The best books to make you think about history and how we understand it

Who am I?

Like many people, my passions were first ignited when I was a toddler, and I mainly have my maternal grandfather to thank what for interests me. I remember coming to my grandparent’s house when I was young and watching WWII documentaries that my grandfather had on VHS (yes, I’m that old). Since then, I’ve always had a passion for history. It doesn’t really matter the subject, I’m interested in everything; from the Ottoman Empire to the Vietnam War, to the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, to the US-backed coup in Guatemala during the Cold War. I hope that passion for history comes through when readers explore my book.  

I wrote...

A Lot of Questions, with No Answers

By Jordan Neben,

Book cover of A Lot of Questions, with No Answers

What is my book about?

A Lot of Questions, with No Answers? Is a collection of six essays covering a variety of topics from subjects like religion and history and even to the recent pandemic.

As the title would suggest, the book is dedicated to questioning and inquiry. Throughout the book I encourage the reader to examine not only what their beliefs are, but why they believe what they do. How much are our convictions and principles personal, and how much are they instilled by society and the circumstances of our lives? How strong can a person’s convictions be if they do not allow room for doubt in their minds? These are the kind of questions readers can expect to find as they go through the book.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses

Why did I love this book?

Dan Carlin is definitely one of the biggest inspirations for my own writing, and the style and format of my book are very similar to The End is Always Near. Dan Carlin hosts the massively popular Hardcore History podcast, and I have been an avid listener for years. More than once I found myself writing down ideas and notes for my own book only to find out that Carlin had beaten me to the punch and thought of these same ideas long before I had. If you enjoy Hardcore History and The End is Always Near, then I think you would enjoy my book as well.    

By Dan Carlin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The End Is Always Near as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A journey back in time that explores what happened-and what could have happened-from creator of the wildly-popular podcast Hardcore History and 2019 winner of the iHeartRadio Best History Podcast Award.

Dan Carlin has created a new way to think about the past. His mega-hit podcast, Hardcore History, is revered for its unique blend of high drama, enthralling narration, and Twilight Zone-style twists. Carlin humanizes the past, wondering about things that didn't happen but might have, and compels his listeners to "walk a mile in that other guy's historical moccasins." A political commentator, Carlin approaches history like a magician, employing completely…

Book cover of Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire

Why did I love this book?

Gangsters of Capitalism covers a part of US history that is often deliberately overlooked by Americans, because it clashes with our national myths about ourselves. Katz follows US imperial history from the very end of the 19th century through to the middle of the 20th century, by following the life and career of Smedley Butler, a man who served in the marines for so much of this history. Gangster of Capitalism is in the top five of my favorite books that I have ever read. Katz’s ability to weave a personal biography with sweeping history and how that history still affects us all in the present is superb. 

By Jonathan M. Katz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A groundbreaking journey tracing America’s forgotten path to global power—and how its legacies shape our world today—told through the extraordinary life of a complicated Marine.

Smedley Butler was the most celebrated warfighter of his time. Bestselling books were written about him. Hollywood adored him. Wherever the flag went, “The Fighting Quaker” went—serving in nearly every major overseas conflict from the Spanish War of 1898 until the eve of World War II. From his first days as a 16-year-old recruit at the newly seized Guantánamo Bay, he blazed a path for empire: helping annex the Philippines and the land for the…

Book cover of Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution

Why did I love this book?

Mike Duncan is another source of inspiration that I am indebted to for helping me become a better writer. Duncan is also the host of the podcasts History of Rome and Revolutions, and author of another book, The Storm Before the Storm. Duncan’s ability to recount some truly complex history with clarity and precision is truly uncanny, and his dry and sarcastic style of humor is similar to the humor I use in my book too. Duncan’s work helped me become a more discerning student of history and I am grateful for that. 

By Mike Duncan,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Hero of Two Worlds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few in history can match the revolutionary career of the Marquis de Lafayette. Over fifty incredible years at the heart of the Age of Revolution, he fought courageously on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a soldier, statesman, idealist, philanthropist, and abolitionist.

As a teenager, Lafayette ran away from France to join the American Revolution. Returning home a national hero, he helped launch the French Revolution, eventually spending five years locked in dungeon prisons. After his release, Lafayette sparred with Napoleon, joined an underground conspiracy to overthrow King Louis XVIII, and became an international symbol of liberty. Finally, as…

Book cover of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump

Why did I love this book?

I’ll never forget how enthralled I was from the very beginning of Reign of Terror. Ackerman begins the book with a fascinating contrast in behavior that demonstrates that Americans have not abandoned nearly as much of their race prejudices as we like to pretend. In 1995, when Timothy McVeigh (with the help of many white supremacist groups) bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, he was put through all of the standard legal procedures required under the law. When the United States was hunting extremists in the war on terror, we created places such as Guantanamo Bay and other CIA black sites to extrajudicially hold and torture people. The way Ackerman frames America’s behavior during the war on terror makes Reign of Terror a must-read in my opinion. 

By Spencer Ackerman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A New York Times Critics' Top Book of 2021

"An impressive combination of diligence and verve, deploying Ackerman's deep stores of knowledge as a national security journalist to full effect. The result is a narrative of the last 20 years that is upsetting, discerning and brilliantly argued." -The New York Times

"One of the most illuminating books to come out of the Trump era." -New York Magazine

An examination of the profound impact that the War on Terror had in pushing American politics and society in an authoritarian direction

For an entire generation, at home and abroad, the United States…

Book cover of The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth

Why did I love this book?

Reading how world demand for things such as consumer electronics helps drive conflict in Central Africa as people scramble for the mineral resources required to make such electronics changed the way I think about the world. Ever since reading The Looting Machine, I felt a responsibility to at the very least pay attention to current events in countries such as Nigeria or Angola, to see how my own demand for commodities might be affecting people I will never meet all over the world. I still remember at the end of the book when Burgis quoted a Nigerian rapper when she said, “Don’t think you’re not a part of it.” 

By Tom Burgis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The trade in oil, gas, gems, metals and rare earth minerals wreaks havoc in Africa. During the years when Brazil, India, China and the other "emerging markets" have transformed their economies, Africa's resource states remained tethered to the bottom of the industrial supply chain. While Africa accounts for about 30 per cent of the world's reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals and 14 per cent of the world's population, its share of global manufacturing stood in 2011 exactly where it stood in 2000: at 1 percent. In his first book, The Looting Machine, Tom Burgis exposes the truth about the African…

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