I am a proud history buff. From the early 1990s to the late 2000s, I was like a sponge, absorbing information at the rate of one new non-fiction history book a month. To be fair, I should say that I have amassed a large library of interesting history books. Today I don’t pay much attention to history, but I still manage to pick up a new history book from time to time that has something interesting in it.
If you’re looking for a good history book, it often really depends on what interests you. In my case, I am primarily interested in ancient and medieval history, military history and the history of the twentieth century. It’s interesting that the books I’m presenting here are mostly popular history books. They are aimed at a broader readership rather than a specialized area for scholars or students. For reference, there are dozens of titles on Roman history in my home library, and this is by far my favorite area of history. For the purposes of this article, I tried not to make them my only goal, but I must admit that this task was quite difficult.
As I pondered which history books had left the greatest impression on me, I followed my intuition and asked myself why I was reading those books at the time. The answer was interesting and, apparently, helped me understand a little about myself and my place in this world. Anyway, without further ado, here below are my thoughts on the books I love the most.
I first stumbled upon Byzantine history almost thirty years ago when I was looking for information about medieval Croatia (my parents’ birthplace) and its history. In the early 1990s, there weren’t many books devoted exclusively to Croatia, so I made amends by reading another European history that mentioned Croatia. One of these books was called Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe 500-1453 (1971) Dmitry Obolensky. It was here that I was instantly fascinated by this ancient part of the medieval Roman Empire that we call Byzantine history. I didn’t forget about Croatia, but everything was put on hold while I filmed all the layers of Byzantine history.
Edward Gibbon, as a writer and historian, has so much to tell us about Roman history and all of its twisted little stories and side events that fill the lines of his pages. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). It is generally considered a masterpiece due to its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources. However, there is in it a lot of insulting and causing criticism from scientists and modern historians. In particular, his harsh views on Christianity and his disregard for full attention to the later history of the empire (Byzantium). However, he is often referred to as the first “modern historian of ancient Rome”. If you manage to find a good abridged version of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, you will definitely be delighted. I think I would have had to take a breath at first if I had taken on the full 6-volume version of it, which is about 1,500,000 words!
art history (1950) Ernst Gombrich is often cited as the most popular art book ever written. It has been revised sixteen times since its original publication. I stumbled upon him some twenty years ago when I read about the death of Ernst Gombrich in a newspaper article describing him as the most eminent art historian of our lives. The book itself is a survey of the history of art from prehistory to the present. His accessibility and ease of understanding important events in art helped me to take a different look at the world. It’s important to note that this is a good starting point to ask your own questions and deepen your knowledge by reading elsewhere.
A recently revised and updated edition of Misha Glennie’s book. The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999. seems to come out every few years. I still have my first 1999 copy, and I’m not going to change it for a new one. Everything you ever wanted to know about the modern history of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania is laid out in great detail. Glennie writes about the turbulent region not only in general terms, but also in small details that most history books do not even consider. I have always known the great powers, and their intervention in the Balkans was problematic. Glennie makes you wonder what the region might look like if the great powers really cared about these nations instead of using them as political pawns.
While I adore David Lean’s epic 1962 historical drama about the legend and exploits of T. E. Lawrence of Arabia, I first truly learned the truth about the infamous Damascus victory from Jill Hamilton’s extraordinary book. First to Damascus: The Story of the Australian Light Horse and Lawrence of Arabia (2002) and how the Australian Light Horse rode into Damascus ahead of Lawrence of Arabia. It was a truth that was buried and safely forgotten for a very long time, leaving Lawrence and his Arab rebels honor. In short, the Australians who swept through Damascus were part of what was part of the “Great Ride.” This was the last major cavalry expedition not seen since the time of Alexander the Great. This book proved timely for my own learning about Australia’s role during the Great War. It also helped me get even more involved in my attempt to understand the complexities of the Middle East.
One of the most interesting accounts of twentieth-century European history was written by Richard Vinen in a book called History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century (2000). Vinen’s account of twentieth-century Europe was a refreshing look at the narratives and/or stories that have shaped the lives of all Europeans. A universal approach to history is thrown out the window in Vinen’s book because it opened my eyes not only to the political history of Europe, but also to the important social, economic and cultural issues that have defined European life for a long century of clouded upheaval, change and violence. Many readers may be put off by the way Vinen often deviates from the narrative to focus on issues like working women or the power of the church, but that’s what makes this report so refreshing.
When we talk about great powers, we often mean their leaders like Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt and what they did for their countries. Roosevelt, for example, used his presidency to make America a superpower. His heir presumptive Truman was apparently left with the same task of trying to keep America at the top of the heap. But, as I quickly realized, reading The Commander-in-Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned Presidential Power into a Threat to America’s Future (2007)President Truman faced threats to America’s reputation that left him in a precarious position. The book then explores how the three presidents Truman, Johnson, and Bush all but sapped American power by fighting three winless wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.
No wonder one of my favorite historians Roger Crowley decided to write about Byzantium, more precisely, Constantinople, the last great siege of 1453 as his first book in 2005. Like many who travel through modern Istanbul, one cannot help but fall in love with the city and its rich history. (I recently discovered Richard Fiedler’s history of Constantinople called The Empire of Ghosts. He too fell in love with Istanbul during a trip there in 2014.) In any case, Crowley’s wonderful retelling of the last sack of Constantinople leaves the reader completely satisfied. His wealth of knowledge is very evident, as is his passion for it. No wonder he was asked to contribute to Netflix’s television docudrama about the epic siege called Rise of Empires: Ottoman (2020).
Simon Reid-Henry’s wonderful story about the friendship between Fidel Castro and Ernesto (Che) Guevara is one of my favorite books of all time. In its pages, I learned how their friendship helped me understand the Cuban revolution. Truth be told, there’s more Fidel and Che: revolutionary friendship (2008) than just the Cuban Revolution, and as Reid-Henry points out, the camaraderie between Che and Castro and the role they played during the Cold War is nothing short of big theater. Personally, I have always admired the last months of Che’s life in Bolivia, his death and martyrdom, and his place in the history of the twentieth century. After reading this book, I am more interested than ever to understand how the Argentine became the face of the revolution.
Jerry Chanel Saving the Mona Lisa: the battle to protect the Louvre and its treasures from the Nazis (2014) is one of the last history books in my home library that has found its place in my heart. My interest in World War II and art are effectively intertwined in Chanel’s gripping story of how the French sought to stop the Nazis from looting and destroying da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and other amazing priceless works of art. In short, I have always considered art to be one of our most important treasures. However, reading about how the French risked their lives to protect him is incredible.