For a lot of people, history is merely perceived as the boring subject they were forced to study back in school. After all, how can learning about events and people from hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, help to understand and navigate the present?
The good news is, on the flip side of the coin, there are plenty of people who understand history to not only be the autobiography of the human race, but also a tool which can be used to study and understand human behaviour… and understanding which can be easily extended to the modern day.
In the landscape of literature, history has more than a few applications, serving as not only something to be chronicled as fact, but also as fuel for fiction. After all, few things can make a book feel more relatable than setting the events in the real and recognizable world, and introducing people we’re already acquainted with to some degree.
This is an umbrella category for the more remarkable books I’ve read centred on the topic of history in one way or another, comprising works of both fiction and non-fiction alike.
Jonathan Eig is primarily known for writing about sports figures, but in his most recent book, titled King: A Life, he veers off the familiar path to explore the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The first major biography of the man written in decades, it explores his personal, political and religious life, the many demons he had to wrestle with, and even includes new information from recently-declassified FBI documents.
Timothy Egan has long-ago immersed himself in the racial history of the United States of America, having authored numerous articles and books on the subject over the course of his life. In 2023 he published another important work in his long line of investigations, titled A Fever in the Heartland. In it, he investigates the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920 under the leadership of D.C. Stephenson, its growth as an organization, and downfall at the hands of a deathbed confession.
David Grann has a knack for presenting history through an exciting framework, able to make virtually any true account as exciting as any work of fiction. In The Wager, he flexes his literary muscles once again, telling the story of the titular ship, which left England in 1740 on a secret mission and only reappeared on the coast of Brazil two years later. Its members had a hell of a story to tell, but a second group of survivors showed up six months later, with a very different story of their own to tell.
Isser Harel was a man of rare talents and biographical diversity, having both served as the Director of the Mossad for eleven years, as well as having had a successful career as an author. The House on Garibaldi Street is perhaps his best-known work of non-fiction, detailing the operation to capture Adolf Eichmann in Argentina to extract him to Israel to stand trial for his role in engineering “The Final Solution”, all while avoiding an international scandal.
David Grann has long sought to expose truths which received little recognition from the world, and in Killers of the Flower Moon he takes us back to the 1920s, when the Osage Indian nation discovered oil beneath their land, becoming the richest people per capita in the world. However, in the years which followed members of the nation started being killed off one by one, paving the way for one of America’s most shameful inner tragedies.
Charles Spencer has found his niche in the world of literature as the guide who takes his readers on lesser-known tours of English history, a status he reinforced yet again when he published The White Ship. Taking us back to 1120, it presents us with a narrative which explores the sinking of the titular ship, with members of royal families on-board, and its consequences in relation to the Norman Conquest as well as the decades of civil war that followed.
Jared Diamond attempted a rather ambitious undertaking when he decided to write Guns, Germs and Steel, an effort which was ultimately worth it as evidenced by it earning the 1997 Pulitzer Prize. In this book, Jared Diamond traces the evolution and progress of numerous societies across the planet starting at 11,000 BC, in an attempt to explain why history took the specific course it did, rather than any other one.
Ross King, while dabbling in fiction at times, seems to have made his greatest literary impacts in the realm of non-fiction, as he recently did once again with The Bookseller of Florence. Taking us back to the fifteenth century, it tells the true story of Vespasiano da Bisticci, known in his day as the king of the world’s booksellers and perhaps the greatest propagator of knowledge, ultimately setting Italy on the long road to the Enlightenment.
Basil Liddell Hart was not only a tremendously impactful figure in the realm of military strategy, but he also made a name for himself as a first-rate historian whose literary contributions are nothing if not priceless. Perhaps his most celebrated achievement, The German Generals Talk, is a collection of interviews conducted by Hart at the Nuremberg trials where he gets said generals to share their side of the story with him.
Erik Larson has developed an aptitude for conveying important history in a comprehensible and entertaining fashion, which he did once again when he published The Splendid and the Vile. Told from the perspective of Winston Churchill and his inner circle, the book is majorly focused on his thoughts, actions and reactions during the infamous WWII Blitz where Britain endured massive bombings by the Germans.
James A. Michener had a rather peculiar specialty as an author, focusing on rather lengthy historical novels profoundly focusing on a specific geographical location. The Source, originally published back in 1965, takes us on a journey thousands of years long through the Holy Land, recounting the origins of Judaism, the rise of the early Hebrews, and all which happened since then until the modern conflict with Palestine.
Marie Benedict is one of the many authors today who have decided to delve into the lesser-known pages of our history, and her most recent efforts have resulted in the publication of Lady Clementine. A biographical novel, it follows the story of Lady Clementine Churchill, the strong and ambitious wife to one of the nation’s most famous leaders. From saving her husband multiple times to forging on against the world’s expectations, her life was nothing if not extraordinary.
Joseph Horace Greasley is one of countless veterans from the Second World War who haven’t let their experience and memories go to waste, writing his autobiography shortly before his passing titled Do the Birds Still Sing in Hell?. In this book, the brunt of the focus is placed on his time spent as a prisoner of war in a German camp, and his hundreds of successful attempts to sneak out and meet with his love interest, and then back in with anything to help his comrades.
Garrett M. Graff has been exercising his journalistic talents for a long time now, and he certainly put his years of experience to good use in his latest non-fiction book, The Only Plane in the Sky. In it, Graff aims to give the most detailed and comprehensive account possible of the tragedy which occurred on 9/11, examining the perspectives of virtually everyone related to the event, from the regular people on the streets to the generals in the bunker beneath the White House.
Bryan Mark Rigg has dedicated his craft, so far at least, to the study of a very particular and interesting topic few are familiar with: the “Mischlinge” (“partial-Jews”), referring to the Jewish people who served in the Nazi army. In Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers he delves deep into the topic, documenting the stories and fates of some 150,000 such men and how their lives unfolded while caught between two worlds.
Like anyone with a true love for literature, Margaret Leslie Davis knows and understands the unique value and history rare books can bring to the table. In her non-fiction book titled The Lost Gutenberg, she makes the most of an opportunity very few authors will ever see: the ability to trace five centuries worth saga travelled by one of the surviving forty-nine copies of the Gutenberg Bible.
Anders Rydell has done quite a bit of research into the literary ravages caused by the Nazis during the Second World War, and in The Book Thieves he goes above and beyond the call of duty when he finds himself entrusted with a book once pillaged from its rightful owners. Tasked with returning it where he belongs, Rydell takes one of many steps in restitution activism while taking the time to examine this strange microcosm of history.
Ronen Bergman doesn’t really care how horrifying, ugly or demonizing a reality may be; if it’s the truth, it will find its way into the light. From its statehood in 1948, Israel has been in constant conflict with its neighbours as well as various terrorist organizations hell-bent on wiping the country from the face of the Earth. The Israelis have been forced to take rather drastic and aggressive measures to ensure their survival, and targeted killing programs were part of those. In his book Rise and Kill First, Bergman details the sordid history of the Mossad, Shin Bet and IDF’s assassination programs.
Alex Kershaw has used his exceptional knowledge and writing prowess to bring to life the stories of quite a few people from the Second World War, memoirs that may have otherwise been forgotten forever. In The Liberator he returns to the helm of his ship and brings us the biography of a man whose path through the war was a strange and revealing one: Felix Sparks. More precisely, we follow the journey of the 157th Infantry from 1943 and onwards as they carve their way from Italy all the way to the liberation of the infamous concentration camp at Dachau.
Kati Marton has dedicated much of her life to humanitarian causes, whether it’s furthering their progress by herself or helping to educate others. She has helped to shine the light where it was most needed many times, and one of her most memorable works came in the form of a book about a forgotten hero from the Second World War: Raoul Wallenberg. Simply titled Wallenberg, the book is the man’s biography, detailing his ingenious exploits that helped save thousands upon thousands of Jews from the clutches of Nazis… as well as the macabre reward he got for it in the form of illegal imprisonment and death in a Soviet labour camp.
Candice Millard takes us back to the Boer War, a time during which one of the most famous historical figures emerged: Winston Churchill. While his exploits during that more or less forgotten time didn’t make it into most history books, Millard pushes them into the spotlight in her tremendous biographical work, Hero of the Empire. While most of us will always remember Churchill for his demeanour and leadership during the Second World War, we would do well to remember that just like any great figure in our history, he was forged through deadly trials that pushed him to greatness, and they certainly deserve a book of their own.
Mosab Hassan Yousef was destined for an unusual life from day one, being the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founding member of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization that claimed many terror attacks in Israel over the past decades. After he arrived in the United States he wrote a book called Son of Hamas where he shares his inside view on that world and details his collaboration over the course of ten years with Israeli intelligence.