The best historiography books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about historiography and why they recommend each book.

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In Defense of History

By Richard J. Evans,

Book cover of In Defense of History

This book is a reflection on the nature of historical research and the perils of history in the postmodern age. An influential current in the study of history has abandoned the aspiration of getting close to the truth and accepts ideologically motivated accounts of the past as equally valuable narratives. The repercussions of the controversy on ‘post-truth’ reach far beyond the limits of the academic world and are ubiquitous in contemporary Western society. Richard J. Evans knows that from his own experience, having served as an expert witness in Irwing v Penguin Books and Lipstadt libel case, relating to Holocaust denial. The book offers a lucid analysis of the conflicting trends in the theory and practice of historical research. It links between the study of the past and the possibility of attaining certainty on present-day issues.

Who am I?

Doing historical research and thinking about history is an essential part of my personality. During my life, many things changed: the language I speak most of the time, the country where I live, people closest to me, my views, tastes, and habits. Ancient history and its research remain my vocation, job, and place of safety from early youth till nowadays. I am grateful to all people, long dead and living, whose insights on the study of the human past have taught me not only how to do research, but first and foremost how to live.


I wrote...

Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece

By Yulia Ustinova,

Book cover of Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece

What is my book about?

Ancient Greek mania presents a fascinating array of diverse conditions. Any deviation from ordinary state of consciousness, voluntary or involuntary, intense or mild, could be labelled mania. Diverse altered states of consciousness were commonly known: initiates underwent alteration of consciousness during mystery rites; sacred officials and inquirers experienced them in oracular centres; possession by various deities was recognized; finally, some sages and philosophers practiced manipulation of consciousness.

Greece was unique in its attitude to these phenomena. From the perspective of individual and public freedom, the importance of mania in the Greek society reflects its openness and acceptance of the human proclivity to experience alterations of consciousness, which were interpreted as god-sent. These mental states were treated with cautious respect; they could be harnessed to a certain extent, but never suppressed or pushed to the cultural and social periphery, in contrast to the majority of other complex societies, ancient and modern.

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,

Book cover of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

Howard Ziinn’s work led to a proliferation of Peoples’ Histories, and none are as important as this telling of history from the perspective of America’s indigenous people. Dunbar-Ortiz refocuses attention to the lives of Native Americans and their centuries-long struggle against settler colonialism and manifest destiny. The book is part of a Revisioning History series that includes works on Queer History, Disability History, and Black Women’s History.


Who am I?

Louis P. Masur is a cultural historian who has written on a range of topics in American history, from Abraham Lincoln to Bruce Springsteen, from the first World Series to a photograph that shocked the nation. An award-winning teacher, Masur lectures frequently on various topics in American history. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and Slate. The Sum of Our Dreams emerged out a course he teaches on the American Dream, which, somehow, he still believes in.


I wrote...

The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America

By Louis P. Masur,

Book cover of The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America

What is my book about?

In The Sum of Our Dreams, Louis P. Masur offers a sweeping yet compact history of America from its beginnings to the current moment. For general readers seeking an accessible, single-volume account, one that challenges but does not overwhelm, and which distills and connects the major events and figures in the country's past in a single narrative, here is that book.

Evoking Barack Obama's belief that America remains the sum of its dreams, Masur locates the origin of those dreams of freedom, equality, and opportunity and traces their progress chronologically, illuminating the nation's struggle over time to articulate and fulfill their promise. Above all, however, Masur lets the story of America tell itself. Inspired by James Baldwin's observation that American history is longer, larger, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, he expands our notion of that history while identifying its individual threads. 

Lies My Teacher Told Me

By James W. Loewen,

Book cover of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Loewen’s book, updated since its original publication, explodes some of the many myths and falsehoods contained in textbooks on American history. Whether stories of the first Thanksgiving or America and the Vietnam War, the book challenges interpretations presented as facts and facts that are contested. The result is an indispensable argument for trying to get the facts right when discussing American history.


Who am I?

Louis P. Masur is a cultural historian who has written on a range of topics in American history, from Abraham Lincoln to Bruce Springsteen, from the first World Series to a photograph that shocked the nation. An award-winning teacher, Masur lectures frequently on various topics in American history. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and Slate. The Sum of Our Dreams emerged out a course he teaches on the American Dream, which, somehow, he still believes in.


I wrote...

The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America

By Louis P. Masur,

Book cover of The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America

What is my book about?

In The Sum of Our Dreams, Louis P. Masur offers a sweeping yet compact history of America from its beginnings to the current moment. For general readers seeking an accessible, single-volume account, one that challenges but does not overwhelm, and which distills and connects the major events and figures in the country's past in a single narrative, here is that book.

Evoking Barack Obama's belief that America remains the sum of its dreams, Masur locates the origin of those dreams of freedom, equality, and opportunity and traces their progress chronologically, illuminating the nation's struggle over time to articulate and fulfill their promise. Above all, however, Masur lets the story of America tell itself. Inspired by James Baldwin's observation that American history is longer, larger, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, he expands our notion of that history while identifying its individual threads. 

In Command of History

By David Reynolds,

Book cover of In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

“Another book on Churchill?” asks Reynolds on the first page. “Can there be anything new to say?” Yes, is the emphatic answer. Churchill’s magisterial memoir shaped how many readers came to understand World War II. In this equally magisterial book, Reynolds dissects how Churchill wrote his memoir, exploring how the politics of the post-war era were often as important in shaping Churchill’s judgments as the events of the war itself. Methodologically sophisticated and elegantly written.


Who am I?

Steven Casey is Professor in International History at the LSE. A specialist in US foreign policy, he is the author of ten books, including Cautious Crusade, which explored American attitudes toward Nazi Germany during World War II; Selling the Korean War, which won both the Truman Book Award and the Neustadt Prize for best book in American Politics; and When Soldiers Fall which also won the Neustadt Prize. In 2017, he published War Beat, Europe: The American Media at War against Nazi Germany, which won the American Journalism Historians Association 2018 book of the year, the panel judging it “a landmark work.” 


I wrote...

The War Beat, Pacific: The American Media at War Against Japan

By Steven Casey,

Book cover of The War Beat, Pacific: The American Media at War Against Japan

What is my book about?

The definitive history of American war reporting in the Pacific theater of World War II, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After almost two years slogging with infantrymen through North Africa, Italy, and France, Ernie Pyle immediately realized he was ill-prepared for covering the Pacific War. As Pyle and other war correspondents discovered, the climate, the logistics, and the sheer scope of the Pacific theater had no parallel in the war America was fighting in Europe.

The War Beat, Pacific shows how foreign correspondents ran up against practical challenges and risked their lives to get stories in a theater that was far more challenging than the war against Nazi Germany, while the US government blocked news of the war against Japan and tried to focus the home front on Hitler and his atrocities.

History in the Making

By J.H. Elliott,

Book cover of History in the Making

John Elliott is a world-class historian of Spain and its Empire, his reflections on how to write history without becoming immersed in jargon or obscure theories are beautifully woven into the story of how he himself learned the craft of writing clear, accessible, and original works of history, taking the reader from Cambridge to Franco’s Spain. This is a charming book with a valuable message.


Who am I?

We live in an increasingly connected world. But human beings have always made connections with one another across space, and the space I find especially exciting is water - whether the narrow space of seas such as the Mediterranean and the Baltic, or the broader and wilder spaces of the great oceans. These are spaces that link distant countries and continents, across which people have brought objects, ideas and religions as well as themselves - a history of migrants, merchants, mercenaries, missionaries, and many others that can be recovered from shipwrecks, travellers' tales, cargo manifests, and many other sources, a history, ultimately, of the origins of our globalized world.


I wrote...

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

By David Abulafia,

Book cover of The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

What is my book about?

This book brings together the history of the different oceans into what became, after Columbus, a closely inter-connected story of movement across the seas by merchants, migrants, missionaries, mercenaries, and of course slaves; and for me to it was a journey in imagination across space and time from ancient Polynesia to the present day.

A Passion for History

By Natalie Zemon Davis,

Book cover of A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet

A Passion for History is a conversation between Natalie Zemon Davis, a prominent historian and an extraordinary woman, with Denis Crouzet, also a historian and a sharp observer. Above all, they discuss how to do research, write, and teach history. In addition, Natalie Zemon Davis shares her memories of being an ambitious Jewish girl in America of the 40s and her way to combine academic aspirations with family life, and her views on other subjects, such as politics, feminism, cinema, and freedom. This lively dialogue of two remarkable intellectuals is a thrilling read.

Who am I?

Doing historical research and thinking about history is an essential part of my personality. During my life, many things changed: the language I speak most of the time, the country where I live, people closest to me, my views, tastes, and habits. Ancient history and its research remain my vocation, job, and place of safety from early youth till nowadays. I am grateful to all people, long dead and living, whose insights on the study of the human past have taught me not only how to do research, but first and foremost how to live.


I wrote...

Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece

By Yulia Ustinova,

Book cover of Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece

What is my book about?

Ancient Greek mania presents a fascinating array of diverse conditions. Any deviation from ordinary state of consciousness, voluntary or involuntary, intense or mild, could be labelled mania. Diverse altered states of consciousness were commonly known: initiates underwent alteration of consciousness during mystery rites; sacred officials and inquirers experienced them in oracular centres; possession by various deities was recognized; finally, some sages and philosophers practiced manipulation of consciousness.

Greece was unique in its attitude to these phenomena. From the perspective of individual and public freedom, the importance of mania in the Greek society reflects its openness and acceptance of the human proclivity to experience alterations of consciousness, which were interpreted as god-sent. These mental states were treated with cautious respect; they could be harnessed to a certain extent, but never suppressed or pushed to the cultural and social periphery, in contrast to the majority of other complex societies, ancient and modern.

Survivors of a Kind

By Brian Bond,

Book cover of Survivors of a Kind: Memoirs of the Western Front

This is the kind of book that I wish I had written. In a series of individual essays, Brian Bond considers a variety of memoirs written by British participants of the Great War, detailing the author’s life and assessing the themes of their work. Some of the memoirs are familiar, such as Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, whereas others are long forgotten. The result is a fascinating book that reveals the sheer diversity of wartime experience and how the authors struggled to cope with it.


Who am I?

Spencer Jones is an award-winning historian who has written several critically acclaimed books about the British Army in the First World War. He teaches history at the University of Wolverhampton, serves as the Regimental Historian of the Royal Artillery, and is the President of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides.


I wrote...

Courage Without Glory: The British Army on the Western Front 1915

By Spencer Jones,

Book cover of Courage Without Glory: The British Army on the Western Front 1915

What is my book about?

The year 1915 was one of unprecedented challenges for the British Army. Short of manpower, firepower, and experience, the army needed time to adapt before it could hope to overcome the formidable German defenses of the Western Front. Yet the insistent demands of coalition warfare required immediate and repeated action. The result was a year of disappointments, setbacks, and costly fighting.

This book offers an important reassessment of a forgotten year of the war, and illustrates the tremendous difficulties faced by the British Army as it endured a bloody learning curve in difficult conditions. This book will be of great interest to anyone who studies the First World War, and of particular value to those who seek a greater understanding of the British Army of the era.

World History and National Identity in China

By Xin Fan,

Book cover of World History and National Identity in China

Over the last twenty years, China has become one of the most powerful nation-states in the world, both economically and politically. Since 1949 it has been ruled by a Communist Party which is still claiming today that is pursuing socialism with a Chinese face. It unites a turbo-capitalism with a strong nationalism that seeks to bring the Chinese people behind the Communist Party. This book shows how alien nationalism is to many of China’s most distinguished intellectual traditions over the course of the twentieth century. Especially those historians working on non-Chinese topics have for a long time attempted to use their cross-cultural competencies to counter nationalist historical narratives.


Who am I?

I've been working on questions of identity and history for more than thirty years. It's a very personal topic for me, as I come from a working-class background – something that I was acutely aware of throughout my school and university education, where people of my background were comparatively rare. History in my view has the power to construct essentialist identities that exclude and are potentially deadly. But history also has the power to critically question this essentialism and contribute to a more tolerant, open-minded, and self-reflective society. Hence, as a historian, I've been trying to support and strengthen an engaged and enlightened historiography that bolsters a range of progressive identifications without leading to essentialist constructions of collective identities.


I wrote...

History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice

By Stefan Berger,

Book cover of History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice

What is my book about?

History-writing is often related to the formation of collective identities. Historians write the history of nations which answers questions about how those who think of themselves as belonging to a nation, developed over time. History has been, for many centuries, meaningful in the construction of collective identities.

This volume reflects on the ways in which professional historians have, since the 1980s become more self-reflective about their role in providing identities and identifications, and it analyzes the different ways in which they have attempted to stay clear of essentialisms. How did they manage to introduce more self-reflectivity and critical potential into their handling of identitarian questions in historical writing? The volume looks at a range of different histories, political, social, economic, cultural, the history of concepts, visual histories, material culture histories, historical anthropology, environmental history, big history, and global history to demonstrate, how across a range of different sub-disciplines we can speak of a self-reflective turn of historical studies in relation to collective identities.

The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples

By Herwig Wolfram, Thomas Dunlap (translator),

Book cover of The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples

Herwig Wolfram is the Grand Master of Germanic history. His mighty History of the Goths is a work cited perhaps more than any other by any author writing about this period, and its influence of study of Early Middle Ages is unparalleled. But History of the Goths is a heavy, dense, scholarly work, and not easy to find these days. The Roman Empire is a more popular synthesis, focusing not just on Goths, but on all Late Antiquity Germanic tribes – Franks, Burgundians, Saxons, and others – providing a rich view of the barbarians from the perspective of their Roman neighbours. 


Who am I?

In my novels, I aim to present a different vision of early Post-Roman Britain than the one usually imagined in fiction – especially in the future Kingdom of Kent, where my books are set. To show these connections, and to present the greater background for the events in the novels, I first needed to gain knowledge of what Europe itself looked like in this period: a Gaul divided between Gothic, Frankish, and Roman administration, a complex interplay of Romans and Barbarians, a world in transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. The story gleaned from the pages of these books proved as fascinating and intriguing as any I’ve ever read.


I wrote...

The Saxon Spears: An Epic of the Dark Age

By James Calbraith,

Book cover of The Saxon Spears: An Epic of the Dark Age

What is my book about?

The old world is burning and a hero will rise from its ash. Ash is a Seaborn, a Saxon child found on the beach with nothing but a precious stone at his neck and a memory of a distant war from which his people have fled. Raised on the estate of a Briton nobleman, trained in warfare and ancient knowledge, he soon becomes embroiled in the machinations and intrigues at the court of Wortigern, the Dux of Londinium, a struggle that is about to determine the future of all Britannia.


A child of Saxon blood, an heir to Roman family, his is a destiny like no other: to join the two races and forge a new world from the ruins of the old.

Contesting the Origins of the First World War

By Troy R. E. Paddock,

Book cover of Contesting the Origins of the First World War: An Historiographical Argument

Paddock brings together the work of three revisionist historians, myself, McMeekin, and Schmidt, in one slim (136 pages) volume. In particular, Paddock gives access to Schmidt’s important work on French planning for those who do not read German. Paddock not only presents German, Russian, and French military planning, but correlates them. The result is a fundamentally new and convincing picture of pre-war military planning and diplomacy.


Who am I?

I have always been interested in military history and wanted to become a professional soldier. I benefitted especially from three years as the American liaison officer on the staff of the German 12th Panzer Division. German Army organization, planning and decision-making, troop leadership, and training are outstanding and made a deep impression on me. I received a superb education as a historian at the University of Wuerzburg, Germany, which required history to be written from original source documents, not secondary sources uncritically accepted. My standards emphasize attention to detail in military planning and operations, and archival work in English, German, and French. As do the authors that I have selected.


I wrote...

The Real German War Plan, 1904-14

By Terence Zuber,

Book cover of The Real German War Plan, 1904-14

What is my book about?

There never was a “Schlieffen Plan.” This assertion is based on masses of previously unused German war games and archival war planning documents. The “Schlieffen Plan” required 96 divisions in a one-front war against France, when Germany never had more than 72 divisions in a two-front war against France and Russia. Real war plans do not require 24 “ghost divisions.” Contrary to “common knowledge,” Schlieffen did not have an aggressive war plan, and he never intended to attack Belgium or France. The Russians and French executed a simultaneous attack on Germany: all the initial battles took place in East Prussia and German Alsace. Schlieffen saw this coming, and planned to counter-attack on German territory. The younger Moltke never actually had a plan, but was improvising. 

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