History was my first academic love, and will always have a dear place in my heart. It is one of the most unfortunate tragedies of life that most people think of history as boring and irrelevant, when the truth is the opposite. History is fascinating and prescient. Most everything that is happening now has happened before and will likely happen again.
More people should read history. In fact, if I could, I think I would make reading one history book a year a requirement for holding public office (or for voting?) To that end, I present to you my top three history books.
Empire of the Summer Moon, S. G. Gwynne
As a Texan, this book speaks to my soul. It pretends to be a biography of Quanah Parker, the legendary last “chief” of the Comanche Indians. Yes, chief is in qualifying quotes for a reason, but you’ll have to read the book to figure out why. But the truth is that the book uses Quanah as a template to discuss the history and culture of the Comanche people and their interaction with other Indian tribes as well as white settlers on the plains. Gwynne is a professional journalist, and his prose has an immediate feel, almost like the events he is recording happened yesterday afternoon, not two hundred years ago.
For the Glory of God, Rodney Stark
Stark is likely the most brilliant sociologists in the world today. In this book he addresses the role of faith in some of the major movements in world history. These include the development of science, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and slavery. What makes Stark so special is that instead of reading other historians and commenting on their work, he goes to the hard data available and counts how many and where. The results are astonishing. If I had one book I could put in the hand of every journalist, teacher, and politician in the world it would be this one.
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill
Quite simply, Cahill is the master of significance, telling us why certain things matter. Irish is a part of the Hinges of History series, which are all fantastic. (Disclaimer–those that are available, the set is incomplete.) However, Irish stands out in that it was the first one and, loosely speaking, it tends to bind the others together by uniting themes found in the Middle Ages, Jewish and Christian legacy, and Greek achievement. Irish is written the way all good history should be written, with clear everyday language in a witty style.
I have many other wonderful history books that I love. Some of them are rather technical and curmudgeonly and others are too long winded for popular appeal, like the great Texas history book Lone Star by Fehrenbach, which manages to be both. If you pinned me down, though, these are the three that I think are the best of the best. What are your favorite history books? I might add them to my summer reading list.
image from http://www.statesman.com