The best books about the history we never learned

Robert N. Wiedenmann Author Of The Silken Thread: Five Insects and Their Impacts on Human History
By Robert N. Wiedenmann

The Books I Picked & Why

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

By Peter Frankopan

Book cover of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Why this book?

This book is amazing. In addition to being encyclopedic in scope and detail, this highly readable "reference" book accounts for much of human history. Frankopan focuses on some two dozen 'roads'—some ancient, others recent, and several metaphorical 'roads' that were more historical processes than defined routes. He includes major historical events, but he also gives details that fill out and bring to life the greater stories. He begins with the role that the Silk Roads played on the history of silk, but those roads also were the basis of much of Eurasian history for millennia. This engrossing book is so well written that several times when I looked up a reference, I found that I had read another 20 pages.  


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Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War

By Jeffrey A. Lockwood

Book cover of Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War

Why this book?

In this unique perspective on history, Lockwood offers detailed accounts of the many ways that insects have been used as weapons, and he does so in a very engaging style. Remarkably, the use of insects as weapons did not end with the technological advances in warfare but continued until at least late in the 20th Century. The book reads like a novel—quick-paced, with surprises around many corners. He does not gloss over some of the atrocities but presents them in an appropriate overall context. I have loaned out several copies of this book only to never have them returned!


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The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History

By Molly Caldwell Crosby

Book cover of The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History

Why this book?

Yellow fever, like many feared diseases, conjures up an image of faraway, steamy rain forests. At one time, yellow fever really was found there. But the disease—and the mosquito that carries it—didn't stay there. I was surprised to learn how prominent and feared yellow fever was in early Colonial America and that it persisted in the United States through the early 20th Century. Crosby provides background on the disease from Africa, its path to the Americas, and routine epidemics in New Orleans, but the book's primary focus is the account of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 that decimated Memphis, Tennessee, and other towns along the Mississippi River.  I liked this book for filling in the blanks in my awareness and understanding of this American plague. 


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War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945

By James P. Duffy

Book cover of War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945

Why this book?

I thought I knew a thing or two about the history of World War II. Somehow, the battle for New Guinea escaped me, despite the role played by the American General, Douglas MacArthur. Significant as a turning point in the war and enabling MacArthur's return to the Philippines, the fight in New Guinea deserves mention in the same breath as the stepping-stone battles of the Pacific islands. The fighting was brutal and the conditions for both Japanese and Allied troops were horrid—trails ascending rugged mountains, supply-chain difficulties, diseases that diminished the abilities of troops to fight. I have been to New Guinea twice. Duffy captured the ruggedness of the land and his telling of the stories made me feel the place, the people, and their challenges.


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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

By Charles C. Mann

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

Why this book?

Charles Mann's book was an eye-opener to many people, pointing out that much of the history we learned as children in school was wrong. The realization that the pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas were rich, vibrant, and advanced has taken time to be accepted broadly, but Mann's book pushes that understanding to a new level. The book combines history with science and archaeology to present a full picture of the American history we never learned.


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