The best history books that read like novels

Matthew Goodman Author Of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
By Matthew Goodman

Who am I?

My three most recent books are in the genre that I like to call “narrative history.” All are historically accurate – I haven’t made anything up to create the story, and everything inside quotation marks is taken from an interview or historical document and cited in endnotes – but at the same time I’m striving to make them novelistic: to give the reader the sense of immediacy, the emphasis on character and narrative structure, and the moral complexity most often provided by novels. In writing my books, I’m hoping not just to tell the reader what happened, but also, crucially, to give as strong a sense of what it felt like to be living in that particular time and place. 

I wrote...

Book cover of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

What is my book about?

On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days.

The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever. Eighty Days brings these trailblazing women to life as they race against time and each other, unaided and alone, ever aware that the slightest delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

Why did I love this book?

In 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found, his throat cut, in an outdoor privy in the respectable English village of Trowbridge. Public reaction was immediate and intense, and Scotland Yard sent its best man to investigate: Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher, a reserved, thoughtful, somewhat mysterious figure who would serve as the model for Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. Kate Summerscale recounts the story with an admirable narrative control, peeling away the intricate layers of the case while taking in a broad range of fascinating topics, from the birth of forensic science to the Victorian fascination with the figure of the detective. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher provides all the suspense and captivation of the classic English country-house murder mystery, but the story is far darker and more complex, and all the more disturbing for being true.

By Kate Summerscale,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

_______________ WINNER OF THE SAMUEL JOHNSON PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION THE NUMBER ONE BESTSELLER A RICHARD AND JUDY BOOK CLUB PICK _______________ 'A remarkable achievement' - Sunday Times 'A classic, to my mind, of the finest documentary writing' - John le Carre 'Absolutely riveting' - Sarah Waters, Guardian _______________ On a summer's morning in 1860, the Kent family awakes in their elegant Wiltshire home to a terrible discovery; their youngest son has been brutally murdered. When celebrated detective Jack Whicher is summoned from Scotland Yard he faces the unenviable task of identifying the killer - when the grieving family are the…

Seabiscuit: An American Legend

By Laura Hillenbrand,

Book cover of Seabiscuit: An American Legend

Why did I love this book?

A Depression-era Cinderella tale, Seabiscuit intertwines the stories of three men who staked everything on the unlikeliest of horses and together helped him develop into an iconic champion: Seabiscuit’s owner, trainer, and jockey, each of whom was operating from a different set of motivations and each of whom became, for a time, a celebrity in his own right. With gorgeously vivid prose, sensitive characterizations, and an insider’s knowledge, and all the while setting a brisk pace that befits its eponymous hero, Laura Hillenbrand has masterfully recreated the colorful, idiosyncratic vanished world of American racetracks in the days when a horse could capture the popular imagination.

By Laura Hillenbrand,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Seabiscuit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the author of the runaway phenomenon Unbroken comes a universal underdog story about the horse who came out of nowhere to become a legend.

Seabiscuit was one of the most electrifying and popular attractions in sports history and the single biggest newsmaker in the world in 1938, receiving more coverage than FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini. But his success was a surprise to the racing establishment, which had written off the crooked-legged racehorse with the sad tail. Three men changed Seabiscuit’s fortunes:

Charles Howard was a onetime bicycle repairman who introduced the automobile to…

Book cover of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Why did I love this book?

There has been no more searing account of the indignities and humiliations, the powerlessness and sheer terror that marked Black life in the American South in the early twentieth century than The Warmth of Other Suns; no other book has so powerfully recorded the litany of injustices that led millions to embark on the journey north that became known as the Great Migration. But the life-giving, beating heart of this book lies in the narratives that Isabel Wilkerson offers of three participants in that migration – Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Like characters in an epic novel, the three endure tragedy, seek solace in love and family, and confront as best they can the unforgiving circumstances of their lives. Meticulously recounted and beautifully written, The Warmth of Other Suns is the very model of engaged scholarship: almost miraculously, a book worthy of its great subject matter.

By Isabel Wilkerson,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Warmth of Other Suns as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In this beautifully written masterwork, the Pulitzer Prize–winnner and bestselling author of Caste chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.

From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official…

Book cover of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Why did I love this book?

In this saga, Robert Caro traces the career of Robert Moses, New York’s “master builder,” who was never elected to public office but for decades was the most powerful man in the city. Part social history, part Shakespearean tragedy, The Power Broker is the story of Moses’s long fall from an idealistic young builder to a tyrant obsessed with accumulating personal power at the expense of all else. Through the accretion of innumerable well-researched details Caro plumbs the full depths of his central character, while revealing how Moses’s misguided policies carved the heart out of countless New York neighborhoods; in one now-legendary chapter, “One Mile,” Caro interviews the residents of a destroyed Bronx neighborhood to portray, unforgettably, the human costs of political corruption.

By Robert A. Caro,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Power Broker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro is 'simply one of the best non-fiction books in English of the last forty years' (Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times): a riveting and timeless account of power, politics and the city of New York by 'the greatest political biographer of our times' (Sunday Times); chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time and by the Modern Library as one of the 100 Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century; Winner of the Pulitzer Prize; a Sunday Times Bestseller; 'An outright masterpiece' (Evening Standard)

The Power Broker tells the…

Book cover of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Why did I love this book?

The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest of all dictionaries, and, as it turns out, a large percentage of its original entries were composed by a murderer living in an asylum for the criminally insane. It is an extraordinary story, and one that could easily become sensationalist or maudlin; this one never does. Relatively slim and entirely accessible, the book wears its erudition lightly; Simon Winchester narrates with seemingly effortless scholarship and a distinctly English offhand charm, deftly balancing tones that run the gamut from dark to winsome. The Professor and the Madman is a paean to the majesty of the English language, and a testament that invaluable learning can be pursued even by the most unexpected individuals, even in the most forbidding places.

By Simon Winchester,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Professor and the Madman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Notable Book  

The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary—and literary history.

The making of the OED was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, was stunned to discover that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. But their surprise would pale in comparison to what they were about to discover when the committee insisted on…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in murder, murder mystery, and New York State?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about murder, murder mystery, and New York State.

Murder Explore 828 books about murder
Murder Mystery Explore 438 books about murder mystery
New York State Explore 659 books about New York State