Don’t fall asleep! Ok, good. Let’s talk books today. Hopefully you like books — frankly, if you don’t, you’re probably in the wrong field. Sometimes, though, we need a little bit of help finding good books. I can’t say that these six history books are good, necessarily, but I can say that I like them very much. If you want to learn more about history, here are my suggested starting points:
1. Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic – Tom Holland’s Rubicon was the first book I read about history, back in high school, that didn’t make me nod off after four sentences. This is probably because, rather than being a historian, Holland is a journalist. I’m not saying you should use him as a source for your Classics paper – I am saying that if you want a fun, breezy ride through the Roman Republic in the last century or so of its existence, you should read this book.
2. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America – Ira Berlin’s social history of slavery primarily focuses on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which are often neglected in favor of talking about nineteenth century American slavery, which had its own distinctive nature. It also breaks down slavery regionally, which is another dimension with important implications. Berlin’s book is probably the best on the topic, and, crucially, it details some of the ways in which slaves could negotiate their power relationship with their master by slowing their pace, breaking tools, etc., which was an aspect that had never really been widely discussed before.
3. A Leap in the Dark – John Ferling’s A Leap in the Dark is a fairly straightforward political history of the American Revolution. That was not a criticism – it’s written in a light, engaging narrative style, and it embraces all of the major figures and events of the Revolution. There is a “but.” Ferling’s account leans heavily on traditional political narrative, so issues like gender and race do not really factor in very much at all. With that important caveat, it is a wonderful book.
4. Our Bones Are Scattered – Andrew Ward’s history of the 1857 sepoy rebellion in India against Britain and the rule of the East India Company is a fascinating read. It focusses especially on the summertime siege of the city of Cawnpore, and the fates of the British garrison there, including the women and children. It reads like a novel. Spoiler alert: it’s called the Cawnpore Massacre for a reason.
5. King Leopold’s Ghost – Adam Hochshild’s history of the Belgian Congo is fascinating and horrifying all at the same time. Leopold II, king of Belgium, ran the colony as his personal fiefdom, and nearly bled the place dry. His government successors did not manage the place much better. For insight into the unstable nature of the modern Congo, you could do a lot worse than to read this fascinating book.
6. The Reformation – Diarmaid McCulloch’s lengthy history of the Protestant Reformation is incredibly interesting – insights are to be found on literally every page, especially for the general reader. McCulloch is an excellent writer, and the Reformation is an endlessly fascinating and important topic – perhaps the most significant historical “event” of the last 500 years. So check this book out. Get cozy, though – it’s a brick.
I’ll stop at six for now — for both our sake’s. I could do this all day! Do yourself a favor and check at least one of these out over Spring Break!