This article is updated twice yearly with our latest picks.
In school, having a favorite class was usually dependent on the teacher. History classes could go one of two ways: terribly dry, or if you had a dedicated enough instructor, so fascinating that they could transport you to a different place and time entirely. Our favorite history books contain the passion of those excellent teachers—you won't catch yourself dozing off here.
We've included tales that you can't escape high school without learning about, but also some that you may never have heard of before. Everyone knows the basics of World War II, for example, but how much do you know about the war's North African campaign?
Listen up history buffs: We've detailed some of the best eye-opening books about history below, ranging from memoirs to a highly-realistic work of fiction.
Here are our picks for the best history books to add to your collection.
Black Bostonians by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton
Black Bostonians is a thorough text about the people of color in the North around the Civil War. It describes their social systems and the lengths that they took to become involved politically in order to win their Southern brethren freedom and expand the rights of the already free.
The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton
This title is filled with quirky aspects of French history that use a lens known as microhistory. The idea is to zoom in on a particular historical event and delve into the details of it, following its consequences and reverberations. The Great Cat Massacre is one vignette in the book. As its name may imply, The Great Cat Massacre is about a group of Paris printing shop apprentices in the 1730s that held mock trials and hanged all the cats they could find.
The Complete War Memoirs of Charles De Gaulle
French army officer and statesman Charles de Gaulle was a prominent figure during World War II, and immediately after the dust had settled, he penned several volumes on his experiences. They're collected in this book, and savvy readers recommend reading them in tandem with Winston Churchill’s own lengthy war accounts.
Cuba in the American Imagination by Louis A. Perez
Our relationship with Cuba has never been a simple one. Historian of Cuba Louis A. Perez looks at the history of how Americans have looked at and described Cuba (as a woman, or a ripe fruit, for example) and discovers the motives behind these characterizations of the island in Cuba in the American Imagination.
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
While not strictly non-fiction, Red Plenty is a historical book about the 1950s boom times of the Soviet Republic. It is told in a familiar narrative structure, which makes it seem like a true story that you will not want to put down.
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
On the other side of the spectrum from microhistory comes wide-ranging exploration into multiple eras. Such is the case of The Silk Roads, which considers how the crossroads of the world affect our society today, and how the fate of the West has always been linked to the East.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Learn about Abraham Lincoln, who earned respect from his critics in order to unite his cabinet and eventually, the country in Team of Rivals. The tricks behind Lincoln's magic are revealed in this biography.
The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History by Rian Thum
The Sacred Routes is a special book because it challenges the accepted national history of the Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang, China. It has been called a “biography of history,” and it is bound to expand your perspective of what the concept of history really means.
Realm of the Black Mountain by Elizabeth Roberts
One of the world’s newest countries lacks an international reputation, but Realm of the Black Mountain is out to change that. Montenegro (and Serbia) were formed out of the dissolution Yugoslavia, and you can learn about what makes the tiny nation of Montenegro tick.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
The title of this historic memoir is already rife with scandal. Iran has a reliable history of censorship, but one educator in Tehran did not let the law stop her from giving mature students a chance to learn through world literature. Reading Lolita in Tehran is Azar Nafisi’s account of learning in spite of danger.
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
The Dust Bowl wreaked havoc on Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado in the 1930s. The country was already suffering due to the Great Depression, which ruined financial prospects for many Americans, and the natural destruction of the storms only made everything worse. The National Book Award-winning The Worst Hard Time follows a dozen Americans during that time.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
We could have recommended a dense history of the world, but Guns, Germs, and Steel offers an alternative concept. Geography professor Jared Diamond suggests that the totality of human history is based on how people interacted with their environments. Explore why civilizations begin near water and other minute details that we have come to accept without fully considering why.
Becoming Michelle Obama
Don't forget about the significance of recent history. Peek into the life of America's first black first lady in Becoming Michelle Obama. Hear about Michelle's childhood in the South Side of Chicago, her career as a lawyer, falling in love with Barack, and more.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
You can't miss young Anne Frank's diary about fleeing the Nazis, which was found in the attic where she spent years of her life. After two years in hiding, her family's whereabouts were discovered by the Gestapo, and their lives later came to a tragic end.