The best books to give human faces to history

Who am I?

I’m a historian whose love of the subject was first nourished by my mother. She treated historical events as a source of good stories, discussed historical figures as if talking about people we knew personally, and introduced me to historical fictions that immersed me in vanished worlds. I still read historical fiction, to which I’ve added mountains of history proper. The nonfiction histories I most love insist that the past matters, and they make visible how seemingly abstract events touched the lives of ordinary people.


I wrote...

The Last Revolutionaries: The Conspiracy Trial of Gracchus Babeuf and the Equals

By Laura Mason,

Book cover of The Last Revolutionaries: The Conspiracy Trial of Gracchus Babeuf and the Equals

What is my book about?

This is a history of a poor but determined man whose world was changed by the French Revolution of 1789. Gracchus Babeuf took on the roles of activist, bureaucrat, journalist, and conspirator as his ideas about justice, poverty, and democratic liberty radicalized. When he became convinced that the door was closing on revolutionary promises of civil rights and material well-being, he initiated a conspiracy against the government to restore popular democracy and abolish private property. The conspiracy was exposed but, during the trial that followed, Babeuf and his allies cast a searching light on the government’s retreat from social and political equality. Babeuf’s novel aspirations would be remembered for generations, prompting Karl Marx to name him the first modern communist.

The books I picked & why

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Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

By Svetlana Alexievich,

Book cover of Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

Why this book?

Alexievich is equal parts therapist, poet, and historian. She elicits deeply personal memories through oral histories that she artfully weaves into a portrait of vast events. The accounts gathered in this history of the Soviet Union’s ten-year war against Afghanistan give voice to soldiers’ memories of the country they were asked to defeat, which defeated them instead, and parents’ memories of sons killed or otherwise destroyed in battle. I read this book after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which initiated an equally brutal, mindless, and losing war, and I find sad new relevance in this book as I learn of Russian soldiers being shipped home from Ukraine in the same kinds of zinc coffins that gives this book its title.

Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

By Svetlana Alexievich,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From 1979 to 1989 a million Soviet troops engaged in a devastating war in Afghanistan that claimed 50,000 casualties-and the youth and humanity of many tens of thousands more. Creating controversy and outrage when it was first published in the USSR-it was called by reviewers there a "slanderous piece of fantasy" and part of a "hysterical chorus of malign attacks"-Zinky Boys presents the candid and affecting testimony of the officers and grunts, nurses and prostitutes, mothers, sons, and daughters who describe the war and its lasting effects. What emerges is a story that is shocking in its brutality and revelatory…


Flight Behavior

By Barbara Kingsolver,

Book cover of Flight Behavior

Why this book?

This novel is about one woman’s experience of the greatest cataclysm the world now faces: climate change. Kingsolver plunges us into the life of Dellarobia Turnbow, a bright, restless Appalachian woman married too young and trying to make sense of who she is. When migrating monarch butterflies confused by climate change unexpectedly settle on land belonging to Dellarobia’s family, they announce the advent of unmoored worlds and set Dellarobia on a new path. Barbara Kingsolver writes with such grace and empathy that I felt as if I was living Dellarobia’s hope and confusion as we pondered what is becoming of the dazzling natural world around us. This novel’s aesthetic beauty, breadth of vision, and generosity of spirit brought me to tears.

Flight Behavior

By Barbara Kingsolver,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Flight Behavior as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky."

On the Appalachian Mountains above her home, a young mother discovers a beautiful and terrible marvel of nature: the monarch butterflies have not migrated south for the winter this year. Is this a miraculous message from God, or a spectacular sign of climate change. Entomology expert, Ovid Byron, certainly believes it is the latter. He ropes in…


The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson,

Book cover of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Why this book?

Wilkerson embeds us with some of the millions of Black men and women who fled the Jim Crow South between 1915 and 1970, describing communities abandoned and hopes realized or disappointed. Robert Foster left his Louisiana town for Southern California, where he navigated new forms of racism to establish himself as a surgeon and prominent social figure. Ida Mae Gladney took her family from Mississippi to Chicago, where lodging, segregation, and “mind-numbing labor” scarcely improved on that of the South. But it was in Chicago that Ida Mae was first able to vote. Through the lives of people like these, Wilkerson paints a sweeping history of twentieth-century America that tells us as much about a country and an era as Tolstoy did in War and Peace.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Warmth of Other Suns as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In this beautifully written masterwork, the Pulitzer Prize–winnner and bestselling author of Caste chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.

From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official…


The Voyage of the Narwhal

By Andrea Barrett,

Book cover of The Voyage of the Narwhal

Why this book?

This novel reimagines the traditional polar exploration narrative to consider how friendship and delusion, and privileges of wealth, gender, and ethnicity inflect supposedly high-minded searches for scientific knowledge. As quickly becomes clear, explorer Zecheriah Voorhees sees Erasmus Darwin Wells and Alexandra Copeland as supporting players in the story of his daring life. But Barrett places Wells and Copeland at the center of her novel, suggesting that their more modest, generous, and painstaking efforts enable them to appreciate the complexities of the vast world in which they share. Seen from their perspective, men like Voorhees are supporting players rendered dangerous by their self-regarding search for celebrity.

The Voyage of the Narwhal

By Andrea Barrett,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Capturing a crucial moment in the history of exploration-the mid-nineteenth century romance with the Arctic-Andrea Barrett's compelling novel tells the story of a fateful expedition. Through the eyes of the ship's scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells, we encounter the Narwhal's crew, its commander, and the far-north culture of the Esquimaux. In counterpoint, we meet the women left behind in Philadelphia, explorers only in imagination. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and mystery, finally discovering what they had not sought, the secrets of their own hearts.


The Making of the English Working Class

By E.P. Thompson,

Book cover of The Making of the English Working Class

Why this book?

This doorstop of a book, more than a half-century old, is a sterling example of how to recover the lives of ordinary folk. The subjects here are laboring people who suffered through, accommodated, and resisted the astonishing upheaval of British industrialization. Over the years, Thompson has been criticized for how he defined class and for failing to attend to the women who fought and suffered alongside the men. These are fair criticisms. What stands is his determination to explain how people who were considered lowly and backward by the elites of their day contributed to “the making of history,” and his passionate conviction that lives long gone should be remembered.

The Making of the English Working Class

By E.P. Thompson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Making of the English Working Class as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fifty years since first publication, E. P. Thompson's revolutionary account of working-class culture and ideals is published in Penguin Modern Classics, with a new introduction by historian Michael Kenny

This classic and imaginative account of working-class society in its formative years, 1780 to 1832, revolutionized our understanding of English social history. E. P. Thompson shows how the working class took part in its own making and re-creates the whole-life experience of people who suffered loss of status and freedom, who underwent degradation, and who yet created a cultured and political consciousness of great vitality.

Reviews:

'A dazzling vindication of the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in explorers, the Great Migration, and Tennessee?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about explorers, the Great Migration, and Tennessee.

Explorers Explore 71 books about explorers
The Great Migration Explore 6 books about the Great Migration
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