(This post originally appeared on Forbes)
You can’t make sense of the present without understanding the series of events thought brought us here. My day job may be focused on entrepreneurial and innovative tech but outside of my 9-to-5, I’m a lover of history. That’s why I’ve compiled for you my favorite history books about western civilization, including some of the bestselling history books of all time that are consistently reprinted and in demand, even if it was originally published more than a century ago. These reads will surely help you catch up on your world history. Here they are, in historical order:
Many call Henry VI the worst English king ever and it’s tough to blame them. He lost the Hundred Years’ War to France and, through fiscal mismanagement and poor leadership, ushered in a civil war that ultimately tore apart the ruling classes and the Crown itself and led to the infamous War of the Roses. Despite his failures, Henry VI was also responsible for the founding of Eton College, King’s College, Cambridge, and All Souls College, Oxford. Interesting times.
A history professor and host of the always educational and oftentimes hilarious podcast History Is Sexy, Southon paints a fascinating and terrifying portrait of the woman who was the daughter of the almost-emperor General Germanicus, the granddaughter of former emperor Augustus, the sister of the emperor Caligula as well holding the dual roles of niece and wife to the emperor Claudius (remember folks, it’s ancient Rome!). Forget Arianna Huffington, this woman had power! The book is not only a story of a supremely significant figure in Roman history, but a reminder that some women don’t need a hashtag to get the respect they deserve. Look for Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World in hardcover to be released in August.
Roman civilization arguably represents the highest (and the lowest) of human achievements. Will Durant, who is more known for his multi-volume Story of Civilization books of which this is a part, explores all aspects of the greatest empire ever, from its government to its culture, its wars, to its leaders and how religion ultimately became a dominating factor in the empire’s inevitable collapse. Most important, Durant’s writing style is easy-to-read and keeps the reader engaged throughout the rise and fall of the Romans.
Sure, it’s a novel. But as historical fiction goes this book ranks among the very best. Told from the viewpoints of five aristocratic families—Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, and the Drubetskoys, the book paints a stark picture of life in Russia and France during the mid-19th century as France invaded, the Tsarist society reeled and Napoleon ruled.
At almost 1,100 pages, Paul Johnson’s sweeping masterpiece tells the story of America from colonial times all the way through the last 20th century. He writes in a manner that only a British historian with an unmatched command of the English language and an unwavering dedication to free markets, capitalism—as well as an appreciation of all that this country was able to achieve and produce in its relatively short history. A former editor of the New Statesman, Johnson also contributed many fine columns to Forbes on world events and how the U.S
Broke in 1854 and a national hero just ten years later, the rags-to-riches story of Civil War general and two-term President Ulysses S. Grant captures the tumultuous times of the mid-nineteenth century in a gripping and realistic manner. Chernow weaves in unforgettable tales of Grant’s rise to fame, his oftentimes brutal military techniques and his battles with alcohol and then corruption during his presidential terms into a narrative that only makes the reader—at least this reader—appreciate just how bad things were back then for this country and how relatively easy we have it today.
Ever wonder how the first World War really started? No, it wasn’t all about the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. It was brought on by the tensions that were growing for many years before that—much of it surrounded the enormous dreadnought warships that both England and Germany were turning out like meat pies and schnitzel during that period. The rulers of both countries (England’s King George V and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II) were obsessed with outdoing each other with a new weapon of war, and of course things didn’t end well. Massie gives a textbook description as to how wars really start which is usually a combination of human error, large egos and lots of lots of stupidity.
As a white, middle-aged man I will never truly have an understanding of the type of racial challenges that African-Americans have endured in this country for hundreds of years and continue to endure. But after reading this autobiography, I learned about the despicable history of racism not only in America but throughout the world and I’ve come to better understand how thousands of years of prejudice and ignorance are slowly being changed by the likes of Malcolm X and other leaders like him.
“The Second World War was among the most destructive conflicts in human history; more than forty-six million soldiers and civilians perished, many in circumstances of prolonged and horrifying cruelty.” Those are the first words in Gilbert’s massive book about that massive confrontation, a book that never leaves the theme of death throughout its 928 pages. But this book cannot be read without Gilbert’s masterpiece on Winston Churchill as a companion. Both histories will remind you of the reasons why countries should never go to war and the importance of great leadership for when they do.
The dropping of the Atomic Bomb was as an important event in human history as the reconstruction that took place immediately after the biggest conflict in human history. In this readable narrative, historian David McCullough explains how Harry Truman, a haberdasher from Kansas City who becomes the 33rd President, used his office to bring about the difficult transition to the nuclear age, while navigating the communist threat and launching America into the greatest economic expansion experienced by any country, ever. McCullough’s book teaches how even a mild-mannered hat salesman can demonstrate great leadership and how that doesn’t necessarily need great communication skills (he didn’t have them) or a bombastic personality (he didn’t have that either). It just needs common sense, something he did have.
What better way to understand the last part of the 20th century and the first decades of this century than to read an autobiography written by a woman who had a front-row seat to these as she and her husband traveled, studied, raised a family and then made their way all the to the White House? Michelle Obama gives a perspective on this current period of American history that few others can.