The best books that will hook you on history

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve always been a bit of a history nerd. Memories of my childhood are sprinkled with reminders of this passion. Whether it was holding in my excitement to be on the way to fourth-grade social studies so my classmates wouldn’t think I was weird or watching a Nat Geo documentary about the archeology of Stonehenge while I healed up from wisdom teeth surgery, history has always been an escape and fascination for me. This passion led to me obtaining a BA, then an MA in History, and starting my own history blog.


My website is...

East India Blogging Co.

I started East India Blogging Co. out of my interest in and passion for the history of the Atlantic World. Topics like the history of the American Revolution, Nation Nations, and colonies have always fascinated me, and the Atlantic World helps us understand how these factors came together to produce the world around us.

In the years since I've expanded into more tangential topics and begun writing book reviews to help connect people with great history books.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Johnstown Flood

Jordan Baker Why did I love this book?

I’ve always loved writing and learning about history. And no one exemplifies the marriage of these preoccupations better than McCullough. With his first book, he didn’t set out to do groundbreaking research - he just wanted to tell a great story. 

In The Johnstown Flood, McCullough does just that.

The book tells the story of one this once flourishing town that was destroyed when a nearby dam gave way, and a deluge swept away homes, businesses, and people. 

Throughout the book, McCullough brought these poor souls back to life through great prose and an ability to connect with his subjects. Even though this happened well over a century before I read the book, it made me feel, at least a bit, the devastation of the event.

By David McCullough,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The stunning story of one of America’s great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation’s burgeoning industrial prosperity. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was…


Book cover of John Adams

Jordan Baker Why did I love this book?

A little over three decades after writing The Johnstown Flood, McCullough used his uncanny ability to connect with history subjects to create the best biography of John Adams ever written. 

Titling it simply John Adams, McCullough walks readers through the life of one of America’s greatest revolutionaries and second president. With this book, McCullough takes Adams out of his vaunted place in the American pantheon of patriots and brings him back down to earth.

We get to know the world and family into which John was born in 18th-century Massachusetts. We learn how his humble beginnings as a farmer’s son and the Protestant work ethic that still permeated New England during his youth forged him into a tenaciously hard worker. 

But Boston was not yet the metropolis it is today, and this small colonial city could not hold Adams’ ambitions for long.

McCullough explores Adams’ path to revolution, a path that took him first to Philadelphia, then (somewhat reluctantly) to France, the Netherlands, and England. With each stop, Adams’ patriotism grew, the stubborn reaction of a stubborn man intent on making his mark on history and his nation. 

While this was the part of Adams’ life I found most interesting, McCullough’s book continued on through the end of the great man’s life. Through his relationships with his wife Abigail, his children (who underwent their own hardships), and his fellow revolutionaries, McCullough nails the character of the man: highly intelligent, stubborn, and driven by his sense of what was right. 

I’ll stop the review of John Adams here before it becomes as long as the book itself. But trust me, it’s worth reading.

By David McCullough,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

His first book since Truman, from one of America's most distinguished and popular biographers. Destined for the same kind of sweeping success as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman, John Adams is a powerful, deeply moving biography that reads like an epic historical novel. Breathing fresh life into American history, it takes as its subject the extraordinary man who became the second president of the United States. A man whose adventurous life and spirited rivalry with Thomas Jefferson encompasses both the American Revolution and the birth of the young republic. Deftly written with a brilliant eye for detail, McCullough describes the childhood,…


Book cover of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Jordan Baker Why did I love this book?

I absolutely love learning about the Revolutionary era and the 18th-century at large. And John Adams no doubt played a role in shaping this passion. 

In this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, McCullough places readers smack dab in the middle of 18th and 19th-century America. Using wonderful storytelling, McCullough follows the life of one of the era’s most accomplished people, John Adams, on his path from proud British subject to the ultimate revolutionary and eventual president of the United States. 

Using John Adams as his subject, McCullough captures the spirit of the American Revolution and the struggles of the early republic.

By Charles C. Mann,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked 1491 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492—from “a remarkably engaging writer” (The New York Times Book Review).
 
Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized…


Book cover of Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul

Jordan Baker Why did I love this book?

While this is a rather scholarly book with a bit of an intimidating title, I was surprised by how enjoyable of a read it was. 

Through this work, Woolf explores what it meant to be a native to Gaul, the traumatic experience of the Roman conquest (estimates of Gaulish deaths are in the millions), and how the Gauls and Romans shaped the culture of the region moving forward.

With expert skill, Woolf shows that the process of romanization in Gaul was not just a case of Roman forcing the Gauls to act Roman or the Gauls imitating Roman ways to placate their new overlords. Instead, it was a process of cultural give-and-take, in which both sides took on aspects of the other. 

It’s truly fascinating stuff. 

By Greg Woolf,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This book is a study of the process conventionally termed 'Romanization' through an investigation of the experience of Rome's Gallic provinces in the late Republic and early empire. Beginning with a rejection of the concept of 'Romanization' it describes the nature of Roman power in Gaul and the Romans' own understanding of these changes. Successive chapters then map the chronology and geography of change and offer new interpretations of urbanism, rural civilization, consumption and cult, before concluding with a synoptic view of Gallo-Roman civilization and of the origins of provincial cultures in general. The work draws on literary and archaeological…


Book cover of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Jordan Baker Why did I love this book?

My interest in colonization and imperialism peaked by Becoming Roman and other such books and I wanted to know how these processes had worked out in the imperial experiences that shaped our modern world. So I picked up Guns, Germ, and Steel.

Through this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Diamond set out to discover the factors that allowed European powers to conquer most of the world from 1492 and on. Relatively speaking, they were backwater kingdoms, still clinging to inefficient feudal economies. So, how did they do it? For Diamond, it boiled down to three variables: guns, germs, and steel. 

Though it has come under fire for oversimplifying many aspects of European colonialism and imperialism, Gun, Germs, and Steel exposed me to new ways of researching and telling the stories seemingly lost by the very processes Diamond enumerated.

By Jared Diamond,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Guns, Germs, and Steel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why did Eurasians conquer, displace, or decimate Native Americans, Australians, and Africans, instead of the reverse? In this "artful, informative, and delightful" (William H. McNeill, New York Review of Books) book, a classic of our time, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond dismantles racist theories of human history by revealing the environmental factors actually responsible for its broadest patterns.

The story begins 13,000 years ago, when Stone Age hunter-gatherers constituted the entire human population. Around that time, the developmental paths of human societies on different continents began to diverge greatly. Early domestication of wild plants and animals in the Fertile Crescent, China,…


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Book cover of Leora's Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II

Joy Neal Kidney Author Of What Leora Never Knew: A Granddaughter's Quest for Answers

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm the oldest granddaughter of Leora, who lost three sons during WWII. To learn what happened to them, I studied casualty and missing aircraft reports, missions reports, and read unit histories. I’ve corresponded with veterans who knew one of the brothers, who witnessed the bomber hit the water off New Guinea, and who accompanied one brother’s body home. I’m still in contact with the family members of two crew members on the bomber. The companion book, Leora’s Letters, is the family story of the five Wilson brothers who served, but only two came home.

Joy's book list on research of World War II casualties

What is my book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one; all five sons were serving their country in the military–two in the Navy and three as Army Air Force pilots.

Only two sons came home.

Leora’s Letters is the compelling true account of a woman whose most tender hopes were disrupted by great losses. Yet she lived out four…

By Joy Neal Kidney, Robin Grunder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Leora's Letters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one, all five sons were serving their country in the military. The oldest son re-enlisted in the Navy. The younger three became U.S. Army Air Force pilots. As the family optimist, Leora wrote hundreds of letters, among all her regular chores, dispensing news and keeping up the morale of the…


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