It’s been my intention to write some book reviews as I went along. One of my favorite hobbies is to read history books. These range all over the field, including the 19th century, the medieval period, and the big wars of the 20th century. In recent years, I’ve tackled American history in earnest, hoping to understand this crazy story of ours. I’ve also begun a study of Asian history, though I find it tougher sledding because of the vast length of their histories and difficulty remembering names.
When I say that, I think people assume I’m a complete novice instead of an amateur historian who’s been at it for a while, but I just don’t want to represent myself as more than I am. For instance, I’d read a couple of books about India and wanted to know more, so I bought a book about the India-Pakistan split/rift. At the checkout counter, the guy at the cashier, who was South Asian, said, “Oh, you like reading about India.”
I replied, “I’d like to learn more, but the names sometimes give me trouble.” He looked at me disdainfully and dismissively, like I was a moron who was just learning to read. But I just didn’t want to represent myself as some kind of expert when I wasn’t.Maybe he was hitting on me or something and didn’t like my negative reply–who can say.
Anyway, point being, I’m no expert, but I have read a lot of history and here are a few books I’d recommend, if you have similar tastes in historical reading.
History with a Personal Touch
These days, I feel like I know the broad outlines of history. Therefore, I prefer reading about people’s individual experiences in a particular age.
- The Judgment of Paris by Ross King – About the 1860s and 1870s in France, when Impressionists like Edouard Manet were struggling to gain acceptance and now largely-forgotten Ernest Meissonier stood atop the French painting scene like a Colossus.
- Berlin Diary by William Shirer – Written from a CBS correspondent during the early years of Nazi Germany. Told from the perspective of a clear-eyed reporter with access to fairly high levels of power. William Shirer, who went on to write Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, was sometimes right on in his assumptions, and sometimes way off base. It’s fascinating to see what a person living through the times thought and felt.
- The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael K Jones– This sounds like a standard war book of generals and world leaders, and it certainly has those elements in it. Mostly, you get first-hand accounts of what the front line soldiers went through in the first half-year of the Nazi-Soviet war on the Eastern Front. This starts in June 1941 when Hitler invades, focuses on the Nazi’s first reverse outside Moscow, and the harsh decisions made in the battles which followed. The action leaves off in February/March 1942. If you want to know how the soldiers lived and the human impact, there’s no better book.
- A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman – Discusses the Black Plague of 1348-1349, its aftermath, and the years of the Hundred Years War between France and England. What you get is a sense of the seismic shift in attitudes and social mores when 1/3rd of the population suddenly dies. The Black Death was an awful period of human history, but it also opened the door for the changes that occured in Europe in the following centuries. The Bubonic Plague plunged Europe into a new age of darkness, but it also propelled Europe out of the feudal system and the medieval world. Those forced to read the Canterbury Tales get to see the world which inspired Geoffrey Chaucer.
- The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager – From the same time period, a historical account of the last court-mandated death duel in the history of France. This story takes several obscure figures of the 14th century and makes a riveting account of power, the abuse of power, and the settling of old scores. It’s amazing how little the world has changed since 1386. Imagine a duel to the death involving an accused rape. If the accused wins, the lady who accused him will be burned at the stake.
Anyway, this was supposed to be an introduction to the book I want to review, Eminent Churchillians by Andrew Roberts, but I’m out of time for the day. So I guess you get book recommendations for now. Tomorrow, I discuss recent revisionist history.