The Best Books That Changed My View Of History

By Prit Buttar

The Books I Picked & Why

Anabasis (The Persian Expedition)

By Xenophon

Anabasis (The Persian Expedition)

Why this book?

There’s no substitute for reading about events by someone who was there. This book is about a largely forgotten incident, when 10,000 Greek mercenaries became involved in an attempt by Cyrus the Great to seize control of the Persian Empire from his brother. When Cyrus’ bid failed, the Greeks found themselves far from home and surrounded by foes; they then marched through Mesopotamia and modern-day Turkey to the Black Sea coast, where they were able to find ships that took them home to Greece.

It’s a tale of adventure and struggle, and sheer determination not to give in. It’s also a great example of how the author of such a work can find themselves faced with the difficult task of describing their own role in events. In the second half of the work, Xenophon gives increasing prominence to his personal leadership and suggestions. Regardless of any elements of self-promotion, it’s a tale of an epic march through adversity – a great example of how history can often be every bit as tense and exciting as fiction.


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Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Alison Weir

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Why this book?

History rarely gives a prominent place to women, and this is perhaps particularly true of medieval history. To have left such a huge mark, Eleanor must have been a truly extraordinary woman. It is the combination of her formidable nature with the equally formidable Henry II that makes her marriage to the great Plantagenet ruler such a remarkable story. Alison Weir’s book is a treasure, full of interesting anecdotes that bring the star-studded cast of Eleanor, Henry, and their sons Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John to life.

This book is an outstanding introduction to a fascinating period of English history, as an impatient, innovative king – sometimes aided by, and often hindered by, his wife – attempted to impose his will upon a stubborn and obstructive church and his rebellious sons.


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This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War

By Bruce Catton

This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War

Why this book?

I picked up this book while on a study course in the United States – I was based in Washington DC and intended to visit some of the nearby Civil War battlefields, and decided that I needed to know more about the conflict. It was perhaps the first American history book I had read, and immediately I was struck by the very different style of writing when compared with European works.

For a single-volume account of a terrible conflict that did so much to shape the United States, this is probably unmatched. The people involved, from those in high-level political positions to the men and women caught up in the fighting, are brought to life in an unforgettable way.


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Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia

By W. Bruce Lincoln

Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia

Why this book?

This is an unusual book, in that it is effectively a biography of a city – known through the years first as St Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, and now once more St Petersburg. As he tells the story of the city that Peter the Great built in a desolate swamp, Lincoln brings together many of the different strands of Russian history and the strong-willed people who tried, with varying degrees of success, to direct that history in directions of their choosing. For anyone intending to visit St Petersburg, reading this book beforehand is an absolute must – it will make the experience of being there so much more valuable. If there is a flaw, it is that Lincoln sadly died when St Petersburg was perhaps at its lowest ebb following the end of the Soviet Union; it would be fascinating to know how he would have assessed the city as it has reinvented itself yet again in more recent years.


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The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India's Quest for Independence

By Anita Anand

The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India's Quest for Independence

Why this book?

If there was any single episode that doomed British rule of India, it was the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, when General Reginald Dyer ordered his men to open fire on unarmed civilians in a walled park from which there was only one exit. One of those in the park was a man named Udnam Singh, and the dreadful massacre led to Udnam spending the next 21 years patiently seeking an opportunity to assassinate Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant-governor of Punjab who was responsible for the killing.

Any book that deals with such an emotive subject as this could easily get lost in partisan assertions on behalf of one side or the other, but Anand meticulously remains both even-handed and engaged with the human beings in her story. As an example of how to tackle such a potentially explosive topic, this book is simply outstanding.


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