20 Best History Books That Will Not Leave You Indifferent

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a collection of best history books

For all history fans out there — here is an ultimate list of 20 history books that you’d enjoy reading. These will suit humanities students, history enthusiasts, and anybody who is looking for an engaging read. Are you interested in prehistory or the Middle Ages? Or do you want to know more about black history? We have endeavored to include various histories in this collection, sorted more or less chronologically. So aficionados of contemporary history should scroll down without further ado! 

The collection below introduces various types of history-telling: through objects and trade routes, based on geographical determinism, through the eyes of oppressed groups and minorities, engaging with the history of ideas and military conflicts, through human societies and outstanding individuals. 

This is a selection of history books written by renowned historians, academics, and journalists — most of these volumes are actually read by university students, and some are genuinely remarkable history textbooks. However, these works might not be as acclaimed in popular readership as texts by Yuval Noah Harari and Bill Bryson; but who wants to follow trends any longer? The history books below have changed and challenged the field of humanities, and they can turn around your perception of the world as well. 

Of course, it’s impossible to account for all peoples and periods in a list of only 20 history books. If you long for more, explore the BooksRun history textbooks collection and all excellent history books out there.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

This is a bestseller from 1997 that won the Pulitzer Prize and other prestigious literary awards. According to Jared Diamond, the development of human societies was primarily conditioned by environmental and geographical factors and not by any kind of genetic or cultural superiority. 

This fascinating piece of scholarship has not escaped fierce polemics among intellectuals, mostly for undermining the role of human agency in world history. But try to name a good history book that goes without triggering any debate! You can also enjoy this narrative in the form of a documentary filmed by the National Geographic Society.

History: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day 

If you are looking for a comprehensive introductory history textbook, search no more. This volume takes you on a fascinating journey through 4 million years of human history! It is an engaging read presenting you with unique artifacts and texts, all based on the latest research. This history textbook is suitable both for college students and enthusiasts. 

Moreover, it is supplied with excellent-quality illustrations, timelines, and maps. Its short informative chapters will make History: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day your favorite coffee table book for many years to come! And it will also work great as a present. 

Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects

Welcome another bestselling history book that was first made as a podcast! The book walks you through 100 exquisite objects from the British Museum, describing it as an artifact standing for a certain period of world history (whatever we might think of this institution and its acquisition history, the book and the podcast are stunning and informative).

It is also a great example of engaging historical storytelling. It is indeed unusual to approach history through a set of objects rather than of big groups. 

Get a preview of what is inside A World History in 100 Objects

Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy

Introduction to Philosophy… why is it on this list? History and philosophy are so deeply intertwined, and this philosophy textbook functions as a superb introduction to both. Norman Melchert treats individual philosophers and schools one by one in their historical contexts — quite conventionally for a textbook. What is truly praiseworthy is that the author presents these influential philosophers in a never-ending dialogue with each other. All in all, the textbook is perfect for an introductory class on Philosophy, but you should keep it as a reference book — many students already did!

Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs 

For decades, our history textbooks were dominated by Eurocentric narratives. But the times are changing, thanks to studies like this one by Camilla Townsend. In the Fifth Sun, the Aztec history is told not through the distorted lenses of European colonialists, but it is based on the written accounts of the Mexica themselves.

The book is at times too imaginative for a historical study but nevertheless captivating in its storytelling. Beware of fictional motifs included in the Fifth Sun, but don’t doubt that the core is based on historical evidence. You can read a detailed review here.

Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World 

Peter Frankopan gives a new perspective on the historical encounters between the West and the East and how those have been conditioning and influencing each other for centuries, also in our present days. The main axis of his study is in Central Asia, seen as a crossroads of cultural interactions. Despite its ambitious title, the book is not an extensive, all-encompassing view of world history: one might wonder about the role of other parts of the world that Frankopan left on the margins. But his clever perspective of a professional historian with decades of experience is nonetheless eye-opening and worth considering. All in all, this insightful read won’t leave you indifferent.

Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land

If you think of the European Middle Ages, the Crusades will probably be one of the first things that pops up in your head. Full of misconceptions and often misleading popularization attempts, this period is still an enigma. Asbridge’s oeuvre puts an end to this, or at least about the crusading movement until the end of the thirteenth century (later period and, for example, Baltic Crusades are not included).

The Crusades is a professional, comprehensive history based on recent scholarship encompassing both Muslim and Christian perspectives, which still remains accessible for those not trained as historians. 

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and The Worms 

Published in 1976, The Cheese and The Worms still stands as one of the most fascinating history books ever written. Curious to know what was in the mind of a sixteenth-century peasant? What would he think about the world and his place in it? Carlo Ginzburg unveils some of these secrets.

Truthful to the Italian microhistory school (aka an approach that looks at the lives of ordinary people and small communities), Ginzburg’s study is a blend of a detective story and the history of mentalities. It tells the story of Menocchio — a sixteenth-century Italian miller — who was trialed by the inquisition for his heretical views. Menocchio’s cosmological views were indeed based on an analogy with cheese and worms, intolerable by the early modern Roman Catholic Church but so fascinating for contemporary readers.

Natalie Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives

And now to women’s history! With an immense skill of a historian and a storyteller, Natalie Zemon Devis uncovers the lives of three women — from Europe, North America, and South America — who were no queens or nobles but ordinary town-dwellers. In Women on the Margins, you will learn about life in the seventeenth century through their eyes. At times this history book might tend to be too academic, but you will nevertheless enjoy this work by a talented historian. If you haven’t yet, check Zemon Davis’s bestseller on a medieval imposter The Return of Martin Guerre that was also turned into a feature movie. 

Eric Hobsbawm, The Long 19th Century and The Short 20th Century 

Take a look at the four volumes by one of the most prominent British historians (his biography is a kind of a novel in itself). Hobsbawm offers all you wanted to know about the French revolution and modernization until the fall of the Soviet Union. In these series, he masters historical materials of impressive depth and breadth, though be conscious of Hobsbawm’s own political standings and pessimistic views of the contemporary developments. All in all, you should not miss this engaging and approachable read from a renowned intellectual.

John Henrik Clarke, Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism

It is a seminal study by an American historian who stood in the foundation of Africana studies. The book provides us with what our history curricula still often fail to do — a different perspective on pre-colonial Africa and the slave trade. Here is an insightful article if you want to learn more about African American historians and their work.  

Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

First published in 1970, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is still one of the most excellent reads on American history from a native perspective. It is based on an array of historical evidence and covers mainly nineteenth-century events. Its readers found it disturbing and heartbreaking, but still an essential history book.

Edward Said, Orientalism

Orientalism is a foundational book for any history student who wants to be well-versed in critical theory and methodology. Edward Said introduces the concept of orientalism — a distortive lens through which the West perceives the East, and such a view is tightened to Western imperialism. Since its initial publication in 1978, the book has been a subject of intellectual clashes, which is the ultimate testimony to its everlasting relevance. Orientalism is not a history book in its straightforward sense (such as being a history of a certain period and region). Still, it also reveals how history is practiced and how biased and politically conditioned this practice can be. 

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!: An American History

Here you find a coherent introductory read by Eric Foner — a history professor at Columbia. For years, Give Me Liberty! remains a popular history textbook in classrooms across the country. It’s still a synthesis, with apparent shortcomings such as simplification and cutting some corners. Therefore, you can combine it with other reads on American history from this list!

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August

The Guns of August is a Pulitzer Prize-winning history book about the outbreak of World War I, published back in 1962. It is a military history book, which also provides us with the author’s own insights into misconceptions that fuelled the world tragedy. You can try it out as a great supportive read for All Quiet on the Western Front

Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s

It is a historical study “from below”, devoted to an ordinary homo sovieticus, who queues in endless lines, fights the bureaucracy, and assembles a dinner from scraps found in empty shops while being deadly scared of the repressive machine unraveling in their home country. Nevertheless, life still goes on, and Sheila Fitzpatrick — a leading specialist on soviet history — explores these ordinary soviet lives through a laudable amount of source materials, which all come together as a formidable history book.

Akira Iriye, The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific

Akira Iriye, a prominent history professor at Harvard University, explores the Second World War — or, the Pacific War — from the perspective of Japan. This fresh view will also help understand the current state of international relations around the globe.

Timothy D. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Bloodlands analyzes Central and Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1945, entrapped between two disastrous powers. It is a painful history of collective mass-killings told in the most academic distanced tone, approachable for academics and general readers alike. Bloodlands does what a good history book should do — it turns featureless numbers of war casualties into heartbreaking stories of real people.

Les and Tamara Payne, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X

It is the most recent biographical study of a world-famous revolutionary and civil rights activist — Malcolm X. This book is based on multiple interviews conducted by Les Payne — an investigative journalist — from the 1990s onwards and completed by his daughter Tamara Payne. Although published in 2020, the book has already won multiple prizes and favorable reviews from its devoted readers.

Alberto Oliva and Norberto Angeletti, In Vogue: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Fashion Magazine 

Let’s wrap it up with a glimpse through the most iconic Vogue covers (in fantastic reproduction quality) and works of renowned artists and writers that were published in the journal. The book also presents the journal’s history that, without a doubt, has changed the world of fashion journalism and media in general. It is an excellent present for fashion design book lovers!

If you are not a fan of reading history books, you should check our collection of the best history and philosophy podcasts. These history podcasts are as informative and fascinating as the books listed above. 

 You should consider buying some of these history books if you contemplate getting into a history degree program. Getting acquainted with professional history books will give you a gist of what lies ahead of you as a history student. Let it be an efficient litmus test of your choice! Do you enjoy these books? Will you be able to read many texts of this kind for many years in a row?

If you are already on a history degree track, make sure you’re familiar with some of these works and authors. Reading these history books will boost your factual knowledge and analytical skills (and you can always boast-footnote them in your essays). These history books will also help you figure out the period you want to specialize in. If you become enchanted by Ginzburg’s The Cheese and The Worms as much as I do, maybe then the Middle Ages for you? 

You can get any of these books at an awesome price on BooksRun. New or used history books are waiting for you to discover them, especially if you’d like to save a bit of cash. Enjoy reading!

Iliana K