The most readable books about historians and how they think and write

James M. Banner Jr. Author Of The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History Is Revisionist History
By James M. Banner Jr.

Who am I?

An experienced historian who’s occupied both academic and public posts and written for popular as well as academic audiences, I’ve become absorbed by what’s behind the history so many of us read for all the reasons we read it: enlightenment, pleasure, and lessons about life in a fragile world. That’s taken me to write and teach about the professional lives of historians, about some fundamental realities of historical thought, and now about historians themselves: who they are, what they do, and why they do it. It’s often said that if you wish to understand books, know the people who write them. The books I’ve recommended help do that.


I wrote...

The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History Is Revisionist History

By James M. Banner Jr.,

Book cover of The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History Is Revisionist History

What is my book about?

Originating in a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, this book got caught up in controversies about “fake” news and “fake” history. Yet it’s a work of history, not politics. I start in ancient Greece, cover the Civil War, and deal with the present. I show how revisionist history is found on the Right and Left and that both “sides” win major battles over history. I make clear that the most transformative change in historical interpretation resulted from the shift from Greek and Roman pagan histories to Christian ones starting in the 4th century AD. Along the way, I show why historians change their views, that thinking about the past is always argued about, and that all historical interpretations are incomplete and subject to change.

The books I picked & why

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A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century

By John Burrow,

Book cover of A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century

Why this book?

Historical thought, like everything else, has a history. But contrary to what you may think, such history doesn’t have to be dull, especially when told by a masterly writer who was also among the world’s most knowledgeable experts on the subject. So don’t think that this overview of what historians have written about the past since ancient Greece will be hard going. It isn’t. Sometimes it’s even fun. In fact, I know of no more enjoyable introductory guide to history’s history or a better place to start your journey within it than this book. Burrow canters through the major developments in historical writing and practices in the West over 2,500 years. His pages are peopled by pagan, Christian, Marxist, feminist, and many other kinds of thinkers and scholars. They’re a treat.

A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century

By John Burrow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A History of Histories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Treating the practice of history not as an isolated pursuit but as an aspect of human society and an essential part of the culture of the West, John Burrow magnificently brings to life and explains the distinctive qualities found in the work of historians from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks to the present. With a light step and graceful narrative, he gathers together over 2,500 years of the moments and decisions that have helped create Western identity. This unique approach is an incredible lens with which to view the past. Standing alone in its ambition, scale and fascination, Burrow's history…


Thucydides: The Reinvention of History

By Donald Kagan,

Book cover of Thucydides: The Reinvention of History

Why this book?

This book is important, authoritative, and compelling because it demonstrates that a conservative historian can be comfortable with revisionist history. Kagan, a Yale historian noted as a leading academic traditionalist, terms Thucydides “the first revisionist historian” not because he was like today’s leftists but because he took issue with his pioneering predecessor, Herodotus. In his great history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides threw down the gauntlet over which was the “best” and “right” way to do history. He thought its subjects should be politics, warfare, the relation between states, and—a surprise?—men. His views held the field for centuries. The Framers of the Constitution were its legatees. So were we until the late 20th century, when social and cultural subjects gained attention. This wonderful book shows why.

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History

By Donald Kagan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thucydides as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A reconsideration of the first modern historian and his methods from a renowned scholar

The grandeur and power of Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War have enthralled readers, historians, and statesmen alike for two and a half millennia, and the work and its author have had an enduring influence on those who think about international relations and war, especially in our own time. In Thucydides, Donald Kagan, one of our foremost classics scholars, illuminates the great historian and his work both by examining him in the context of his time and by considering him as a revisionist historian.

Thucydides took a spectacular…


Style in History

By Peter Gay,

Book cover of Style in History

Why this book?

One of my favorite books whose author, a teacher of mine, wrote it in his second language, this one’s an example of its main point—that rather than a fashion worn for display, style is a quality that emerges from a person’s very being. With the zesty spirit that was the man himself, Gay wields this truth to bring to life the great works of four now little-read historians: Edward Gibbon on the Roman Empire, Jacob Burckhardt on the Italian Renaissance, Leopold von Ranke on early modern Europe, and Thomas Babington Macauley on 17th-century England.  Under Gay’s, yes, stylish pen, they seem worth reading now. Why’s that? Because, as Gay writes, they each made history “an art by virtue of being a branch of literature.” He makes you reach for their books.

Style in History

By Peter Gay,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Style in History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What does an historian's style reveal? In this original and lucid guide to the proper reading of Gibbon, Ranke, Macaulay, and Burckhardt-great historians who were also great stylists-Peter Gay demonstrates that, style is an invaluable clue to the historian's insight. Thus, for Peter Gay, style is the key to culture, and the "truth" of history-as it helps to define that culture-can only be fully understood through an objective and thorough analysis of all its elements.


The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington

By Richard Hofstadter,

Book cover of The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington

Why this book?

This splendid book, by another teacher of mine, one of the most influential 20th-century historians of the United States, takes up the works of three similarly prominent early 20th-century historians: Charles A. Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Vernon L. Parrington. Their books, too, make rewarding reading, even though time may have left their interpretations in the dust—Beard’s on the Constitution being, writes Hofstadter, an “imposing ruin.” Turner’s on the frontier and Parrington’s on American thought are also mostly ignored by historians today. So why bother with them? Because they can still be read for what they cover—the creation of a constitutional republic, how democracy came into being, and core American convictions. Hofstadter’s easy colloquial style is a delight. It’s critical, albeit sympathetic, American history at its best.

The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington

By Richard Hofstadter,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A detailed look at the ideas and contributions of the 3 major interpretive historians of the U.S. in the 20th century: Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard and V. L. Parrington.


That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession

By Peter Novick,

Book cover of That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession

Why this book?

If you like dishy books, you’ll love this inside look at historians as they argue with each other and gossip behind other historians’ backs. While not offered as humor, Novick’s tale pulls back the curtain on academic historians’ ideological and often bitterly personal contests. In this case it’s over the central question of modern historical thought: whether or not history can achieve objectivity. Novick terms their arguments “essentially confused” and much like trying to nail jelly to the wall. Along the way, he reveals the altogether human elements behind all efforts to advance knowledge. The story is particularly relevant for a “post-modern” era in which it’s often argued that truth’s an illusion—it’s just fake. Novick’s story is of a very human world. He finds it fascinating. You will, too.

That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession

By Peter Novick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked That Noble Dream as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The aspiration to relate the past 'as it really happened' has been the central goal of American professional historians since the late nineteenth century. In this remarkable history of the profession, Peter Novick shows how the idea and ideal of objectivity were elaborated, challenged, modified, and defended over the last century. Drawing on the unpublished correspondence as well as the published writings of hundreds of American historians from J. Franklin Jameson and Charles Beard to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Eugene Genovese, That Noble Dream is a richly textured account of what American historians have thought they were doing, or ought…


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