takes a deep dive into this complex character and explores new dimensions of the society and culture he imposed upon the many peoples he conquered. As a civilization, Khan's was more keenly progressive than its European counterparts — having abolished torture, granted religious freedoms, and deposed the feudal systems that subordinated so many to so few. If you’re in the mood for an epic tale that’ll challenge your understanding of the global past, you’ll want to pick this book up.
19. Precolonial Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop
Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian, anthropologist, physicist, and politician, dedicated his working life to the study of pre-colonial African culture and the origins of human civilization itself. This book, arguably his most influential text, draws out comparisons between European empires and societies with the often overlooked African civilizations. Diop carefully shows that Africa contributed far more to the world’s development than just its exploited labor and natural resources. Precolonial Black Africa thus sets out to reorient our knowledge of a period that is so often derided by non-African thinkers as “uncivilized” and “barbarous” with brilliant attention to detail.
20. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge
In the 11th century, a vast Christian army was summoned and ordered by the Pope to march across Europe. Their aim was to seize Jerusalem and claim back the city considered the holy seat of Christianity. As it happened, Jerusalem was also a land strongly associated with the Prophets of Islam. The Christian mission thus manifested in the Crusaders’ rampage through the Muslim world, devastating many parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Asbridge’s innovative recounting of this momentous event is unique in the way it even-handedly unpacks the perspective of both the Christian and Muslim experiences and their memorializing of the Holy Wars. With rich and detailed scholarship, this book reveals how the Crusades shaped the Medieval world and continue to impact the present day.
21. The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert
Renaissance Florence is perhaps most famous as the cradle of revered art, sculpture, and architecture by the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo — but in the 15th century, it was also home to the Medicis, one of the most powerful banking dynasties in Europe. Starting with enterprising Cosimo de Medici in the 1430s, Hibbert chronicles the impressive rise of a family that dominated a city where mercantile families jostled for political and social influence, often to bloody ends. And — spoiler alert, if you can spoil history — as with every great period, the rise of the Medicis naturally involves a spectacular fall. It’s the kind of stuff soap operas are made of: an unmissable tale of family intrigue and the corrupting influence of money.
In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.
22. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
Mainstream history has too often made it seem as though the Americas was all but a vacant wasteland before Columbus and other European conquerors drifted upon its shores in the 15th century. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth — from the Aztecs to the Incas to the tribes of Northern America, many complex social and cultural structures existed prior to the arrival of Europeans. Southern American peoples in particular had sophisticated societies and infrastructures (including running water!) that have unfortunately been obliviated from the popular (or at least white Western) consciousness. A classic book that challenges the victor’s story, Charles C. Mann’s 1491 provides exciting new information on civilizations that have more to teach us than we have previously acknowledged.
23. The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones
Is there a more abiding emblem of British history than that of Medieval England’s monarchy and the Wars of the Roses? Though its historical figures and events have often been portrayed in television dramas, plays, and books, little is commonly known about the House of Plantagenets, who ruled from the 12th to the 15th century — an era packed with royal drama, intrigue, and internal division. For a witty, acerbic account of the whole ordeal, visit Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets . He approaches the subject with dazzling storytelling skills and charm that it will feel like you’re reading a novel, not a nonfiction book.
Enlightenment, empire, and revolution
You can’t make sense of the present without understanding the forces that got us here. The mechanized and globalized, mass-producing and mass-consuming world we live in today was forged in the fiery hearth of the Industrial Revolution, on the decks of ships setting out in search of uncharted territory, and in battles that were fought over supposedly ‘undiscovered’ lands. A lot changed for the common man in this period, and a lot has been written about it too — here are some of the best works.
24. The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective by Robert C. Allen
The Industrial Revolution is perhaps the most important phenomenon in modern history. It started in 18th-century Britain, where inventions like the mechanical loom and the steam engine were introduced, changing the nature of work and production. But why did this happen in Britain and not elsewhere in the world, and how precisely did it change things? These questions are answered lucidly in Robert C. Allen’s informative book. From the preconditions for growth to the industries and trades that grew out of them, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspectives has it all covered. Though it leans a bit on the academic side, it provides valuable knowledge that will vastly improve your understanding of today’s mass-producing, mass-consuming world.
25. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
For an overview of the history of the US, try this impressive treatise by historian and political scientist Howard Zinn. There’s a reason why this book is so often assigned as mandatory reading for high school and college history courses — it challenges readers to rethink what they’ve been told about America’s past. Rather than focusing on ‘great’ men and their achievements, A People’s History dives unflinchingly into the societal conditions and changes of the last few centuries. Exploring the motives behind events like the Civil War and US international interventions in the 20th century, Zinn shows that while patriotism and morality have often been used to justify America’s social movements and wars, it’s often been economic growth and wealth accumulation that truly drove leaders’ decisions.
26. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
At Wounded Knee Creek in 1890, the Lakota people confronted the encroaching US Army to protect their homeland and community. What followed was a massacre that for decades was viewed as a heroic victory — exemplifying how history is truly shaped by the victors, unless someone else speaks up. In 2010, Dee Brown did just this, exploring the colonialist treatment that Indigenous Americans suffered throughout the late 19th century in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Using council records and personal accounts from people of various Native American tribes, Brown demonstrates just how destructive the US administration was to these communities: in the name of Manifest Destiny and building new infrastructure, white settlers destroyed the culture and heritage of the Indigenous population. It’s something that's sadly still too familiar now, making this an even more pressing read.
27. Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi
While this isn’t strictly a history book, Four Hundred Souls is certainly an eye-opening volume if you’re looking to explore oft-hidden aspects of history. This collection of essays, personal reflections, and short stories is written by ninety different authors, all providing unique insights into the experiences of Black Americans throughout history. Editors Kendi and Blain do a brilliant job of amalgamating a variety of emotions and perspectives: from the pains of slavery and its legacy to the heartfelt poetry of younger generations. If you’re looking for your fix of African American Literature and nonfiction in one go, consider this your go-to.
Since its U.S. debut a quarter-century ago, this brilliant text has set a new standard for historical scholarship of Latin America. It is also an outstanding political economy, a social and cultural narrative of the highest quality, and perhaps the finest description of primitive capital accumulation since Marx.
Rather than chronology, geography, or political successions, Eduardo Galeano has organized the various facets of Latin American history according to the patterns of five centuries of exploitation. Thus he is concerned with gold and silver, cacao and cotton, rubber and coffee, fruit, hides and wool, petroleum, iron, nickel, manganese, copper, aluminum ore, nitrates, and tin. These are the veins which he traces through the body of the entire continent, up to the Rio Grande and throughout the Caribbean, and all the way to their open ends where they empty into the coffers of wealth in the United States and Europe.
Weaving fact and imagery into a rich tapestry, Galeano fuses scientific analysis with the passions of a plundered and suffering people. An immense gathering of materials is framed with a vigorous style that never falters in its command of themes. All readers interested in great historical, economic, political, and social writing will find a singular analytical achievement, and an overwhelming narrative that makes history speak, unforgettably.
This classic is now further honored by Isabel Allende’s inspiring introduction. Universally recognized as one of the most important writers of our time, Allende once again contributes her talents to literature, to political principles, and to enlightenment.
28. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano
The instabilities of Latin America over the last century have largely stemmed from its turbulent and violent past, its land and people having been exploited by European imperial powers, followed by American interventionism. In Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano passionately and compellingly recounts this history while also keeping it accessible to modern readers. Still on the fence? Let the foreword by Latinx literary giant Isabel Allende convince you: “Galeano denounces exploitation with uncompromising ferocity, yet this book is almost poetic in its description of solidarity and human capacity for survival in the midst of the worst kind of despoliation.”
29. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Illustrated by Olaudah Equiano
Though it was published in the late 18th century, this autobiography is still being reprinted today. It follows the life of Equiano, a slave who was kidnapped from his village in Nigeria and trafficked to Britain. In this foreign land, he was traded like merchandise time and again, struggling against adversity to find his freedom and define his identity. The accuracy of the story has been called into question, which is why reprinted editions have footnotes and additional details to better explain the social context of the situation. Regardless, the narrative style of the book makes it a hypnotizing read, immersing readers in the world of Georgian England and the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The World Wars
We thought the biggest events of the 20th century deserved their own section. The fact that so many people across the globe lived to experience these two momentous, destructive wars is perhaps why so much has been written about them — and how they reinvented life as we know it. The books below, covering a variety of perspectives, will intrigue, surprise, and hopefully teach you a thing or two.
30. Ten Days That Shook The World by John Reed
If you’re interested in firsthand accounts of people who've lived through historical moments, then this is the book for you. Published in 1919, Ten Days that Shook the World is the thrilling political memoir of someone who witnessed the October Revolution unfold in St Petersburg, Russia. Reed was a socialist and a newspaper correspondent who happened to be in close contact with the likes of Lenin and Trotsky, aka the innermost circle of the Bolsheviks. His account of the revolution thus provides a very unique perspective — one of both an insider and an outsider. While Reed couldn’t be as impartial as he intended as a journalist, this book is still a useful insight into one of the most important moments in modern history.
31. The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
If you’re a fan of history books, then you’ve probably heard of Barbara Tuchman: she was a historian and author who twice won the Pulitzer Prize, once for this very book. In The Guns of August , Tuchman uncovers the beginnings of World War I. She starts by examining the alliances and military plans that each country had in case of warfare, demonstrating how delicate this moment was before the declarations and the first battles on various fronts. The militaristic theme of the book could’ve made the tone dry, yet Tuchman lets the stories unravel in a way that intrigues and enthralls. As the granddaughter of the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Tuchman was in Constantinople as the war began, and as a result, her work takes on the gravity of someone who was in the thick of it.,
32. Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie
In the 1930s, when Hitler was making moves to acquire land from neighboring countries, the rest of the Allies pursued a policy they called appeasement. In the book of the same name (previously known as Appeasing Hitler ), the reasoning behind such a policy — despite the Nazis’ blatant antisemitism and aggressive nationalism — reveals how that led to World War II. Spoiler alert: ironically, this was all done with the assumption that if Hitler got what he wanted, there wouldn’t be another large-scale war that would last another four years. As informative as it is, Appeasement is also a valuable reminder that what happened in the past wasn’t a given — at that moment in time, things could have gone any number of ways. What matters, looking back, is what we can learn from it for the future.
33. Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid
From historical fiction novels like Atonement to the somber box office hit Dunkirk , our mainstream knowledge about the Second World War has predominantly featured the French Western Front. Possibly because American forces were much more involved in this side of the war, we tend to overlook the biggest battles, which took place in Eastern Europe.
In Leningrad , Anna Reid sheds a light on one of these epic battles. Breaking Hitler’s vow of non-aggression, German forces poured into the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1941, expecting a quick victory. Little did they know that Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) was not about to go down without a vicious fight. Over the next three years, this massive city was put under a siege that resulted in destruction, famine, and countless deaths, though the Germans were ultimately defeated. What was life like in this prolonged blockade, and was it truly a Soviet victory? You’ll have to read Leningrad to find out.
34. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower
As the only country to have been a victim of nuclear attacks, Japan’s postwar experience has arguably been one of the most unique and difficult of all the countries that took part in the world wars. Prior to and during WW2, Japan was a major power that had annexed much of East Asia by 1941. After the war, Japan was a defeated nation, strong-armed into surrendering by the Soviet army and two American atomic bombs.
Embracing Defeat is about a nation coming to terms with its new reality in the following years, during which the US-occupied Japan and was actively involved in its rebuilding. Shock, devastation, and humiliation were just a few of the emotions that society had to live through. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, MIT professor John Dower explores these sentiments and how they translated into social and cultural changes in Japan.
35. Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century by Konrad H. Jarausch
Over the course of the 20th century, Germany truly experienced all possible transformations. From a key European imperial power to an economically crippled state, to Nazism and the Holocaust, and then to Cold War partition — there’s certainly been no shortage of tumult in Germany over the past hundred years. Collecting stories from over 60 people who lived through these ups and downs, Konrad Jarausch presents a down-to-earth picture of what it was like to undergo these changes in everyday life. While we often see historical changes as a given in hindsight, for the people who lived through the period, these transformations were sometimes far from foreseeable — yet have been formative to their individual and collective identities.
It’s remarkable to consider what humanity has achieved in the last century alone, from the first manned flight to landing people on the moon. But that’s not all: world wars were fought, empires were toppled, living conditions improved for many across the world and human rights were advanced in ways many would not have been able to fathom even a few decades before. To absorb more of our “modern” history, peruse the books below.
36. Stalin's Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring by Andrew Lownie
If you’re a fan of thrilling spy novels , then Stalin’s Englishman is the history book for you: it’s the biography of Guy Burgess, an English-born Soviet spy from the 1930s onward. In a way, Burgess was made for the job — he was born into a wealthy family, attended prestigious schools like Eton and Cambridge, worked at the BBC and then for MI6, making him entirely beyond suspicion in the eyes of his own people. Though little is officially recorded about Burgess’s life, Andrew Lownie has compiled plenty of oral evidence related to this charming spy, weaving together an exciting narrative that will keep you turning the pages.
37. The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith
Since the end of World War II, Africa has seen several waves of independence movements. And while it was once a vision of hope, the effects of colonialism have frequently made post-independence life in Africa unstable and dangerous. Martin Meredith looks into the nuances of this legacy and how it has played out in the post-independence era. Rather than focusing on individual countries, Meredith widens his scope and presents a thorough overview of the continent, making this book an essential read for anyone new to modern African history.
38. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm is a well-known Marxist historian, and so it’s no surprise that his account of 20th-century history leans on the critical side. The Age of Extremes is all about failures: of communism, of state socialism, of market capitalism, and even of nationalism.
Dividing the century into three parts — the Age of Catastrophe, the Golden Age, and the Landslide — Hobsbawm tracks Western powers and their struggles with world wars, economic failures, and new world orders that involved them losing colonies and influence. In their place, new systems rose to prominence, though all exhibited fundamental faults that made it difficult for them to last. The Age of Extremes is not a jovial read, but it provides an interesting perspective on modern world history. If you’re up for some harsh social commentary, you should definitely pick this book up.
39. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Vietnam War, as it is commonly called in the US, still looms large in the American imagination. But while the trauma and camaraderie of American soldiers in the tropical jungles of Vietnam have often been often highlighted, shamefully little has been said about the sufferings of the Vietnamese people — both those who remained in Vietnam and those who eventually left as “boat people.”
The gap in mainstream memory of this heavily politicized war is what Viet Thanh Nguyen addresses in his thought-provoking nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies . Having lived through the tail end of that conflict himself, Nguyen offers a perspective that’s too often swept under the rug. Through his writing, he reminds readers that history as we know it is often selective and subjective; it’s more than what we choose to remember, it’s also about why we choose to remember the things we do, and how sinister political motives that can factor in.
40. Age Of Ambition : Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
History isn’t all about the distant past, and with such rapid changes over the last several decades, the contemporary history of China grows ever more fascinating by the year. Following economic reforms in the 1980s, China has grown exponentially and become one of the biggest economies in the world. But this opening up also meant that the Communist Party could no longer control the people’s discourses as effectively as before. In Age of Ambition , Evan Osnos draws on his firsthand observations as a journalist in China, talking about the recent transformation of Chinese people’s aspirations and plans to reach beyond the border of their country through their studies, their work, their consumption, and their communications.
41. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
If you think history can’t be gripping, then let Patrick Radden Keefe convince you otherwise: in this modern history book, he uses a murder investigation as a window into the bitter ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland. The book begins in 1972, in the middle of the Troubles — a 30-year conflict between the Catholic Irish, who wanted to leave the UK, and the Protestants who wanted to stay. A 38-year-old woman by the name of Jean McConville, married to a Catholic former soldier of the British Army, has disappeared. The suspects are members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), known to have executed people they believed were spying on them for the British. All deny the accusation, of course — some even going as far as to deny their involvement in the IRA altogether. Looking back at the incident and its suspects four decades later, Keefe highlights the atrocities that were committed by all parties during this period, and how they still resonate through NI today.
42. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
An esteemed researcher of African American literature and history, Hartman has produced a trove of work on the practices and legacies of slavery in the US. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is but one of the insightful titles she’s produced, discussing the lives of Black women in late 19th-century New York and Philadelphia. Looking at the concept and understanding of sexuality in these communities, Hartman found that despite the criminalization practiced by the state, there was space for women to own their sexuality and gender identity. It was a small space, and it would have slipped into oblivion if no one cared to explore the nuances of the urbanizing life of the 1890s — but this book ensures that they can never be left in the dust.
43. Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
This book, written to accompany the 4-episode docuseries of the same name, is a must-read for everyone interested in British history. The common understanding of this island nation’s history is usually related to its seaborne conquests and longstanding monarchies. But what of the servants and slaves, the people that actually did the work and fought the battles? What of the people who were moved here through colonial exchanges? Retracing British history with an eye upon the waves of immigration, Olusoga gives a comprehensive overview of the complexity of Black Britishness in the UK, a group whose stories are often obscured. He also shows that these people were and are integral to the nation’s development, and are thus not to be forgotten.
44. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
For those who enjoy storytelling, check out this thrilling novel-style history book on H. H. Holmes, the man considered to be one of the first modern serial killers. Holmes was only ever convicted for one murder but is thought to have had up to 27 victims, many lured to the World’s Fair Hotel that he owned. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is thus the immersive setting of The Devil in the White City , and is written from the point of view of the designers who contributed to the fair. It reads like suspense — think The Alienist — but it also informs on the excitement and uncertainty of the early stages of urbanization, coming together as a marvelous blend of mystery novel and true crime .
45. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger
In 1954, Guatemalan President Árbenz was overthrown. As with many Cold War-era coups in Asia and Latin America, the US was heavily involved in the plot. Even more absurdly, one of the main forces lobbying for this intervention was the United Fruit Company, which has been benefiting from labor exploitation in Guatemala. The result of this was the installation of an undemocratic and oppressive government, supremely heightened political unrest, and ultimately a prolonged civil war. Bitter Fruit dives into the rationales (or rather irrationalities) behind American involvement, highlighting the powerful paranoia that underlay many decisions throughout the Cold War.
Seeking more fodder for your non-fiction shelf? Why not check out the 60 best non-fiction books of the 21st century !
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Table of Contents
Literary, History is a popular category for many book lovers. Our team at Speechify has curated a list of the top Literary, History audiobooks everyone must read.
See the top 24 Literary, History audiobooks below.
- By: Sebastian Haffner
- Narrator: Simon Vance
- Length: 8 hours 18 minutes
- Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
- Publish date: January 01, 2005
- Language: English
- 4.31 (1965 ratings)
When the famous German author Sebastian Haffner died at age ninety-one in 1999, a manuscript was discovered among his unpublished papers that offers a compelling eyewitness account of the rise of Hitler and Nazism. He describes the country’s inflation and the political climate that contributed to Hitler’s rise to power and also examines the pervasive influence of such groups as the Free Corps and the Hitler Youth movement that swept the nation. He elucidates how the average educated German grappled with a rapidly changing society, while chronicling day-to-day changes in attitudes, beliefs, politics, and prejudices.
A major bestseller in Germany, Defying Hitler is an illuminating portrait of a time, a place, and a people.
My Young Life
- By: Frederic Tuten
- Narrator: Donald Corren
- Length: 9 hours 15 minutes
- Publish date: January 01, 2019
- 4.3 (37 ratings)
Novelist, essayist, and critic Frederic Tuten recalls his personal and artistic coming-of-age in 1950s New York, a defining period that would set him on the course to becoming a writer.
Born in the Bronx to a Sicilian mother and Southern father, Frederic Tuten always dreamed of being an artist. Determined to trade his neighborhood streets for the romantic avenues of Paris, he learned to paint and draw, falling in love with the process of putting a brush to canvas and the feeling it gave him. At fifteen, he decided to leave high school and pursue the bohemian life he’d read about in books, a life of salons and cafes and “worldly women” from whom he could learn and grow. But, before he could, he would receive an extraordinary education, right in his own backyard.
My Young Life is the story of those early formative years where, in the halls of Christopher Columbus High School and later the City College of New York, Frederic would discover the kind of life he wanted to lead. As Tuten travels downtown for classes at the Art Students League, spends afternoons reading in Union Square, and discovers the vibrant scenes of downtown galleries and Lower East Side bars, he finds himself a member of a new community of artists, gathering friends, influences–and many girlfriends–along the way.
Frederic Tuten has had a remarkable life, writing books, traveling around the world, acting in and creating films, and even conducting summer workshops with Paul Bowles in Tangiers. Spanning two decades and bringing us from his family’s kitchen table in the Bronx and the cafes of Greenwich Village and back again, My Young Life is an intimate and enchanting portrait of an artist’s coming-of-age, set against one of the most exciting creative periods of our time.
- By: Timothy Denevi
- Narrator: Mark Boyett
- Length: 10 hours 4 minutes
- Publisher: Hachette Audio
- Publish date: October 30, 2018
- 4.22 (339 ratings)
The story of Hunter S. Thompson’s crusade against Richard Nixon and the threat of fascism in America–and the devastating price he paid for it
Hunter S. Thompson is often misremembered as a wise-cracking, drug-addled cartoon character. This book reclaims him for what he truly was: a fearless opponent of corruption and fascism, one who sacrificed his future well-being to fight against it, rewriting the rules of journalism and political satire in the process. This skillfully told and dramatic story shows how Thompson saw through Richard Nixon’s treacherous populism and embarked on a life-defining campaign to stop it. In his fevered effort to expose institutional injustice, Thompson pushed himself far beyond his natural limits, sustained by drugs, mania, and little else. For ten years, he cast aside his old ambitions, troubled his family, and likely hastened his own decline, along the way producing some of the best political writing in our history.
This timely biography recalls a period of anger and derangement in American politics, and one writer with the guts to tell the truth.
The Dab of Dickens, The Touch of Twain, and The Shade of Shakespeare
- By: Elliot Engel
- Narrator: Elliot Engel
- Length: 6 hours 31 minutes
- Publish date: January 01, 2011
- 4.21 (51 ratings)
They are icons of the literary world whose soaring works have been discussed and analyzed in countless classrooms, homes, and pubs. Yet for most readers, the living, breathing human beings behind the classics have remained unknown—until now. In this utterly captivating book, Dr. Elliot Engel, a leading authority on the lives of great authors, illuminates the fascinating and flawed members of literature’s elite. In lieu of stuffy biographical sketches, Engel provides fascinating anecdotes.
You’ll never look at these literary giants the same way again.
Man in Profile
- By: Thomas Kunkel
- Narrator: Joe Barrett
- Length: 11 hours 22 minutes
- Publish date: January 01, 2015
- 4.16 (211 ratings)
This fascinating biography reveals the untold story of the legendary New Yorker profile writer–author of Joe Gould’s Secret and Up in the Old Hotel –and unravels the mystery behind one of literary history’s greatest disappearing acts.
Born and raised in North Carolina, Joseph Mitchell was Southern to the core. But from the 1930s to the 1960s, he was the voice of New York City. Readers of the New Yorker cherished his intimate sketches of the people who made the city tick–from Mohawk steelworkers to Staten Island oystermen, from homeless intellectual Joe Gould to Old John McSorley, founder of the city’s– most famous saloon. Mitchell’s literary sensibility combined with a journalistic eye for detail produced a writing style that would inspire New Journalism luminaries such as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion.
Then, all of a sudden, his stories stopped appearing. For thirty years, Mitchell showed up for work at the New Yorker– but produced nothing. Did he have something new and exciting in store? Was he working on a major project? Or was he bedeviled by an epic case of writer’s block?
The first full-length biography of Joseph Mitchell, based on the thousands of archival pages he left behind and dozens of interviews, Man in Profile pieces together the life of this beloved and enigmatic literary legend and answers the question that has plagued readers and critics for decades: What was Joe Mitchell doing all those years?
By the time of his death in 1996, Mitchell was less well known for his elegant writing than for his J. D. Salinger-like retreat from the public eye. For thirty years, Mitchell had wandered the streets of New York, chronicling the lives of everyday people and publishing them in the most prestigious publication in town. But by the 1970s, crime, homelessness, and a crumbling infrastructure had transformed the city Mitchell understood so well and spoke for so articulately. He could barely recognize it. As he said to a friend late in life, “I’m living in a state of confusion.”
Fifty years after his last story appeared and almost two decades after his death, Joseph Mitchell still has legions of fans, and his story–especially the mystery of his “disappearance”–continues to fascinate. With a colorful cast of characters that includes Harold Ross, A. J. Liebling, Tina Brown, James Thurber, and William Shawn, Man in Profile goes a long way to solving that mystery–and bringing this lion of American journalism out of the shadows that once threatened to swallow him.
The Caped Crusade
- By: Glen Weldon
- Narrator: Glen Weldon
- Length: 9 hours 25 minutes
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
- Publish date: January 01, 2016
- 4.13 (2072 ratings)
“A roaring getaway car of guilty pleasures” ( The New York Times Book Review ), Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade is a fascinating, critically acclaimed chronicle of the rises and falls of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes and the fans who love him–now with a new afterword. Since his debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman has been many things: a two-fisted detective; a planet-hopping gadabout; a campy Pop Art sensation; a pointy-eared master spy; and a grim ninja of the urban night. Yet, despite these endless transformations, he remains one of our most revered cultural icons. In this “smart, witty, and engrossing” ( The Wall Street Journal ) cultural critique, NPR contributor and book critic Glen Weldon provides “a sharp, deeply knowledgeable, and often funny look at the cultural history of Batman and his fandom” ( Chicago Tribune ) to discover why it is that we can’t get enough of the Dark Knight. For nearly a century, Batman has cycled through eras of dark melodrama and light comedy and back again. How we perceive his character, whether he’s delivering dire threats in a raspy Christian Bale growl or trading blithely homoerotic double entendres with Robin the Boy Wonder, speaks to who we are and how we wish to be seen by the world. It’s this endless adaptability that has made him so lasting, and ultimately human. But it’s also Batman’s fundamental nerdiness that uniquely resonates with his fans and makes them fiercely protective of him. As Weldon charts the evolution of Gotham’s Guardian from Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s hyphenated hero to Christopher Nolan’s post-9/11 Dark Knight, he reveals how this symbol of justice has made us who we are today and why his legacy remains so strong. The result is “possibly the most erudite and well-researched fanboy manifesto ever” ( Booklist). Well-researched, insightful, and engaging, The Caped Crusade , with a new afterword by the author, has something for everyone: “If you’re a Bat-neophyte, this is an accessible introduction; if you’re a dyed-in-the-Latex Bat-nerd, this is a colorfully rendered magical history tour redolent with nostalgia” ( The Washington Post ).
- By: John Brown
- Narrator: Wanda McCaddon
- Length: 8 hours 20 minutes
- Publish date: January 01, 2008
- 4.1 (5 ratings)
A traveling tinker, John Bunyan accepted long imprisonment rather than give up preaching the Gospel. He explained the life of the Spirit in language the common people could understand and in pictures that stuck in the mind. When he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, his fame spread rapidly, and within fifty years of his death, the book was reputed to be in most English homes.
John Brown’s biography of John Bunyan remains the standard, despite the lapse of over a hundred years since it was first published. The author was one of Bunyan’s successors as minister of the church in Bedford. He shows that many of the scenes familiar to readers of The Pilgrim’s Progress reflect local places and events and personal experience in the trials and joys of the Christian life.
- By: Ron Powers
- Narrator: Ron Powers
- Length: 10 hours 55 minutes
- 4.06 (1415 ratings)
Ron Powers‚Äôs tour de force has been widely acclaimed as the best life and times, filled with Mark Twain‚Äôs voice, and as a great American story. Samuel Clemens, the man known as Mark Twain, invented the American voice and became one of our greatest celebrities. His life mirrored his country’s, as he grew from a Mississippi River boyhood in the days of the frontier, to a Wild-West journalist during the Gold Rush, to become the king of the eastern establishment and a global celebrity as America became an international power. Along the way, Mark Twain keenly observed the characters and voices that filled the growing country, and left us our first authentically American literature. Ron Powers’s magnificent biography offers the definitive life of the founding father of our culture.
Spoon River Anthology
- By: Edgar Lee Masters
- Narrator: Patrick Fraley
- Length: 4 hours 23 minutes
- Publish date: January 01, 2002
- 4.05 (19 ratings)
Deemed “essential” in the canon of American literature, this audiobook masterpiece performed in its entirety by a full cast of fifty makes the classic accessible to everyone.
From a cemetery in a fictional mid-American town, the dead speak the truths about their lives. Some speak of hardships and sordid affairs, while others speak of their simple, honest, happy lives. Some are elderly and others are youthful or children, but mortality has claimed them all. Their voices reach us deeply–alternately plaintive, anguished, enigmatic, angry, contemptuous, and comedic, evoking themes of love, hope, disappointment, despair, and abiding faith. As the Spoon River residents examine their lives, they invite us to do the same.
- By: Leo Damrosch
- Length: 15 hours 1 minutes
- 3.93 (892 ratings)
Prize-winning biographer Leo Damrosch tells the story of “the Club,” a group of extraordinary writers, artists, and thinkers who gathered weekly at a London tavern
In 1763, the painter Joshua Reynolds proposed to his friend Samuel Johnson that they invite a few friends to join them every Friday at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London to dine, drink, and talk until midnight. Eventually the group came to include among its members Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, and James Boswell. It was known simply as “the Club.”
In this captivating book, Leo Damrosch brings alive a brilliant, competitive, and eccentric cast of characters. With the friendship of the “odd couple” Samuel Johnson and James Boswell at the heart of his narrative, Damrosch conjures up the precarious, exciting, and often brutal world of late eighteenth-century Britain. This is the story of an extraordinary group of people whose ideas helped to shape their age–and our own.
- By: Michael Perry
- Narrator: Michael Perry
- Length: 7 hours 0 minutes
- Publisher: HarperAudio
- Publish date: June 30, 2005
- 3.93 (4418 ratings)
Mike Perry’s extraordinary and thoughtful account of meeting the people of his small hometown by joining the fire and rescue team was a breakout hit that “swells with unadorned heroism” ( USA Today )
Welcome to New Auburn, Wisconsin (population: 485) where the local vigilante is a farmer’s wife armed with a pistol and a Bible, the most senior member of the volunteer fire department is a cross-eyed butcher with one kidney and two ex-wives (both of whom work at the only gas station in town), and the back roads are haunted by the ghosts of children and farmers. Michael Perry loves this place. He grew up here, and now-after a decade away-he has returned.
Unable to polka or repair his own pickup, his farm-boy hands gone soft after years of writing, Mike figures the best way to regain his credibility is to join the volunteer fire department. Against a backdrop of fires and tangled wrecks, bar fights and smelt feeds, he tells a frequently comic tale leavened with moments of heartbreaking delicacy and searing tragedy.
Tracing his calls on a map in the little firehouse, he sees “a dense, benevolent web, spun one frantic zigzag at a time” from which the story of a tiny town emerges.
- Narrator: George Newbern
- Length: 12 hours 40 minutes
- Publisher: Dreamscape Media
- Publish date: August 11, 2020
- 3.9 (886 ratings)
How has the Big Blue Boy Scout stayed so popular for so long? How has he changed with the times, and what essential aspects of him have remained constant? This fascinating biography examines Superman as a cultural phenomenon through seventy-five years of action-packed adventures, from his early years as a social activist in circus tights to his growth into the internationally renowned demigod he is today.
Written by NPR book critic, blogger, and resident comic-book expert Glen Weldon, this biography chronicles the ever-evolving Man of Steel and his world–not just the men and women behind the comics, movies, and shows, but his continually shifting origin story, burgeoning powers, and the colorful cast of trusted friends and deadly villains that surround him.
Superman places every iteration of the Man of Steel into the character’s greater, decades-long story: from Bud Collyer to Henry Cavill, World War II propagandist to peanut-butter pitchman, Super Pup to Super Friends, comic strip to Broadway musical, Lori Lemaris to Lois & Clark, it’s all here.
Affectionate and in-depth, this biography contains analyses of the hero’s most beloved adventures, in and out of the comics–his most iconic Golden Age tales, goofiest Silver Age exploits, and the contemporary film, television, and comics stories that keep him alive today.
- By: Mark Twain
- Narrator: Mark Twain
- Length: 15 hours 18 minutes
- Publisher: Recorded Books, Inc.
- Publish date: March 25, 2002
- 3.88 (6805 ratings)
Two American originals, Mark Twain and the West, come together in this documentary of the author’s seven-year “pleasure trip” to the silver mines of Nevada. Twain had originally planned the trip to be a three-month “ vacation ;” not surprisingly for someone of Twain’s temperament, the trip lasted seven years. His journey, like his book, has a way of taking ever-unexpected turns.
Life on the Mississippi
- Narrator: Grover Gardner
- Length: 13 hours 37 minutes
- Publish date: January 01, 2010
- 3.87 (11041 ratings)
The Mississippi River, known as “America’s river,” and Mark Twain are practically synonymous in American culture. The popularity of Twain’s steamboat and steamboat pilot on the ever-changing Mississippi has endured for over a century.
A brilliant amalgam of remembrance and reportage, by turns satiric, celebratory, nostalgic, and melancholy, Life on the Mississippi evokes the great river that Mark Twain knew as a boy and young man and the one he revisited as a mature and successful author. Written between the publication of his two greatest novels, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s rich portrait of the Mississippi marks a distinctive transition in the life of the river and the nation, from the boom years preceding the Civil War to the sober times that followed it.
Samuel Clemens became a licensed river pilot at the age of twenty-four under the apprenticeship of Horace Bixby, pilot of the Paul Jones. His name, Mark Twain, was derived from the river pilot term describing safe navigating conditions, or “mark two fathoms.” This term was shortened to “mark twain” by the leadsmen whose job it was to monitor the water’s depth and report it to the pilot.
Although Mark Twain used his childhood experiences growing up along the Mississippi in numerous works, nowhere is the river and the pilot’s life more thoroughly described than in Life on the Mississippi.
The Professor and The Madman
- By: Simon Winchester
- Narrator: Simon Winchester
- Length: 7 hours 20 minutes
- Publish date: January 13, 2004
- 3.84 (103544 ratings)
A New York Times Notable Book
The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary–and literary history.
The making of the OED was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, was stunned to discover that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. But their surprise would pale in comparison to what they were about to discover when the committee insisted on honoring him. For Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.
Masterfully researched and eloquently written, The Professor and the Madman “is the linguistic detective story of the decade.” (William Safire, New York Times Magazine)
This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.
- By: Giovanni Boccaccio
- Narrator: Frederick Davidson
- Length: 29 hours 58 minutes
- Publish date: January 01, 2009
- 3.8 (57 ratings)
In 1348, the year of the Black Death, seven ladies and three gentlemen escape the dying, corrupt city of Florence to pass ten days in the hills of Fiesole telling each other stories. Reveling in their enchanted dreamworld of beauty and luxury, they take turns playing king or queen for the day, with the designated ruler naming the stipulations for that day’s story. In contrast to their idyllic, gentile environment, the stories they tell are marked by an intense, cynical realism and feature ordinary people of less privileged classes. Boccaccio brings these stories alive with the authentic language of the different social classes and a frank, realistic handling of character. His satire often bites deep, yet he embraces evil and holiness alike with sympathy and tolerance, leaving guilty characters to condemn themselves.
Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Decameron is a monumental work of medieval pre-Renaissance literature.
On Nineteen Eighty-Four
- By: D. J. Taylor
- Narrator: Charles Armstrong
- Length: 5 hours 4 minutes
- Publish date: October 15, 2019
- 3.74 (89 ratings)
Since its publication nearly seventy years ago, George Orwell’s 1984 has been regarded as one of the most influential novels of the modern age. Politicians have testified to its influence on their intellectual identities, rock musicians have made records about it, TV viewers watch a reality show named for it, and a White House spokesperson tells of “alternative facts.” The world we live in is often described as an Orwellian one, awash in inescapable surveillance and invasions of privacy. On 1984 dives deep into Orwell’s life to chart his earlier writings and key moments in his youth, such as his years at a boarding school that’s strict and charismatic headmaster shaped the idea of Big Brother. Taylor tells the story of the writing of the book, taking listeners to the Scottish island of Jura, where Orwell, newly famous thanks to Animal Farm but coping with personal tragedy and rapidly declining health, struggled to finish 1984. Published during the cold war–a term Orwell coined–Taylor elucidates the environmental influences on the book. Then he examines 1984’s post-publication life, including its role as a tool to understand our language, politics, and government.
A Whiff of Wilde, a Pinch of Poe, and a Frisson of Frost
- Length: 6 hours 46 minutes
- 3.73 (49 ratings)
- By: John Took
- Length: 26 hours 30 minutes
- Publish date: March 03, 2020
- 3.7 (10 ratings)
For all that has been written about the author of the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) remains the best guide to his own life and work. Dante’s writings are therefore never far away in this authoritative and comprehensive intellectual biography, which offers a fresh account of the medieval Florentine poet’s life and thought before and after his exile in 1302.
Beginning with the often violent circumstances of Dante’s life, the book examines his successive works as testimony to the course of his passionate humanity: his lyric poetry through to the Vita nova as the great work of his first period; the Convivio , De vulgari eloquentia and the poems of his early years in exile; and the Monarchia and the Commedia as the product of his maturity. Describing as it does a journey of the mind, the book confirms the nature of Dante’s undertaking as an exploration of what he himself speaks of as “maturity in the flame of love.”
The result is an original synthesis of Dante’s life and work.
Death in the Afternoon
- By: Ernest Hemingway
- Narrator: Boyd Gaines
- Length: 9 hours 43 minutes
- Publish date: January 01, 2007
- 3.69 (6911 ratings)
Ernest Hemingway’s classic exploration of the history and pageantry of bullfighting, and the deeper themes of cowardice, bravery, sport and tragedy that it inspires. Still considered one of the best books ever written about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon reflects Hemingway’s belief that bullfighting was more than mere sport. Here he describes and explains the technical aspects of this dangerous ritual, and “the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal, and a piece of scarlet serge draped on a stick.” Seen through his eyes, bullfighting becomes an art, a richly choreographed ballet, with performers who range from awkward amateurs to masters of great grace and cunning. A fascinating look at the history and grandeur of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is also a deeper contemplation on the nature of cowardice and bravery, sport and tragedy, and is enlivened throughout by Hemingway’s pungent commentary on life and literature.
The Real Lolita
- By: Sarah Weinman
- Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
- Length: 7 hours 26 minutes
- Publish date: September 11, 2018
- 3.41 (4171 ratings)
“ The Real Lolita is a tour de force of literary detective work. Not only does it shed new light on the terrifying true saga that influenced Nabokov’s masterpiece, it restores the forgotten victim to our consciousness.” –David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet, very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.
Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.
Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.
- Narrator: Ha Jin
- Length: 11 hours 55 minutes
- Publish date: November 18, 2011
- 3.26 (1120 ratings)
Author Ha Jin’s celebrated works have claimed several top literary awards, including three Pushcart Prizes. In Nanjing Requiem, the Japanese are poised to invade Nanjing. The dean of Jinling Women’s College, Minnie Vautrin mistakenly believes her American citizenship will protect the school. But Vautrin’s life becomes a daily struggle as the school becomes a refugee camp-and the slaughter of refugees begins. “Jin paints a convincing, harrowing portrait of heroism in the face of brutality.”-Publishers Weekly
- By: Brian J. Boeck
- Narrator: Stefan Rudnicki
- Length: 13 hours 26 minutes
A masterful and definitive biography of one of the most misunderstood and controversial writers in Russian literature
Mikhail Sholokhov is arguably one of the most contentious recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As a young man, Sholokhov’s epic novel, Quiet Don , became an unprecedented overnight success.
Stalin’s Scribe is the first biography of a man who was once one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent political figures. Thanks to the opening of Russia’s archives, Brian Boeck discovers that Sholokhov’s official Soviet biography is actually a tangled web of legends, half-truths, and contradictions. Boeck examines the complex connection between an author and a dictator, revealing how a Stalinist courtier became an ideological acrobat and consummate politician in order to stay in favor and remain relevant after the dictator’s death.
Stalin’s Scribe is remarkable biography that both reinforces and clashes with our understanding of the Soviet system. It reveals a Sholokhov who is bold, uncompromising, and sympathetic–and reconciles him with the vindictive and mean-spirited man described in so many accounts of late Soviet history.
Shockingly, at the height of the terror, which claimed over a million lives, Sholokhov became a member of the most minuscule subset of the Soviet Union’s population–the handful of individuals whom Stalin personally intervened to save.
A Bit of Brontes, a Dollop of Dickinson, an Offering of Austen
- Narrator: various narrators
- Length: 6 hours 15 minutes
- Publish date: January 01, 2014
They are icons of the literary world whose soaring works have been discussed and analyzed in countless classrooms, homes, and pubs. Yet for most readers, the living, breathing human beings behind the classics have remained unknown–until now. In this utterly captivating book, Dr. Elliot Engel, a leading authority on the lives of great authors, illuminates the fascinating and flawed members of literature’s elite. In lieu of stuffy biographical sketches, Engel provides fascinating anecdotes.
You’ll never look at these literary giants the same way again.
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The best history books
From churchill to the romans, our recommendations offer a tour of world history..
History books make up an important genre in non-fiction. They help us understand the past so we can build a better future. From the American Civil War and two World Wars, to the Cold War and the Vietnam War, there is a vast selection of titles about the conflicts that have shaped our world. History books also provide a deep insight into key historical figures, from Genghis Khan to Ulysses Grant and Winston Churchill. World history is vast, and these 30 books are the tip of the iceberg. Our list of the best history books includes bestsellers, Pulitzer Prize winners and editor's picks from distinguished historians and biographers.
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18 of the Most Dangerous Books Ever Written
Books have the power to enlighten minds and shape perspectives. However, some texts, deemed dangerous have sparked controversies, influenced ideologies, and even incited violence.
Here’s a collection of such books, exploring their content and the impact they’ve had on society. Additionally, we’ll discuss the pivotal role of critical thinking in navigating through these potentially hazardous literary landscapes, ensuring readers can discern truth from misinformation and form balanced viewpoints.
1. The Influence of Seapower Upon History 1660-1783
“All major powers of the world read this book at a time when technology was rapidly advancing. Kaiser Wilhelm, Jackie Fisher, Teddy Roosevelt, Isoroku Yamamoto, and more historical figures took this book as gospel. It’s also still required reading today at the Navy War College and many defense-oriented postgraduate schools. This influence led to an explosive amount of shipbuilding and eventual conflict in the forms of World War I and World War II. I cannot overstate how influential this book was and how many billions of national capital were spent based on its words. Both historically and still today.”
Alfred Thayer Mahan’s seminal work explores the strategic importance of navies, maritime trade, and naval warfare in shaping history, influencing global powers, and altering the course of wars.
2. Marie Curie’s Diary
“It is irradiated so much that it has to stay in a lead box or something to keep people safe.Basically, every other book needs a person to read it and then the person becomes the danger. That diary is dangerous on its own.”
This diary chronicles the life and discoveries of Marie Curie, a pioneer in radioactivity. The physical diary is dangerously irradiated due to her extensive work with radioactive materials.
3. Mushroom Identification Guides
“Ok so this mushroom tastes like beef, this mushroom killed Jim immediately, and this one allows you to see god for a week.”
These guides are essential for distinguishing between edible and poisonous mushrooms. Inaccurate information within such guides can lead to serious health risks and fatalities.
4. To Train Up A Child
“It’s a ‘parenting’ book about how to train your child like a dog using harsh discipline. A lot of the stuff in it is abusive. The book has been linked to the deaths of a few kids”
This controversial parenting book by Michael and Debi Pearl advocates for strict corporal discipline, sparking debates on child-rearing practices and raising concerns about child welfare.
5. Malleus Maleficarum
“I’ve read it a few years ago, and it’s really sick how someone can blame so many of his own problems on someone else.”
Written in 1486, this treatise by Heinrich Kramer endorses the extermination of witches, contributing to the persecution and execution of thousands during the European witch hunts.
6. To Serve Man
“For those who don’t, it’s a Twilight Zone episode that’s about translating a book given to humanity by aliens. The twist is that Aliens solve all the world’s issues and share their tech but in exchange, they get to eat a small amount of humans periodically. The book title is To Serve Man with the idea it’s guidelines for humans to follow, instead once it’s translated it’s actually a cookbook for serving humans as the meal. There are a lot of dumb ideas around the translation bit, like, how/why does alien syntax allow for an English double entendre? It literally wouldn’t occur had it been translated into like, Arabic first or something. But the interesting idea is kinda similar to animal agriculture in that for a cow we solve all their problems, is it fair in exchange we eat them?”
This fictional tale from a “Twilight Zone” episode presents a seemingly benevolent alien race with a dark secret, exploring themes of trust, deception, and human exploitation.
7. Stephen King’s IT
“I was a kid when IT was published, and my mom was a HUGE Stephen King fan. She had all his books on guaranteed delivery, it was the 80s and a mail order program. She hadn’t slept at all because that book scared her so bad. She said the movie wasn’t nearly as scary as the book. I believe her. And have never read nor watched the film.”
Stephen King’s horror novel “IT” follows a group of children battling a shape-shifting, malevolent entity haunting their town, symbolizing fear, trauma, and the loss of innocence.
8. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
“Written by agents of 19th Century Russian czars, it’s an anti-Semitic screed that accuses Jews of all sorts of horrible things. If you think of stereotypes and caricatures, this is where they all originated. This book spurred countless pogroms since it was written and it was major propaganda for the Holocaust. To this day, the book is circulated among white supremacists. Literally millions of people were killed by followers of this book.”
This fabricated anti-Semitic text, originating in early 20th-century Russia, falsely presents a Jewish conspiracy for world domination, fueling hatred, violence, and discrimination against Jews.
9. The Bible
“The Bible… what other book has literally started wars and caused millions of deaths?”
The Bible, the sacred scripture of Christianity, encompasses teachings, morals, and narratives. Its interpretations have influenced cultural, social, and political landscapes, sometimes inciting conflicts and wars.
10. The Turner Diaries
“It’s a prolific book found in many right-wing extremist militia groups and more or less created the main right-wing talking points that were very commonplace along internet spaces during 2016. It’s probably led to a lot of extremism but I think is a more interesting choice than the bible. It has also been used as inspiration for several white supremacist terrorist attacks.”
Written by William Luther Pierce, this novel depicts a violent overthrow of the government and a race war, inspiring extremist ideologies and acts of domestic terrorism.
11. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
“The ends justify the means.”
“The Prince” is a political treatise by Niccolò Machiavelli, exploring statecraft, power, and leadership, often interpreted as endorsing manipulative and pragmatic tactics for rulers.
12. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
“This novel ignited a major controversy due to its exploration of religious themes, leading to death threats against the author and bans in some countries. He has survived numerous assassination attempts. Not just death threats.”
Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” explores themes of identity, religion, and cultural conflict, igniting controversy, fatwas, and debates on freedom of expression and religious tolerance.
13. Steal This Book by Abbey Hoffman
“If you have a copy, they are quite collectible since most people, encouraged by Hoffman, stole the book.”
Abbie Hoffman’s counter-culture book provides advice on civil disobedience, free living, and protest, challenging societal norms and advocating for anti-establishment lifestyles and activism.
14. 48 Laws of Power
“The author himself said that if anyone were to do all of what he writes in his books they would be an awful person. He has also said that he wrote it from the perspective of someone who (like most people) will have to engage with people who behave like that. I say this not to discourage anyone from reading it.”
Robert Greene’s “48 Laws of Power” offers strategies for gaining and maintaining power, drawing on historical examples, and has been criticized for promoting manipulative tactics.
“The Necronomicon, first written as Al Azif by Abdul Alhazred. It has since taken on many names and translations, but the original text has been lost to time. Everywhere this book went, death and suffering would follow.”
The “Necronomicon” is a fictional grimoire appearing in H.P. Lovecraft’s works, containing forbidden knowledge, magical rituals, and connections to ancient deities and otherworldly realms.
16. Foundations of Geopolitics
“Written by a far-right political theorist in 1997, it’s become Russia’s playbook over the last twenty years. Describes how they can maximize their geopolitical influence by basically de-stabilizing the West.”
Alexander Dugin’s “Foundations of Geopolitics” outlines a vision for Russian geopolitical strategy, advocating for Eurasianism, regional influence, and the destabilization of Western powers.
17. Capitalism & Freedom by Milton Friedman
“Anything you hate about the current social, economic, or political environments probably has at least a root or two in the concepts cooked up by this muppet.”
Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism & Freedom” examines the relationship between economic freedom and political freedom, advocating for free markets and limited government intervention.
18. The Communist Manifesto
“It’s dangerous because of what it led to. Would we have had Stalin or Mao without it? We can add more to that list as well but the top two are fairly illustrative. It may have been written with the best of intentions but the ideas went on to be perverted by despots that led to millions of deaths and suffering.”
Authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto” presents the principles of communism and calls for a proletarian revolution, influencing various socialist movements.
Should the Books be Banned?
Book banning, a practice with a history spanning over 2,000 years, has seen a concerning resurgence in the United States. In 2022, an alarming 2,571 unique books were targeted for bans, a figure that surpasses the combined total of the previous three years and represents a 60.99% increase from 2021. This surge is particularly notable in schools and libraries, which account for 99% of all ban requests.
Specifically, in 2022, public libraries faced 609 challenges, school libraries 520, and schools themselves 127. The primary proponents of these bans are parents, responsible for 381 challenges in 2022, closely followed by library patrons with 355 challenges.
The main reasons for these bans have remained consistent since the 1990s, with sexually explicit content, offensive language, and violence topping the list. Additionally, books addressing homosexuality have seen a 104% increase in ban attempts over the past decade. Notably, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz has been the most frequently banned book since 1990, with Judy Blume emerging as the most banned author.
Furthermore, US prisons have not been exempt from this trend. As of 2022, over 56,717 publications ¹, including books and newspapers, are prohibited, with Florida accounting for 35.62% of all banned prison books. This data emphasizes the ongoing debate over freedom of expression and the role of literature in society.
Critical Thinking In the Face of Dangerous Books
In a world brimming with a vast array of literature, some books can be enlightening, while others can be potentially dangerous. The ability to discern the difference lies in the practice of critical thinking.
Critical thinking is not about finding fault; rather, it is the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking, to reason, and to be an active learner instead of a passive recipient of information
Characteristics of Critical Thinkers
Critical thinkers possess the ability to understand links between ideas, determine the importance and relevance of arguments, identify inconsistencies in reasoning, and approach problems systematically.
They question ideas and assumptions, seeking to understand the entire picture, and are open to finding discrepancies. Critical thinkers reflect on their own assumptions, beliefs, and values, ensuring a balanced view.
Critical Reading for Informed Insights
Critical reading is a foundational skill that builds on the ability to think logically, recognize errors in thought, and evaluate ideas. Critical readers are open-minded, creative, and in touch with their thoughts on a topic.
They seek alternative views, ask penetrating questions, and develop their ideas based on careful analysis. This practice enables readers to create informed and reasoned insights about a subject, fostering a deeper understanding of the material.
Applying Critical Thinking to Dangerous Books
When going through the seas of dangerous books, critical thinking acts as a compass, guiding readers to question the content, analyze the arguments, and reflect on the implications.
It encourages readers to seek the truth diligently, evaluate the relevance of the information, and be skeptical of unverified claims. This approach ensures that readers are not easily swayed by misleading or harmful content, fostering a culture of informed and discerning readership.
Exploring the realms of dangerous books reveals the profound impact literature can have on individuals and societies. These texts, while controversial, prompt us to reflect on the diverse perspectives and ideologies that shape our world.
The practice of critical thinking emerges as a beacon of discernment, guiding us through the complexities of these works and fostering intellectual growth.
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Imagine a world where a car isn’t just a mode of transportation but an extension of one’s personality, quirks, and comedic genius. This world exists, and it’s painted in the vibrant hues of Mr. Bean’s escapades.
For many of us, the mere mention of Mr. Bean doesn’t just bring back memories of Rowan Atkinson’s impeccable comedic timing but also of a peculiar green car that became as iconic as the man himself.
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You’ve Been Opening Ketchup Packets Wrong: Brilliant Hack
We rarely consider the impact of our habitual, seemingly mundane actions. But every now and then, a new perspective sends shockwaves through our understanding, forcing us to reevaluate and reinvent our ways.
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