Until college, I thought history was just one dull fact after another. Then I had several history professors (not even my major) who made history alive, by weaving the facts into a story, connecting cultural forces, people, and events into a narrative that both made sense of the times, and helped make sense of how we got to our own time in history. Since then, I’ve been hooked on reading history. In fact, I couldn’t keep this list to ten (and could easily add to it).
Steven Ambrose, Undaunted Courage. Reading the account of the journeys of Lewis and Clark gives one an appreciation for the amazing accomplishment and improbable accomplishment of their explorations.
Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. As imperialist and colonialist as this is, Churchill offers a magnificent narrative from the beginnings of Britain through the age of exploration to the revolutionary age and the modern global spread of English-speaking peoples. Not only could Churchill speak, but also he wrote well, and made his living off his writing. Some day I would also love to read his six volumes on The Second World War. I’ve read a one volume condensation so this would not strictly be a re-read.
Shelby Foote, Civil War: A Narrative. Foote, a southern historian takes us from Sumter to Appomattox in three volumes that I didn’t want to end
E. H. Gombrich, A Little History of the World. An account of human history in 284 pages. Written for European schoolchildren, Gombrich pulls it off. It was a great summer read one summer. Maybe again this summer.
Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Guelzo directs the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College. He lives on the battlefield site. He knows every hill, valley, field and railroad cut and takes us inside the battle better than anyone I’ve read.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam. Vietnam was the war I grew up with but I did not understand the unfolding and unraveling of the war until I read Karnow’s account.
David McCullough, The Great Bridge. This was my introduction to McCullough and his capacity to weave a fascinating narrative of the Roeblings, father and son, and the challenges of design and construction they overcame to build the Brooklyn Bridge, costing one his life, the other his health.
Candace Millard, Hero of the Empire. One can begin to understand why Churchill was such an inspiring and intrepid figure. Millard, who has also written about Theodore Roosevelt, and the death of James Garfield, gives at once, an account of the Boer War, and the miraculous escape and perilous flight across country of Churchill, working as a freelance journalist captured for ransom by the Boers.
Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower. Philbrick profiles the company of Pilgrims, the religious challenges that drove them to migrate, the new challenges they faced in the New World, and the challenges they presented the native peoples.
Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly. Tuchman is one of the great narrators of history. This was perhaps one of her more polemical books, demonstrating the foolishness and waste of war.
Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty (Oxford History of the United States). Wood traces the early life of the American republic, from the presidency of Washington through the end of the War of 1812, a time when the country’s existence was touch and go. Great writing, as is true of each volume of the history. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom on the Civil War is excellent.
Donald Worster, A River Running West. Worster chronicles the explorations of the Colorado River, and the surrounding canyons by John Wesley Powell, giving us a stunning portrait of this explorer of and advocate for the American West.
History researched and written well transports us into events being narrated. It makes names and places and events come alive with significance. It can inspire, instruct, and warn. It makes whole civilizations spring to life. And re-reading it may be like going through old family records in the attic. It reminds us of the family from which we descend. The human family.