Here is our list of the 50 best history books. It covers everything from wars to politics to some of the most exciting events around the world. You'll find thrilling reads about influential politicians, little-known heroes, and truth regarding the devious among us and their crimes committed throughout history.
Our list is a little different than other booklists you'll find about history. Instead of the typical list of books mainly about the US or war, we tried to include the best books about a wide variety of events, people, and places.
Written by: Erik Larson
A fascinating read about what happened behind the sciences during the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. It tells the story of two of the most influential people who impacted the fair's history.
One is Daniel H. Burnham, an architect hired to build it. The second is H.H. Holmes, a serial killer that used his charm to invite fairgoers into his dark world. You will be amazed when you discover why he was known as the devil in the white city.
Written by: by Charles C. Mann
For many, the year 1491 is a time of mystery. This was before Christopher Columbus sailed to America and before any Europeans landed on this land. History after that is well documented but, what about the indigenous people and their lives?
Charles C. Mann takes readers back in time to explore the following topics: The spread of new diseases, climate change, global trade networks, conflicts with European settlers (both peaceful and violent), and more.
Readers will uncover what life was like for these people that history often overlooks or forgets.
Written by: David McCullough
This book is a biography of one of the lesser-known founding fathers, John Adams. The book covers his life from childhood to death and everything in between. McCullough discusses how Adams was an outspoken critic against King George III and the British Empire. However, he still managed to maintain diplomatic relationships with England during his time as President.
Another critical part of the story is the relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They had opposite views on how the country should be run, but were friends, then rivals, and then friends again.
Written by: Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow has written a comprehensive biography of Alexander Hamilton. In his book, he shares the story of how Hamilton rose from humble beginnings to become one of America's most influential Founding Fathers.
The author provides a detailed analysis of Hamilton's life and legacy without being too dry or dense. He balances academic rigor with accessibility so that readers can enjoy this sweeping narrative as much as they would an excellent historical novel while still learning new things about American history at every turn.
For many people who have been following the Broadway musical, this is an excellent companion piece. The recent popularity of the show has led many people to read about him in-depth for the first time.
Written by: Ben Macintyre
In his latest book, Ben Macintyre tells the story of one of the most essential and daring spies in history: Oleg Gordievsky. He was a high-ranking member of the KGB, Russia's foreign intelligence service, and an agent for MI6, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service.
In his role as a double agent, Gordievsky risked it all to help the west fight the KGB at every turn. Britain never released his name to the US, but their search for the truth ultimately doomed Gordievsky with the Russians.
The story will take you deep into the world of spies, betrayal, and the consequences of trying to do what you think is moral, both personally and professionally.
Written by: Barbara W. Tuchman
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman chronicles the beginning of World War I. She takes us through the people and the unplanned events that led up to the starting of the war.
She talks about how and why it started, regarding what could have been done to stop it, and how almost no one did anything during these times. It's one of the best history books about World War I.
Written by: Jack Weatherford
Genghis Khan is one of the most well-known conquerors of all time. He was ruthless, cunning, and above all else, successful in his conquests. The history we are often taught overshadows the fact that he was also a visionary leader.
Jack Weatherford's book Genghis Khan: The Making of a Modern World takes you on a journey with Genghis Khan through his early childhood as Temujin, to taking over the Mongolian empire, leading it into China and Russia, conquering Korea and Japan before finally establishing the largest contiguous land empire ever seen.
Written by: William L. Shirer
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany is written by William L. Shirer, a reporter who started following and reporting on the Nazis in the mid-1920s.
The book was first published in 1960, 15 years after World War II ended. It's one of the most well-known books about WWII, and it tells you all about Hitler's rise to power. It also goes into how he quickly took over much of Europe before his downfall at the end of WW II.
You'll also learn more about how and why the US got involved and how Hitler used his power to create one of the most horrific events in modern times in just a few short years.
Written by: Patrick Radden Keefe
The book Say Nothing is a true story of murder and memory in Northern Ireland. Author Patrick Roddy writes about The Troubles, which was a period of violence between Catholics and Protestants that lasted from 1968 to 1998.
This book provides insight into what it was like for those who lived through these turbulent times and how they coped with their losses.
Written by: Doris Kearns Goodwin
Team of Rivals is a book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin which tells the story of Abraham Lincoln's rise to power. It focuses on the key relationships in his life, including those with William Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, and Salmon Chase.
The author walks us through how this President dealt with conflict among his cabinet members maintaining the Union during one of America's most turbulent times. It's one of the best history books about US Presidents and is a must-read!
Written by: Jared Diamond
In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, the author discusses how geography has significantly shaped human history. He argues that there is no such thing as an intrinsically superior culture or civilization; instead, societies succeed if they happen to be in the right place at the right time.
As a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a national bestseller, its an excellent book that delves into the history of broad social and global issues.
Written by: Stephen E Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers is a remarkable book about the men who fought in the 101st Airborne Division, 506th Regiment during WWII. This unit spearheaded Operation Overlord and took nearly two hundred casualties on D-Day alone.
They fought across Europe from Normandy to Belgium to Holland and Germany, capturing Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden.
What makes this story so engaging are the personal accounts of these brave men who served their country with distinction during one of our nation's most trying times in history. It's one of the fascinating history books about World War II about whole fighting units.
Written by: John Hersey
Hiroshima, by John Hersey, is a true story about the events that transpired in Hiroshima on August 6th and 7th of 1945. The book begins with an introduction to both the city of Hiroshima and its residents.
Since Hersey wants you to get a natural feel for what Hiroshima was during these times, he describes what life was like for those living there before the atomic bomb dropped.
Based on the stories of survivors, he describes how people were affected by this event, whether it be physically or emotionally.
This is one of the most important history books because it gives an account of these events and shows what happened after they occurred and how people have recovered over time.
Written by: David Grann
The 1920s were a time of prosperity, but for the Osage Nation, it was devastating. The Osage people depended on oil revenue to survive, and when they started dying off in record numbers, few could understand why.
David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon is an investigative journalism book that explores this mystery surrounding the deaths of the Osage Nation tribe members at their peak.
From investigating murders to researching medical records, Grann uncovers how greed may have led to these killings and destroyed one culture forever.
Written By: Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell
Love Wins takes you on a journey through the lives and relationship of Jim Obergefell and John Arthur. After being together for over 20 years, they decided to get married in Maryland in July 2013.
They never thought that their love would be challenged by a state of Ohio law that bans people from marrying someone of the same sex, but it was, and not just one time either.
Their case escalated to the Supreme Court, which gave them the perfect platform to fight for their rights as a long-term gay couple.
Written By: Helen Zia
Helen Zia's book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai, is a true story about her family's escape from China. During World War II and Japanese occupation in China, Helen Zia was only six years old when she left with her parents to America. She wouldn't see China again until more than sixty years later.
The book tells the story of how they (and many others) escaped from Shanghai. They were on one of the last boats out before it became an international port for all nations fighting WW II. Their story continues with how they had to start over in a new country where they didnt know anyone and faced many challenges as immigrants.
It's one of the most important history books about the impact of World War II throughout the world.
Written by: Patrick Radden Keefe
The Sackler family are known to be philanthropists, having billions of dollars, and owners of Purdue Pharmaceuticals. They have donated millions to universities worldwide, including Harvard University, which has a building named after them, for their donations.
However, as much they try to hide it from the public, they are most famous for is Oxycontin, a drug that has killed thousands of people since its release in 1995.
This book takes you back through the history of the Sackler family, how they continued to build their empire on Oxycontin, and the lives they ruined along the way.
Written by: Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott-Clark
The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel is a book about the attack on The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, India, in September of 2008. It follows the lives of those that were trapped inside during this horrific event. From cooks to businessmen and women, children to grandparents, and everyone else caught up in it.
This book takes you through each hour with vivid detail as if you are there with them.
What's most striking about this story is how many people came together for one common goal: Survival.
This is another one of the history books that is a page-turner and an essential read on what can go right and wrong when a large group of people get caught in a dangerous situation.
Written By: David Zucchino
On November 10, 1898, Wilmington's elected officials and white citizens overthrew the city's government and instituted a new regime that would disenfranchise African Americans for over 100 years. The coup was violent, and it resulted in killing hundreds of black people and injuring hundreds more.
This history book takes you behind the scenes of the coup that ushered in an environment of terror where they beat black people, sometimes to death, by roving gangs of whites who always carried guns.
It's an important read for anyone interested in the rise of White Supremacy in the United States.
Written by: Anne Frank
The Diary of Anne Frank is a well-known book about the life of a young girl who lived in hiding with her family during World War II. The diary was written by Anne Frank and has been translated into over 70 languages.
The book provides an insight to the world through the eyes of someone who had never experienced anything other than peace until WW II. She wrote it because she felt compelled to share her feelings about living under constant fear for your life.
It's one of the most difficult to read, especially since it is by a young girl, yet one of the must-read history books about World War II.
Written By: Adam Higginbotham
The Chernobyl disaster is one of the most well-known nuclear disasters in history, but it's also one of the least understood. Adam Higginbotham has spent years researching and writing about this tragedy, and in his new book Midnight in Chernobyl, he tells the story with all its complexity.
The author walks readers through what led up to that fateful night when a series of explosions rocked unit four at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It also shows how Soviet engineers had ignored safety protocols for years leading up to these events.
It then goes back to that night and how they tried everything they could think of before finally turning off reactor number four manually when it was already too late.
What ensues is an exploration into the aftermath: not just what happened immediately after but decades later.
Written By: Lynne Olson
Olson shares the exciting and untold story of how Madame Fourcade, an American woman living in France during World War II, became one of the most successful saboteurs for the Allied forces. This gripping account is based on newly uncovered documents and interviews with French and American intelligence officers who took part in her missions.
Olson's book covers not only Madame Fourcade's life as a spy but also what it was like for women to live under German occupation—including their food shortages and constant fear that they would be arrested or deported by Gestapo agents.
Olson deftly weaves these two narratives together into an unforgettable tale of courage amidst hardship. It is impossible not to admire this remarkable woman who faced down death time after time.
Written By: Isabel Wilkerson
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of three African American families who migrated from the South. It is not just a story about people who wanted to leave their homes for better opportunities, but also one specifically about racism and segregation.
The book begins with this quote: "The Great Migration was the migration of millions of black people out of rural Southern United States into Northern cities, particularly after World War I."
It then shows how these three families' lives changed and how they had to adapt because they decided to migrate north and west to seek better opportunities.
Written by: Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks was a woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. She was an African American tobacco farmer and mother of five. Her death led to the discovery that cells taken from her tumor could live indefinitely or more than ten times as long as other human cells can survive.
While her cells have helped change our understanding of human biology and revolutionized medicine, the book also covers the ethics behind using these cells without her family's permission or disclosure by the medical community.
The immortal cells became known as HeLa cells, after Henrietta's first and last names. They are still used today in medical labs worldwide to research AIDS, cancer, and many other diseases; they were vital to developing the polio vaccine. They've been sent into outer space too where they orbited Earth for years.
Written by: Randy Shilts
In his book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, Randy Shilts discusses some of what happened during the period when HIV/AIDS first became an epidemic in America.
The book is broken down into sections discussing different aspects of how people reacted to HIV/AIDS-from politicians to scientists to journalists, and how they helped or hindered efforts at combating it.
It is one of the best history books for those interested in learning more about the early phases of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how politics played an outcome.
Written by: Ernst Jünger, Michael Hofmann
This book is a first-hand account of the author Ernst Jünger's experience during WW I. It was initially published in 1920 and was translated into English for the first time by Michael Hofmann.
Jünger was at the frontlines for four years and experienced first-hand both the horrors and heroism of wartime combat. His writing is beautifully descriptive but also grounded in facts and specifics.
It makes it one of the most history books about World War I and a classic memoir about war.
Written by: Margaret MacMillan
Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919 is a fascinating account of the six months leading up to the end of World War I and what happened as they redrew the maps of Europe the few months after it.
The story started on January 1st when Woodrow Wilson was in office in America, and Lloyd George led Great Britain, to November 11th when Germany signed an armistice with France and England.
This book tells the story from many perspectives. It uses not just American or British but also German, French, Russian, and Italian views of what happened during these times. It allows us to have insights into how these countries were thinking during this critical period in history.
Written by: John Ketwig
The war in Vietnam was a confusing and challenging time for many American soldiers. This book is the true story of one soldier who served during that time, John Ketwig.
The book starts with him as an 18-year-old draftee about to head off to war. From there, it tells his account of life in Vietnam from 1969 until he left.
Through letters home, military reports, and photos taken by himself or other soldiers around him, you get an intimate look at what it was like for this soldier serving in the middle of a controversial war overseas. You will follow along as he tells his story and see how he changes through time.
Written by: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House is one of the most in-depth views of his presidency. It includes glimpses into Kennedy's personal life, including his relationship with Jackie and their children. It also covers his time as Commander-in-Chief during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and the Civil Rights Movement.
It's not only a look into the life of JFK, but it also digs into the history of what was going on at the time, including what America was like during his presidency and how politics worked while he was in office.
It's one of the most important history books about JFK and the Kennedys.
Written by: Michael Dobbs
Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, is one of the most infamous presidents in history.
Under his presidency, the Watergate scandal occurred. He was impeached and then resigned before Congress voted on whether or not he should be removed from office.
Michael Dobbs' book King Richard: Nixon and Watergate, An American Tragedy talks about how Richard Nixon's administration unraveled leading up to his resignation as President of the United States because of Watergate. The author takes a close look at every detail surrounding this scandalous event and does a great job explaining what happened during these tumultuous times.
Written by: Lawrence Wright
Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 is an incredible work of investigative journalism that delves deep into the origins of one of the most powerful terrorist groups in history.
From its founding by Osama bin Laden to its growth throughout North Africa, until September 11th, 2001, when it carried out one of the deadliest attacks on American soil, this book paints a vivid picture of what life was like for Muslims living in America after 9/11.
It also gives insight into how al-Qaeda became such a power player in global terrorism, with its roots tracing back to Afghanistan during President Reagan's rule.
Written By: Tony Judt
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is a captivating and in-depth book that spans the entire period from 1945 to when it was published in 2005. It covers everything from the end of World War II to the Cold War, on to the reunification of Germany, and beyond.
The author does an excellent job at telling what happened and why it happened and gives you a deeper understanding of all events covered in this book.
It is perfect for anyone interested in European history or political science as there are many references to both fields throughout this text.
Although I loved this book, it is dense and long and it takes some time to read but is pack full of interesting information.
Written by: Edward E. Baptist
Many think that slavery ended in 1865 with the Emancipation Proclamation and it did not. In reality, slavery is still alive and well today. It's just more covert than before.
The Half Has Never Been Told explores how slavery never really ended but instead evolved into something else.
The author talks about how slaves became sharecroppers after emancipation, then prisoners, then immigrants who are exploited on farms or factories for low wages.
It is one of the US history books that will be hard to put down.
Written by: Charles Person with Richard Rooker
Published: April 27th, 2021
Charles Person is a former Freedom Rider, fought for equality for African Americans in the USA. As someone fighting for people's freedom, this is a biography of how he experienced segregation in 1961.
He gives an account of what it was like to have been one of the brave men who helped change America for good.
His story will open your eyes to a time in history that many people don't know about.
Written by: Douglas Preston
In his new book, journalist Douglas Preston shares his fascinating account of the quest to find the lost city of an ancient civilization. As he recounts this true-life adventure story, he takes us along with him as he and his companions venture into one of the most remote areas on Earth--an area that had been off-limits for centuries.
He also takes us back in time to learn more about why he and his team went searching for The Lost City of the Monkey God.
Even though it is a gripping tale of high-stakes adventure, it is so much more than that. It's also about what happens when people are given access to these hidden places, and what they find there changes them, and others, forever.
Written by: Adam Goodheart
The year is 1861 and the United States of America was on the verge of a civil war. Adam Goodheart captures this moment in American history and details all that led up to it, from President Lincoln's election and his inaugural address to the South's secession and formation of their government.
It includes the stories of several Civil War heroes, including those directly involved in combat and those impacted by it. This original account of the Civic War and its impact is one of the top history books of all time.
Written by: Erik Larson
In this book, Erik Larson pieces together the story of Winston Churchill's family and their dealings with his political career. It is a story against the backdrop of twentieth-century Europe: exhilarating triumphs, devastating defeats, and breathtaking changes.
It is a saga told by one of our most brilliant historians and compelling writers who has found new ways to bring World War II vividly to life in all its drama, terror, hope and tragedy.
Erik Larson wrote The Devil in The White City, which is also on this list. He is a fantastic researcher and writer.
Written by: John Dickie
Cosa Nostra is a fascinating book that traces the history of the Sicilian Mafia, starting from its beginnings in 2004. John Dickie does an excellent job explaining how this criminal organization started and why it continues to thrive in Sicily today.
This book is perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about organized crime or just wants to go deeply into and learn more about one of the most notorious groups in modern history.
Written by: John Dower
In his book Embracing Defeat, John Dower examines the effects of Japan's WWII defeat on Japanese culture and society. He argues that in a country with no tradition of democratic governance or public dissent, it took decades for Japan to recover from its wartime trauma.
However, he also demonstrates how aspects of pre-war Japanese culture survived after being suppressed during the war years.
In this way, Dower provides a fascinating insight into what happened to Japan when their empire collapsed and why they are still struggling with their collective identity today.
Written by: Mary Beard
It's hard to imagine a time when Rome wasn't the center of the world. The city has been conquered and destroyed several times throughout history, but it always managed to bounce back stronger than ever.
In SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, you'll learn how this happened through an engaging narrative that paints a vivid picture of what life was like in ancient Rome.
It covers more than 1,000 years of history. It also talks about both well-known events and lesser-known groups that are not often written about in the history of Rome.
Written by: Harold G. Moore, Joseph L. Galloway
We all know that the war in Vietnam was terrible for everyone involved in It, and the horrors of that war remain in present-day life. It also is essential to see what kind of death and destruction thru those who have been there.
What is it like to be in the middle of a battle? It's hard to tell what goes on in these intense moments where life hangs by a thread.
We Were Soldiers Once... and Young tells us about one soldier's experience with that question.
Written by Colonel Harold G. Moore (retired) and journalist Joseph L. Galloway, this book offers an insightful and inside look at what happened during the Vietnam War.
Written by: Daniel Okrent
The 1920's was a time of significant change and innovation. The first recorded radio broadcast, the first TV commercial, and the first "talking" movies were all new inventions that captivated people around the country.
But one invention had an even more widespread effect than any of these: Prohibition.
Much like many other issues during this era, Prohibition caused controversy as some people saw it to protect society from alcohol abuse. In contrast, others viewed it as an infringement on personal freedoms.
With Daniel Okrent's book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, we can see how Prohibition came about and why it failed using both his insightful analysis and thorough in-depth research into its history.
Written by: Annie Jacobsen
Ever since the end of World War II, there has been a military base in Nevada that is shrouded in mystery. The name is "Area 51." It is America's top-secret military base and officially closed to outsiders.
The US government won't tell you what goes on inside, but Annie Jacobsen will give you a glimpse into this world with her new book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base.
Based on the account of several military personal that worked on the base for years, you'll learn all about this secret location and what goes on here.
Written by: Adam Hochschild
In his book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild, the author looks at World War I through a different lens compared to other books you've read on this war.
He explores WWI as a series of battles between two sides that led to the victory of one over the other. Instead of seeing WWI as a singular overall event, he shows many smaller battles, which, as they build, become the whole of WWI. As he writes, "a war within which there were many wars."
He examines not just what happened on the battlefields but also in factories and farms. The book explores how this war impacted even those who didn't fight. Some of these include people jailed for opposing the war in the USA.
It also details the story of two sisters on opposing sides that created their own newspapers to attack each other.
Written by: Daniel James Brown
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, is more than just a story; it is an epic tale of triumph and tragedy. It follows eight young men from the University of Washington as they make their way to Berlin to compete for Olympic gold against all odds.
With grit and determination, these young athletes overcame life's obstacles and achieved something great-- victory at what was then known as Hitler's Olympics.
This is one of the best history books that will teach you about not only rowing but also perseverance and teamwork!
Written by: Martin Meredith
Africa has always been a continent of extremes because it is so large and so diverse. It is home to the world's most impoverished people and possesses some of its wealthiest citizens.
The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence by Martin Meredith takes an in-depth look at the past fifty years in Africa. It focuses on what it means for Africans today and tomorrow through 2005.
From civil wars to coups, this book looks at how each country fared during its movements toward independence. It's an essential read for anyone interested in the history of how Africa came to be the continent it is today.
Written by: David McCullough
David McCullough's 1776 is a story of the founding fathers and their journey to create this country. It tells the story not only of George Washington but also Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, among other influential figures.
The book takes you through all the significant events in 1776, including battles, debates on independence from Great Britain, and more.
McCullough researched every aspect of what happened using American and British documents, giving the book a fascinating and robust view on this critical year in our history.
Written by: Kim MacQuarrie
The Incas were a group of people who ruled the Andes Mountains and surrounding areas in South America from 1438 - 1533. They built great cities, developed an advanced agriculture system, and had one of the most extensive systems of roads in the world.
After conquering their way across Peru for centuries, the Incas were unfortunately to meet a foe they could not conquer, the Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro.
In this book, Kim MacQuarrie tells us about the final days of these amazing people through careful research and exceptional writing skills.
Written by: Anne Applebaum
The gulags were a system of Soviet slave labor camps. It is also the Russian phrase used to describe the "main administration of corrective labor camps."
In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anne Applebaum discusses the history and workings of the Soviet Union's forced-labor camp system from 1918 to 1956.
She begins with how prisoners were drawn into these camps, usually as punishment for some crime or other that was not typically violent, and how they were treated on arrival.
Her narrative goes on to describe what life was like inside a prison camp. She describes their conditions and daily routines. She also includes how they survived on a horrible scarcity of food while working incredible hours and their treatment by guards and officials outside the confines of the prison walls.
Written by: Iris Chang
Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking is the first book to tell the whole story of one of history's most brutal and forgotten war crimes. Over several weeks in 1937, Japanese soldiers swept into the then Chinese capital city of Nanjing, burned it to the ground, and killed more than 300,000 people, with many of them being innocent civilians.
It was a massacre that Japan would try for decades to deny or minimize until 1991 when Emperor Akihito broke an almost 50-year public silence by delivering a landmark speech during his visit to China.
The Rape of Nanking examines how this destruction came about because it involved human political machinations. Its victims were ordinary men and women who had never expected anything like this.
Small warning on this one as well that it does go into graphic detail on horrendous abuse of the women and some men during these weeks.
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