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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Kate Summerscale

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

Why 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.


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Seabiscuit: An American Legend

By Laura Hillenbrand

Seabiscuit: An American Legend

Why 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.


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

By Isabel Wilkerson

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

Why 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.


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

By Robert A. Caro

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

Why 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.


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

By Simon Winchester

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

Why 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.


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