Disclosure: this post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate, I may earn from qualifying purchases made using the links below at no cost to you. You can read my full disclaimer here.
Looking for the best history books to read?
Historical nonfiction has the power to bring the past into sharp focus, revealing its relevance and importance, and making it easier for us to grasp and memorize. The right history book can even make a celebrated hero feel like someone we’ve known our whole lives, or turn complex events into thrilling prose. In fact, I believe the best history books are equal parts educational and entertaining, which is the distinctive quality of the titles I’ve put together here for you today.
So, without further ado, here’s a list of the 10 best history books of all time that will both hold your attention and help you catch up on our world history.
1. “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind” by Noah Yuval Harari
Most history books cover only a specific period of history; it may be a single event, or a decade, a century at most. Sapiens, on the other hand, chose a completely different approach. Spanning the entire history of humankind, Sapiens manages to cover the last 70,000 years of human existence from the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century into less than 500 pages. With an insightful and clear voice, Harari, an Israeli historian, offers an interesting insight into what he believes were the 4 biggest breakthroughs in human history:
- The Cognitive Revolution
- The Agricultural Revolution
- The unification of humankind
- The Scientific Revolution
Noah Harari poses all the big questions. What makes us special? What makes us deadly? How it came to be that we completely dominated the earth? He also has some answers, but they’re not what you’d expect. Sapiens explores who we are, how we got here, and where we’re headed.
2. “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
This easy-to-read biography uses amusing anecdotes to introduce history buffs to a very human Abraham Lincoln. Acclaimed historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin weaves an accurate tale as she follows the life of the 16th president of the United States from the early 1800s, through the Civil War until the tragedy of his assassination in 1865. The book portraits all the men who served with Lincon, as well as all the rivals he later managed to integrate into his cabinet, and analyzes them with great insights into their characters and visions.
More than anything, Team of Rivals is an in-depth study in leadership and managerial skills, so powerful that has apparently given Obama the model for his presidency. Goodwin’s bestseller is a meticulously researched and wonderfully written biography, full of humor and wisdom, and accessible even to the most casual reader.
3. “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany” by William L. Shirer
Almost 50 years after its publication, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is still recognized as the definitive work on the Nazi regime. It is all here – the birth of Adolf Hitler, his rise to power in the 1920s, the weakness of the European powers, and then the war itself from Germany’s early successes to the eventual defeat.
The foreign correspondent William L. Shirer reported on the Nazis since 1925 and wrote the book after gaining access to a huge collection of documents captured by the Allie. We’re talking officials’ diaries, testimonies from the Nuremberg trials, private letters, the minutes of secret meetings. And because of Shirer’s proximity to the major players of the Third Reich, the book has an intimacy that sets it apart from the usual historical reports of events.
It is dense, detailed, powerful. It is also exhausting, overwhelming, and inevitably depressing, but it remains today the definitive record of one of the most upsetting chapters in the history of mankind.
4. “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn
They say that history is always written by the winners. Howard Zinn, American historian and political activist, tried to change that. In his bestseller that sold two million copies worldwide, Zinn tells a history not often seen in traditional books, which usually puts great emphasis on nations as a whole and illustrious men in high places. Instead, this book chronicles history from the perspective of the working-class people, Native Americans, slaves, the man who went off to actually fight wars, and the women who tried to keep going after losing them.
From Columbus’ expedition and the original sin of the Native Americans suppression, passing through President Bush’s “war on terror”, Zinn delivers insightful analysis of the most important events that shaped our present. It’s is not a simple American history textbook, but a brilliantly written portrait of the U.S. past through the lives of those too often overlooked.
5. “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford
In the West and the Middle East, the perception of Genghis Khan has always been strongly negative. And yet, in nearly every country he conquered, he brought new forms of cultural communication, developed trade, abolished torture, granted religious freedom, making his reign vastly more progressive than the ones of his European or Asian counterparts. With this beautifully written work of revisionist history, the cultural anthropologist Weatherford tries to present a different side of the ruler who created from scratch a modern empire. In order to do so, Weatherford carried meticulous research, exploring thousands of miles of what was once Mongol territory, gathers information from famous political scientists, and goes through original Mongolian documents.
In the end, Weatherford manages to deliver a beautiful narrative of the rise and the influence of the figure of Genghis Khan, attributing also positive cultural effects to his rule.
6. “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II” by Sonia Purnell
Very few people have actually heard of Virginia Hall, and yet, she is nowadays recognized on the record as one the most valuable secret agents for the Allies in WWII. Despite continuous gender discrimination and the loss of a leg during a hunting accident, Virginia spent the entire war behind enemy lines, training members of the French Resistance, organizing powerful networks, all while constantly eluding capture by the Nazis.
Purnell’s detailed research brings Virginia’s story to the public, delivering a shocking and inspiring story of personal achievement, heroism, and spy-craft. Including the perfect amount of historical context, while at the same time building up tension, excitement and joy as the events unfold, “A Woman of No Importance” is a groundbreaking biography that reads like a spy thriller, and an exceptional tale of unrecognized heroism.
7. “John Adams” by David McCullough
A biography of the Founding Father and second U.S. President John Adams, McCullough masterpiece went on to win the Pulitzer Prize just a year after its publication.
Through this powerful, epic book, readers come to know John Adams as the quintessential honorable man, a transparent political leader, and a rock of integrity that valued honesty and free thinking as the highest virtues. Through the passages from letters exchanged with faithful wife Abigail, readers also discover him as an absolute devoted husband as well as an excellent writer of history.
John Adams is clearly a book about a man, a brilliant one, but it is also much, much more. It is a book about the American Revolution, American Independence, and all the Founding Fathers. It’s a book about a group of extraordinary people, each very different in character, but McCullough brings each one of them to life. I really cannot imagine any history buff who wouldn’t enjoy this book.
8. “1776” by David McCullough
Yes, I included not one, but two books published by the incredibly skilled author David McCullough, that as always is able to write historical nonfiction that reads like a novel.
As the title suggests, 1776 focuses on the events surrounding the start of the American Revolution. It is the story of both the Americans and the British, and of all the major players involved in the war. On the American side, there was George Washington and the militia of New England. On the British side, King George III, General William Howe, and General Henry Clinton. Aside from the astonishing number of historical details, what is particularly remarkable about this book is the drama, excitement, and narrative force that McCullough manages to convey in reporting the story of the year of America’s birth. The book also includes multiple pages of illustrations, including portraits of the main players and faithful representations of historical battlefield maps prepared by British engineers at the time.
9. “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond
A national bestseller, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” attempts to explain why Eurasian and North African civilizations have flourished and conquered others, while strongly disputing against the ideas of human development based on race. In other words, Jared Diamond, famed anthropologist, attempts to answer one the greatest questions of all time: why did history unfold so differently among the various continents?
Through this book, you’ll analyze over 13,000 years of history, plus geography, environmental aspects, and all the factors that played a role in the technological prominence of Eurasian civilizations. What makes the book particularly interesting and appreciated, is the in-depth and practical experience that Jared has on all the fields required to put together a study of this magnitude. The effort was definitely well appreciated, as in 1998, the book won the Pulitzer Prize in recognition of its influence and great educational value.
10. “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing
In 1914 the British explorer Shackleton and a crew of 27 men set sail for the South Atlantic on board a ship called the Endurance. The crew ran into more than their fair share of trouble, to put it mildly. The whole voyage took a little over a year, and every single day, they were literally one wave, slipup, or storm away from being wiped out.
One of the greatest adventure stories of the modern age, Shackleton’s attempts to cross the Antarctic was accurately reconstructed by author Alfred Lansing using the direct testimonies and diaries of the survivors of the expedition. The awful conditions the crew faced and the many acts of bravery and fortitude reported in the book are truly humbling. A captivating and inspiring tale of exploration, human strength, and survival, Endurance will keep you on your toes until the very last page.