The best books for thinking about history in a different way

Andy Merrills Author Of The Vandals
By Andy Merrills

The Books I Picked & Why

Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea

By Claudio Magris, Patrick Creagh

Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea

Why this book?

On the face of it, this seems like a straightforward book. Magris traces the geography of the Danube from Furtwangen or Donauschingen in southern Germany to the Black Sea, and in so doing surveys the history of the regions through which it passes. That would be a bold enough project in its own right, but the book itself is so much more than this and is one that I’ve returned to many times since I first stumbled across it fifteen years ago. The riverine structure of the book sweeps the reader from prehistory to the twentieth century and back again, individual eddies linger on intriguing episodes – the building of the cathedral tower at Ulm, the significance of the Iron Gates – and then we’re off again on another evocative description of the river or aside on the forgotten history of Mitteleuropa. A terrific read.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Daily Life in Late Antiquity

By Kristina Sessa

Daily Life in Late Antiquity

Why this book?

This is the only book on the list that relates directly to my main topic of research, but that is a strong recommendation in itself. In truth, there are lots of books about ‘late antiquity’ (or ‘the later Roman Empire’), and many of them are very good indeed. But they also tell a familiar story in familiar ways: they discuss politics, military actions, transforming towns, and (increasingly) plague and climate change. Sessa’s book deals with all of these themes in some way, but flips the whole thing on its head. This book looks at the period from the bottom up, thinking about the lived experiences of women and children, of country-dwellers, and those who inhabited the less glamorous corners of the empire. Reading this made me think again about lots of topics that I thought I knew well. It is also accessibly written and introduces a sometimes complex period very clearly.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

By Clive James

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

Why this book?

Clive James will probably be remembered in this country for his moving poem Red Maple, and for a decade’s worth of wry commentary talking about the Japanese Gameshow, ‘Endurance’ on TV, but his essays and literary criticism were every bit as significant (and often just as funny). Cultural Amnesia is a peculiar collection of short essays on important literary, cultural, and historical figures of the past, which James compiled over the course of his life. Many of the subjects will be familiar to everyone: Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Adolf Hitler, but many will not (but should be): Egon Friedell was an extraordinary man of letters who encapsulated Vienna at its most sparkling, but who killed himself when the Nazis arrived; Ricarda Huch was a brilliant historian of Germany who went into voluntary exile at around the same time. As these examples suggest, the struggle between cultural and totalitarianism is a major theme of the book as a whole. It has its dark moments to be sure, but it has also been a source of great comfort in difficult times. The introduction is especially good.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Beards

By Reginald Reynolds

Beards

Why this book?

I came across this book unexpectedly in an American bookstore, and have since given it as a gift countless times. In essence, Reynolds provides a survey of human history through facial hair, creating a rambling, eccentric overview and proposing all sorts of improbable theories, many of which are probably right. The bookseller’s note on the back cover of my copy lists it as ‘History (?)’, which seems about right, but it has definitely made me think about history in a different way. I also now have a beard of my own (not connected).

Reynolds also wrote a similarly inspiring book about toilets.  


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families

By James Agee, Walker Evans

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families

Why this book?

This isn’t really a history book, but it made me think about many aspects of society and writing in a wholly new way. In 1936, Fortune Magazine commissioned the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans to produce an extended article on families in Alabama during the tail end of the Great Depression. The task proved to be impossible, not just because the topic was too vast to fit into a single article, but also because of the complex responses that both men felt towards the task at hand and the families with whom they worked. The result was the long study Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which is made up of Agee’s thoughts and reflections, and of Evans’s justly famous images. This is a tough read: not because the language is difficult (it isn’t), but because of the challenges of the theme, and of Agee’s struggles to put all of this down in writing. I read it in two sittings over a single weekend, and never felt quite the same again.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Random Book Lists