a history lover’s dislike of history books

01 Nov

I’m just going to come out and say it — while I love history, I kind of hate history books. I can never finish them, though I try multiple times. Battle Cry of Freedom has been attempted at least three times, but for some reason I always fall asleep. This is unfortunate because it’s rather difficult to develop my history interest if I can’t bring myself to read books on history.

Every now and then, though, I discover a great history book that renews my interest. Way back in high school, it was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. In college, it was Strangers from a Different Shore by Ronald Takaki. A year ago, it was Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor.

More recently, I finished The Warmth of Other Suns. It was amazing. I couldn’t put it down, and never once did I fall asleep. The author’s methodology is rooted in oral history, and the narrative she writes is so well developed that it doesn’t feel like I’m reading history. I would really love if more history books felt that way — like stories instead of facts, because that’s how I think of history.

Do you have recommendations for history books that don’t feel like history books?


Posted by on November 1, 2011 in reading list



5 responses to “a history lover’s dislike of history books

  1. Katrina

    November 1, 2011 at 10:01 am

    While it was a little dry, Devil in the White City is good (I also read Thunderstruck but wasn’t quite impressed). I’m currently reading Monster of Florence which is pretty good.

    I’m in the same boat you are. I’m on the fence about a lot of history books. It’s why I prefer historical fiction 🙂

  2. Megan

    November 16, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    You could try R. Howard Bloch’s A Needle in the Right Hand of God, about the Norman Conquest and Bayeux Tapestry. Very readable, with nicely self-contained chapters, and includes some fun material on folks engaged in archives spelunking for fun, profit, and national one-upmanship. Along more historiographical lines is The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis. It’s a repurposed series of lectures that (most) of my archives classmates also really enjoyed and those without a history background particularly appreciated the methodological aspects.

  3. rose l chou

    November 16, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  4. Evelyn N. Alfred

    December 23, 2011 at 1:46 am

    I keep meaning to get this book, but most of the nonfiction I read comes in the form of memoirs. Glad to hear it’s not boring.

  5. localhistorygirl

    February 9, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    One history book I have recently picked up for school research that I loved is The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life by Rosenzweig and Thelen. It isn’t a monograph, but a book detailing the results and conclusions of a nation wide phone survey from the late 1990s about how “normal” Americans interact with the past. I only read a few choice chapters for my research, but I plan on going back and reading the rest over quarter break (yeah it’s that good!).

    Another book that I pick up off and on is What If? edited by Robert Cowley. It is a large collection of essays by historians of “what might have been”. It’s a good volume to have around when you want to do some history reading, but don’t have time or energy to devout to a full length work.


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