The best books about history as personal experience

Benita Kane Jaro Author Of The Key: A Passionate Novel About Catullus
By Benita Kane Jaro

The Books I Picked & Why

The Annals of Imperial Rome

By Michael Grant, Tacitus

Book cover of The Annals of Imperial Rome

Why this book?

Ancient Rome's greatest historian is also one of its greatest writers. In sharp, bitter, brilliant sentences he chronicles the rise of the tyrannical emperors who succeeded Julius Caesar. His passionate anger at the loss of Roman liberties for the sake of wealth and security will alarm you; but his description of the hollowing out of Rome's political, judicial, military, and religious institutions until nothing remains but terror will freeze your blood.

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Cicero and His Friends: A Study of Roman Society in the Time of Caesar

By Gaston Boissier, Adnah David Jones

Book cover of Cicero and His Friends: A Study of Roman Society in the Time of Caesar

Why this book?

Cicero, the statesman who stood in defense of the Roman Republic against Julius Caesar's popular uprising, was himself a fine writer. Assassinated in the civil war, he never had a chance to write a history of his time. For that reason, I have chosen this beautiful, balanced, profoundly humane study by one of France's greatest historians. Cicero's often solitary stand against the man who was once his friend, his stoic acceptance of what the consequences were to be to himself and his family, and on the other side, the heavy personal cost to Caesar himself of his own advance, are all laid out, illuminated by the light of a profound understanding of the human condition, another name for which is "wisdom".

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Parade's End

By Ford Madox Ford

Book cover of Parade's End

Why this book?

Ford Madox Ford's magnificent multi-volume novel about British society up to and through the First World War was written out of the author's own experience and appeared in 1924. It was Ford's belief that a novelist should be a "historian of his own time". In this, he brilliantly succeeded. The events he chronicled are now 100 years in the past, but the trilogy is still a wonderfully complex set of psychological novels with an intricate plot that traces the consequences of a lie through British society before and during WWI. It is also a moving and delicate love story, and an exposé of the kinds of self-serving alliances and maneuvers still so unfortunately characteristic of the upper reaches of governments, even in democracies.

For those interested in military history Volume 3: A Man Could Stand Up is one of the most powerful descriptions of life in the trenches ever written. It is based on Ford's own experience serving with a Welsh Regiment, in which he enlisted in 1915 at the age of 45. Suspenseful, thoughtful, beautifully written, and profound.

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Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee

By Robert Van Gulik

Book cover of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee

Why this book?

As the West had its long history of Rome and her influence in Europe, so Asia has an even longer story of the Chinese people and their state. For an introduction and appreciation of this brilliant and complex civilization, I recommend Celebrated Cases Of Judge Dee: Dee Goong-An, by Robert van Gulik, and the same author's series of Chinese detective novels featuring Judge Dee.

The real Judge Di Renjie was a member of the Tang Dynasty civil service in the 7th century, who rose to be a chancellor to the Empress Wu. A legendary figure in Chinese history, he became a popular literary detective - a sort of Sherlock Holmes. Van Gulik, himself a civil servant, was a Dutch scholar who served as an advisor to the Chinese government during WWII. He made this translation of an 18th century Chinese detective novel about Dee, and followed it with about 20 novels he himself wrote (and illustrated) about this beloved figure, exploring the lives of the people urban and rural, the classes and professions of the period, civil and military organisation, differences across regions, and the Chinese way of looking at life. It is real history, delightfully presented, by a very learned man.

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The Maze Maker

By Michael Ayrton

Book cover of The Maze Maker

Why this book?

An amazing book, a completely original book, about a world emerging from the gorgeous dreams of mythology into the light of history. This "autobiography" of the mythological creator of mazes and artifacts, the father of technology, and the first human (with his son Icarus) to fly, Daedalus speaks to us across the millenia in his own voice, through the man uniquely qualified to bring it to us. Michael Ayrton was an English sculptor is the mid 20th century. He studied the techniques of his great predecessor and duplicated for the first time many of his feats, thought to be impossible. This book is a meditation on the themes of creation, innovation, and the dangerous and exalting contact of human beings with the Divine.

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