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Learn From The Past: Get Wise About the World With This List of the Best History Books

Want to read the best history books around but not quite sure where to start? Here are some essential titles to add to your reading list.
by Tom Anderson | Aug 23 2017

Ever since Herodotus, widely regarded to be the first historian, wrote his history of the Greco-Persian wars in the 5th century BC, countless history books have been published. And every single year, hundreds more are added to the list. So how can you find the best history books hidden in this multitude?

Discover history with the best history books

At Blinkist, we’ve gone through the best history books and pulled out our favorites. While some of these are classics — bestselling history books read by millions — others are less well-known gems. Read on to discover some of the best history books out there.

Feed Your Wisdom With This List of the Best History Books

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Incredible as it might seem, Homo sapiens have only been on the planet for around 300,000 years. Considering that the Earth is around 4.5 Billion years old, modern humans have been around for a very brief moment. Yet, we’ve done quite a bit in our relatively short span. In his widely acclaimed bestselling history book, Yuval Noah Harari explains how a species of hairless, tailless ape, managed to completely dominate the entire planet.

Napoleon The Great by Andrew Roberts

Very few individuals in history have had such a great impact in such a short period, as Napoleon Bonaparte. From his election as First Consul in 1799 to his eventual defeat at Waterloo, in 1815, Napoleon conquered huge swathes of Europe, revolutionizing laws and political systems across the continent as he went. In his popular history book, Napoleon The Great, author and historian, Andrew Roberts explains how this lowly Corsican corporal rose to become one of the key figures in European history.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Above all US Presidents, Abraham Lincoln is the most revered. His efforts in ending slavery within the United States and his eventual success in keeping the nation together have meant that he consistently tops the rankings of most successful Presidents. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning history book, Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, describes the sheer political genius that underpinned Lincoln’s achievements. She shows that by forming a cabinet which mixed supporters and opponents alike, Lincoln’s administration was strong enough and creative enough to tackle the issue of slavery and the ensuing civil war.

Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient by Edward W. Said

Have you noticed the way Asian or Middle Eastern countries are portrayed in the western media? Usually, they are shown as wild and exotic places, the home to societies grounded in autocracy and mysticism, very different the nations of the West, with their rational and scientific way of life. This view is, of course, completely false. In Orientalism, Edward Said takes the western view of Asian and African culture and history to task. He explains how the West’s warped view of these continents says more about the West itself than the societies it is supposedly describing.

The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James

We all know that the French Revolution transformed Europe. But far fewer of us will know how much they influenced societies across the wider world as well. Aside from France itself, no nation was affected more by the revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité than Haïti. In his groundbreaking history book, The Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James tells the story of the Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave who, inspired by the revolution in France, resolved to banish colonialism and slavery from the island of Haïti. In doing so, he led the first successful slave rebellion in history.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses: How your favorite drinks changed the world by Tom Standage

What’s the best way to view the development of history? Maybe we should use war and conflict to explain human history? Or we can look at it through the development of ideas such as democracy and human rights? Or perhaps we should look at something completely different? In A History of the World in 6 Glasses (2006), we look at human history through an unusual lens: our favorite drinks. By understanding the history of beer, wine, alcoholic spirits, tea, coffee, and soda, we can actually track the history of human civilization itself.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson

The recent history of the Middle-East has been, to put it lightly, turbulent. Over the past few decades, much of the area has witnessed foreign invasions, civil war, religious repression, dictatorship, and revolutions. It’s almost as if the region has produced more history than it can actually handle. But why is this the case? In Lawrence in Arabia, we go back to reveal how a small cast of characters forever changed the Middle East during World War I. The revolts, betrayals and nation-building over this period continue to influence the Middle East to this day.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Very few people will have changed as many people’s lives for the better than Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer, in 1951. Yet although she succumbed to her disease, she lived on. Her cells were extracted by scientists and used to develop cures for diseases including polio. In this fascinating and bestselling history book, author Rebecca Skloot uncovers the history of Henrietta and her family, of the exploitation of black Americans by the medical industry, and of Henrietta’s immortal cells.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

We all know that Genghis Khan was a bloodthirsty tyrant who rampaged over Asia leaving a trail of total destruction in his wake. Or was he? Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World will make you re-examine what you thought you knew about the Mongols of the twelfth century. They’ll show you why it’s unfair to imagine them as uncivilized barbarians. Indeed, the Mongol army under Genghis Khan and his descendants brought trade, civilization, and order to the lands they conquered. In doing so, they helped create the modern world.

While this list just scratches the surface of the great swathes of history, we hope it will give you a good overview of some of the most popular history books out there, and why they’ve become so well-loved. Think there’s something missing from the list? Make sure to let us know.

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